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Charles Matthews And Sagaba Konate Poised For Breakout Junior Seasons

Image Credit: Rick Osentoski, USA TODAY Sports

These juniors might catch the eyes of many NBA scouts this season.

As November and the college basketball season approaches, fans want to know who and what to look out for in the upcoming season. Whether it be insight into players on their favorite team, its rival, or information about the landscape and dynamic for the season, fans want to know what to expect. 

Coming into this season, college basketball fans most likely know a few key storylines. They know Duke has reloaded, acquiring the best recruiting class in history with R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cameron Reddish, Trey Jones, and Joey Baker, and will be amazing again; Kansas has also reloaded with recruits and transfers; and Nevada, by winning the NBA Draft deadline day, has a chance to be a Final Four contender. 

But a casual fan might not realize that Kansas State, which advanced to the Elite Eight, will return basically its entire roster, Romeo Langford could make Indiana a force again, and Bobby Hurley has done a masterful job at Arizona State, gaining top-notch transfers and signing a highly-talented, yet sneakily impressive recruiting class. 

Last season, many players jumped onto the scene, making a significant impact and opening eyes, including Luke Maye, who was once a walk-on but averaged 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for North Carolina last season, Carsen Edwards for Purdue, Tyus Battle for Syracuse, Grant Williams for Tennessee, and Tremont Waters for LSU

This season, though, Charles Matthews and Sagaba Konate are poised for breakout seasons, opening eyes for not only college basketball fanatics but also NBA scouts.

Charles Matthews – Michigan Wolverines, 6-6, 200, SG/SF, Redshirt Junior

2017-18 Stats: 13.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.4 APG

John Beilein did at Michigan what John Calipari couldn’t at Kentucky.

Don’t get me wrong, Calipari is an amazing coach and had other outstanding players at the time, but he didn’t develop Charles Matthews into the potent offensive and defensive threat he has become at Michigan, transforming him into a potential 3-and-D professional basketball player. 

Coming from Saint Rita High School in Chicago, Matthews was a five-star recruit in 2015 as the No. 42 player in the class, according to ESPN, and signed with the Kentucky Wildcats.

Throughout his high school career, Matthews showed his potential as an exciting two-way talent; he averaged 21.3 points and 6.2 rebounds, and continued to play stellar defense as a senior in Illinois. 

However, when he arrived in Lexington, Kentucky, he wasn’t afforded many opportunities to show his potential to Big Blue Nation. Kentucky, which was coming off a 38-1 season, losing in the Final Four to Wisconsin, returned a few key players and, as always, had another loaded recruiting class. 

As a freshman, Matthews averaged 1.7 points and 1.6 rebounds per game off the bench for the Wildcats. He sat behind Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe, Alex Poythress, Derek Willis, Skal Labissiere, and Marcus Lee and battled for minutes with Dominique Hawkins and Isaac Humphries. 

Matthews, who scored double-figures only once—an 11-point performance against South Florida that season—announced in June 2016 that he was transferring to Ann Arbor to play for the Michigan Wolverines and coach Beilein, a mastermind for developing talent. 

After sitting out the 2016-17 season, Matthews received his chance as a redshirt sophomore to be what he was in high school: a star, starting, and helping propel his team to victory. Matthews started every game this past season for the Wolverines at small forward and had 20 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals, and a block in 31 minutes at Crisler Arena for his regular-season debut in a maize and blue uniform. But he, at times, seemed to lose confidence sporadically throughout the season. 

He scored in the single-digits in 10 games, including a four-point game at Ohio State, a scoreless performance at Penn State, and a six-point output in the national championship game loss against Villanova. Matthews, who has a smooth midrange and fadeaway jump shot, improved three-point range, an ability to drive, finish or dish, and a knack for defense, always seemed to bounce back, though.

Despite some struggles, Matthews never gave up. He proved his talent, scoring 20 points or more in seven games, including a career-high 31 points against Alabama A&M. And, when Mortiz Wagner, who left Michigan early for the NBA (drafted No. 25 to the Los Angeles Lakers), and Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman couldn’t find a groove in some of the games in the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament run, Matthews filled the void. 

Matthews had 20 points and a career-high 11 rebounds in the first round against Montana to start the tournament. And when Michigan needed a spark against a tough-nosed and defensive-minded Florida State squad for a chance to advance to the Final Four, Matthews was the best player on the floor and the go-to guy offensively and defensively. He finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, and followed that with 17 points, five rebounds, and three assists, including a dime to Wagner, who swished a dagger three-pointer against Loyola (Chicago) in the Final Four at the Alamodome.

Matthews, who has a limited sample size, will likely continue to be underrated offensively and defensively when this season begins, but that will be a mistake and will change quickly. He showed throughout the season, despite his sometimes wavering confidence, that he has the potential to have a breakout season and be a star for Michigan as he returns for his second season in Ann Arbor. 

Matthews had an opportunity to play professionally; he declared for the NBA Draft, but he didn’t sign with an agent, and a few days before the deadline, he announced he would withdraw his name. With the continued coaching and motivation from Beilein, who will also return to Michigan (and received a contract extension until 2022-2023) after turning down a chance to potentially become the new coach for the Detroit Pistons, Matthews will turn heads and open eyes. 

Michigan lost Wagner, the Wolverines’ top scorer, and graduated Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson, the third and fourth leading scorers on the squad, so Beilein will need a new leader. 

Beilein, who understands the unlimited and exciting potential Matthews possess, will probably look toward Matthews, the leading returning scorer, to increase his play to help the other returners and the recruiting class. This could be a role Matthews can relish and have an exponentially significant impact in as a redshirt junior.

Matthews will be ready for his moment and opportunity to shine, and, again, don’t doubt his ability.

Prediction – 20.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 4.0 APG

NBA Comparisons – Victor Oladipo, Trevor Ariza, Tyreke Evans, Jimmy Butler, or Dwyane Wade

Sagaba Konate – West Virginia Mountaineers, 6-8, 260, PF/C, Junior

2017-18 Stats: 10.8 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.2 BPG

Sagaba Konate, also known as the most feared man on the basketball court, didn’t come to the United States until his junior year in high school. From Bamako, Mali, Konate came into the program as an unranked and relatively unknown prospect with an endless motor, continuing to make a name for himself in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Konate is a highly-talented shot-blocking force in college basketball for the West Virginia Mountaineers, and he doesn’t care who you are. He will not only block you with one hand, but he will also do it with both hands. Many might not understand why players continue to try to challenge him at the rim; most college basketball fans have only witnessed Konate lose twice, getting ferociously dunked on by Eric Paschall from Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen this past season and as a freshman by Jarrett Allen from Texas, who currently plays on the Brooklyn Nets.

Last season, Konate, a then-sophomore, finished with the second most blocks in the NCAA (116) behind Ajdin Penava from Marshall, who ended with 134. Konate had his 116 blocks in 36 games (3.22 per game), while Penava had his 134 blocks in 34 games (3.94 per game). However, Konate played against far more talented athletes and players in the Big 12 than Penava did in Conference USA and is three inches shorter than Bamba, whom the Orlando Magic selected No. 6 in the NBA Draft on June 21.

Putting things into an advanced perspective, Konate makes his shot-blocking prowess count; whether he blocks the shot, alters it, or instills fear into the opponent, he helps his team gain an advantage. He has impeccable timing and also rarely fouls going for a block. With his 116 blocks during the 2017-18 season, Konate had only 13 (11.21%) that didn’t stay in play, and a majority fell into his waiting teammates and started fast-break opportunities. 

As a freshman, Konate showed glimpses of masterful defense, having seven games with at least three blocks, but as an everyday starter in his sophomore year, he turned heads with his unbelievable blocks. Konate had a block in 34 of 36 games, had at least three in 21 games, five or more in nine games, and a career-high nine blocks on the road against Baylor. In that game, Konate nearly recorded a triple-double, tallying 10 points, 10 rebounds, and those nine blocks. Konate led the NCAA in block percentage (15.6%) and finished sixth in defensive plus-minus (9.2), according to sports-reference.

Although his offensive game isn’t nearly as dominant as his defensive skill set, Konate has an underrated offensive arsenal. Konate, who did average double-figure points last season, has unappreciated post moves and quick feet, and with his NBA-like body, he has excellent finishing ability at the basket. Whenever Konate finds an opening or an opportunity to dunk, he will and it will most likely be thunderous, with vicious intent like his blocks. He finished last season with seven games with more than 15 points, and he is also a determined rebounder, having nine games with double-figures. 

Konate might have more in store, and in his junior season, coach Bob Huggins might request extended offensive responsibilities. Although West Virginia has a majority of its roster returning and a few solid recruits coming in, the Mountaineers graduated the top-two scorers from this past season in Jevon Carter, whom the Memphis Grizzlies’ selected No. 32 in the NBA Draft, and Daxter Miles Jr. They also lost freshman Teddy Allen (or Teddy “Buckets”), who provided a significant boost off the bench; to a transfer to Wichita State. 

As the highest-returning scorer, Konate, who plays with passion, intensity, and leadership, might be asked to carry a heavier load offensively, which he can probably do and will be determined to prove himself. Konate could potentially form a double-double season as a junior.

Konate won’t be afraid, and, again, do not test this man.

Prediction – 18.5 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 3.5 BPG

NBA Comparisons – Draymond Green, Dennis Rodman or Ben Wallace 

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Lastly, there are some honorable-mention players who are bound to have breakout seasons, as well. Watch out for these players this season:

• Killian Tillie, Zach Norvell Jr. and Rui Hachimura – Gonzaga

• Rob Edwards, Zylan Cheatman, and Remy Martin – Arizona State 

• Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson – North Carolina

• James Palmer Jr. and Issac Copeland Jr. – Nebraska

• Michael Weathers and Cameron McGriff – Oklahoma State

• Clayton Custer and Marques Townes – Loyola (Chi.)

• Daniel Gafford – Arkansas 

• Quinndary Weatherspoon – Mississippi State

• Dewan Huell – Miami (FL)

• JaQuan Lyle – New Mexico

Edited by Jazmyn Brown, David Kaptzan.

SQuiz
John Beilein has coached at three other Division I basketball programs. Which did he not?
Created 7/22/18
  1. Canisius
  2. West Virginia
  3. Richmond
  4. Florida State

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