The Conference of Champions has an unusually large group of NBA-ready talents.
Last time I wrote, I detailed the exciting re-emergence of the Oregon-UCLA rivalry. In particular, I focused on the new and returning talent both teams had. Among those players were rising sophomores Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes, and Kenny Wooten.
This talented trio represents just a sliver of the wide array of second-year studs in the Pac-12. Other players that have a real shot at the NBA after two seasons of college ball include: Cal’s Darius McNeill and Justice Sueing, Stanford’s Daejon Davis, Washington’s Jaylen Nowell, Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV, and Arizona State’s Remy Martin and Romello White.
After a down year in 2017-18, the Pac-12 should be a lot deeper this season with UCLA and Oregon battling at the top, and Arizona State and Stanford making things difficult too. These players will have to step up and build off promising freshman campaigns during this make-or-break season for their NBA chances.
Darius McNeill (G) and Justice Sueing (SF) - Cal
McNeill and Sueing established starting roles for themselves early on at Cal, and rightfully so. On an offensively deficient squad, this duo provided a strong freshman 1-2 punch.
McNeill’s 11.3 points and 2.2 assists per game proved he could handle the responsibilities of the guard position, all while playing roughly 33 minutes per game. He is Cal’s best three-point shooter as well, converting over 35% of his triples. McNeill provides much-needed points and above-average defense on a team that ranks just 296th in offensive efficiency.
Sueing will add stability to the sub-par Golden Bears. He averaged nearly 14 points and over five rebounds per game last season. Sueing also plays lockdown defense in the post, with block and steal rates around two percent. He’s a strong finisher at the rim with exceptional handles for a 6‘7 forward, and he’s a plus passer too. A phenomenal two-way player, Sueing can help Cal improve on its terrible 2017-18 season.
Count on McNeill and Sueing to be in the discussion for all-Pac-12 honors this year.
Daejon Davis (G) - Stanford
Besides Reid Travis, Davis was Stanford’s most consistent presence last season. He proved he is a true point guard, averaging 10.7 points per game, but also posting a 30% assist rate and snagging 4.4 rebounds per contest. Davis is a calm decision-maker and floor general with excellent shot selection. He took only 62 threes but sunk 40% of them, showcasing his patience and maturity.
Davis has elite speed that allows him to blow by defenders on the way to the rim. And, as you can see from the highlight reel, he has ridiculous coordination that he uses to adjust mid-air for insane finishes. Although he’s clearly right-hand dominant, he’s athletic enough to finish from the left side of the court in any way he can. Davis is an elite guard and will be Stanford’s most important player in the post-Reid-Travis era. This could be the season Davis solidifies his name on NBA draft boards.
Jaylen Nowell (G) - Washington
As a freshman, Nowell showcased his ability to score at will. He averaged 16 points per game, many of those off pull-up and quick-stop jumpers. Nowell has an inhuman ability to stop on a dime and change direction at any second, and that’s what made him so lethal with the ball in his hands. His mid-range game and ability to elevate make him dangerous in the paint, and his pure outside shot and quick release make him a real problem from the perimeter (he shoots 35% from deep). There’s really no good way to guard him.
Nowell also has the help of a tenacious rebounder in senior Noah Dickerson, lockdown defender Matisse Thybulle, and sharpshooter Dominic Green (43% from deep). A solid and mature supporting cast with guidance from coach Mike Hopkins will help Nowell thrive during his sophomore season. He has all the pieces to be a 20-point scorer.
McKinley Wright IV (G) - Colorado
The Buffaloes had a rough year, but Wright certainly did not. Standing just six feet tall, he tallied 14.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game. His 36% assist rate ranked 23rd in the nation, and he was clearly one of the best point guards not only in the Pac-12 but also in college basketball. Wright’s speed and quick handles help him get to the rim where he is incredible at using his body to clear space.
Wright also has advanced court vision and anticipation. He threads passes between defenders who aren’t on guard, and he also reads the court so well that he grabs rebounds nobody his size should be grabbing. If Wright can work on his outside game, he has the tools to be like Carsen Edwards or Jalen Brunson. In the meantime, though, Wright should earn all-Pac-12 honors and garner much more national attention as a sophomore.
Remy Martin (G) and Romello White (F) - Arizona State
Martin and White are quite different, as White has about eight inches and 70 pounds on his teammate. But the rising sophomores have one thing in common: They both had amazing freshman seasons to help Arizona State secure a tournament berth.
On a team loaded with above-average guards, Martin earned his spot as a little freshman. He made the most of his minutes, posting an assist-to-turnover ration of more than 2:1, and dropped nearly 10 points per game. His crossover and stepback jumpers are perhaps the quickest in the game right now, and he shoots with great consistency, knocking down 37% of his outside shots. Martin is the heir-apparent to Tra Holder, and he seems up to the challenge. He’ll easily be in double digit points this season, and he’ll lead the Sun Devils in assists too.
White asserted himself as a dominant post presence on somewhat limited minutes as a redshirt freshman. He posted veteran numbers, averaging 10 points and seven boards. If White did that with 24 minutes per game, I’d love to see what he can do with 35 minutes. He also provides rock-solid defense at the dish, tallying 23 blocks in 2017-18. White’s steadiness with the ball will also be important for a transitioning Sun Devil squad. He converted 65% of his two-point shots and was a go-to option down low. He has the athleticism and footwork to outrebound and outscore any forward he comes across. Look for White to put up impressive numbers as a sophomore.
With these emerging sophomore stars, it is apparent that the Pac-12 has more veteran depth and skill than it seems at first glance. Under the leadership of the players mentioned above, plus those on UCLA and Oregon, the Pac-12 should shape into an interesting race down the stretch. There could be a few bubble teams lurking in the Conference of Champions.
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