This week, ESPN.com will feature a position-by-position look at players to watch for the 2014-15 season.
In 2003, a young man from Akron, Ohio, excelled during his rookie season in the NBA (20.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.6 SPG) and crushed philosophies about specific roles and positions in 21st century basketball. Stat hub basketball-reference.com lists LeBron James as a shooting guard his first season, a small forward the next eight years and a power forward from 2012 to the present. That might be a typo. But James does everything. He pushes the ball, he flows in the midrange, he rebounds, he posts up and he guards wings and big men. What can’t he do?
At this level, there is a pool of “small forwards” who idolize the icon, and have expanded their games beyond the traditional descriptions of what a small forward should be and instead focused on what it could be. The college game, much like the pros, has been seized by lengthy forwards who demonstrate dexterity in everything they do. The elite small forwards play multiple slots and they’re often asked to stretch on defense, too. Guard/forward or combo forward is probably more accurate than small forward. Simply put, the following players are not one-dimensional:
Top returnees to watch
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona: As a reserve and occasional starter in the final weeks of the season, Hollis-Jefferson blossomed on one of the most talented rosters in the country. And that’s not easy to do, especially for a freshman. He averaged 9.1 PPG, 5.7 RPG and 1.1 BPG in just 25.3 MPG. He also accrued a 113.1 offensive rating. He’ll be even more pivotal for the Wildcats next season, now that Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson have departed. The NBA prospect has All-America ability.
Sam Dekker, Wisconsin: With the key pieces returning from Bo Ryan’s first Final Four team, the Badgers will compete for the national championship in 2014-15, and Dekker is a significant component in the quest. The 6-foot-8 NBA prospect had a solid sophomore season, when he logged more minutes (29.8 MPG compared to 22.3 as a freshman) and improved his defense. His 3-point shooting numbers were down in 2013-14 (33 percent compared to 39 as a freshman), but Dekker also finished with 12.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG and 1.4 APG in a system that demands balance. Next season, Dekker could take the next step as he continues to evolve into an elite talent.
Treveon Graham, VCU: As a junior, Graham earned first-team all-Atlantic 10 honors last season after averaging 15.8 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 2.0 APG. Even though the Rams lost Rob Brandenberg and Juvonte Reddic, this will be Shaka Smart’s most talented VCU squad. It will also be Smart’s deepest VCU squad now that he has added the top recruiting class of his tenure. There were offensive issues all season for a program that averaged 75.4 PPG but finished 107th in adjusted offensive efficiency (per Ken Pomeroy), but Graham, the team’s top scorer, wasn’t the issue. He ended the year with a 111.2 offensive rating, No. 1 among A-10 players with a minimum 24 percent usage rate (per Pomeroy).
Branden Dawson, Michigan State: Dawson considered the NBA but ultimately returned to East Lansing, where he’ll be Michigan State’s featured act next season. The forward missed nearly a month of action last season with a hand injury, but he found a rhythm shortly after he returned. He wasn’t as effective as he could have been in Michigan State’s loss to Connecticut in the Elite Eight (1-for-3, five points, eight rebounds). But in the six previous games, he averaged 17.5 PPG and 8.1 RPG. If he brings that game into 2014-15, the Spartans will still be viable contenders in the Big Ten, despite losing Adreian Payne and Gary Harris.
Anthony Drmic, Boise State: The Broncos did not meet expectations last season. Although the anchors of an NCAA tourney squad, Drmic and Derrick Marks, returned to Leon Rice’s program, Boise State failed to earn a bid to the Big Dance. But Drmic and Marks are back again. And in a Mountain West that has absorbed many blows since the conclusion of the 2014-15 campaign, Drmic (111.2 offensive rating) could lead the Broncos back to March Madness, especially if he duplicates last season’s impressive numbers (15.9 PPG, 34 percent from the 3-point line).
Top newcomers to watch
Justise Winslow, Duke: Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker are gone. Winslow, a 6-6 McDonald’s All-American from Texas, will help the program fill that void. The Blue Devils have ESPN RecruitingNation’s top recruiting class, which includes Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Grayson Allen, but Winslow might be the most significant recruit in that foursome considering what the program has lost.
Stanley Johnson, Arizona: One day, Johnson will explain how he and his 6-6, 225-pound NFL tight end frame found their way to a basketball court instead of a football field. This freshman is built like Colossus. He’s a physical player who embarrassed the boys in high school who tried to contain him. Things won’t be that easy at the college level, but Johnson, the No. 7 recruit in the 2014 class, will play early and often for Sean Miller.
Theo Pinson, North Carolina: Maybe he’ll end up playing more of a true wing role, but the 6-6 small forward is the type of explosive athlete that Roy Williams will need to compete in a conference that will add Louisville next season. Pinson, the No. 10 recruit in the 2014 recruiting class per RecruitingNation, is a fearless youngster who could crack the Tar Heels’ starting rotation early.