The NBA Draft is less than a month away and entrants are being rated and ranked by nearly every basketball publication imaginable. While it always seems that the college game is losing a tremendous amount of talent every year at this time, many people fail to realize that there is a plethora of skilled players returning for the 2007-08 season. With that having been said, SouthernCollegeSports.com will be taking a look at the very best players in college basketball for the upcoming season in an in-depth three-part series.
Part one of this series will be looking at the floor generals of the college game, the players responsible for directing their teams to victory, the point guards. Last season’s freshman class in particular had several stellar point guards, and while the likes of Mike Conley Jr. and Javaris Crittenton have declared for the draft, there are a couple of freshman phenoms back for a sophomore season, along with a handful of other guards that will be in the national spotlight next year.
1. Darren Collison - UCLA
There may be no better all-around point guard in the country returning for the 2007-08 season. At just 6’1" 165 pounds, what Collison lacks in size, he more than makes up for with blinding speed. Whether it be in the open court, or his first step to the basket, there are few defenders in the country that can keep up with Collison. Combine this quickness with a fantastic court sense, and it’s clear why his assist numbers more than doubled from his freshman season to 5.7 per game last year. Several times per game he forces a lost post player to commit to him in the lane because he has beaten his defender off the dribble on the perimeter, and this in turn leaves his teammates open.
UCLA is very smart in that they also run Collison off a lot of screens near the top of the key, and he is excellent at using these screens to lose his man. More than just a skilled passer though, Collison is deadly when he is left open; he shot 47.8% from the field and 44.5% from beyond the arc last season.
What really makes Collison such a complete player though is his defense. Even with his lack of size, he is one of the best perimeter on-ball defenders in the country. He was tops in the Pac-10 at 2.3 steals per game, often accumulated thanks to his quick hands and fantastic anticipation. Collison can intercept a pass and convert on the other end faster than almost any player in the country.
With All-American Arron Aflalo having departed for the pros, expect Collison’s scoring numbers to increase from his 12 points per game last season. Regardless though, with Collison running the show, expect another big season out of the Bruins.
2. D.J. Augustin – Texas
Augustin was not as heralded as some of the other floor generals in his class, but he certainly grabbed some of the spotlight for himself in a hurry. Statistically, Augustin was one of the most impressive point guards in the country, averaging 14.4 points and 6.7 assists during his freshman campaign. He is another point guard that plays at a very high speed, but he does so while remaining in control, and directing the flow of the offense. Augustin’s 2.03 assist to turnover ratio is a testament to the stellar job he does protecting the basketball.
Offensively Augustin is at his most effective when he is driving to the basket, which with his quickness he is able to do with ease. He became very adapt at driving and kicking to open teammates, and with Kevin Durant as a teammate, Augustin picked up a lot of assists thanks to Durant’s shooting. When he didn’t pass however, Augustin was very skilled at finishing in the lane. He is equally dangerous from the outside where he shot over 44% from beyond the arc. With Durant gone next season, don’t be surprised to see Augustin’s scoring numbers go up.
3. Tywon Lawson – North Carolina
When one thinks of Tywon Lawson, the word explosive usually comes to mind. The former McDonald’s All-American displayed his full package of ability during this first season at North Carolina, averaging 10.2 points and 5.6 assists. But to evaluate Lawson on numbers alone doesn’t do his game justice. Lawson is one of the rare players that simply by stepping on the court can make a defense uneasy. He is the definition of a one-man fast break, able to change directions at high speeds while generally maintaining control. His explosive first step makes him extremely tough to stay in front of, and when he gets into the lane he is strong enough to finish even with contact from bigger players.
Lawson is very efficient and protects the basketball; his assist to turnover ratio was a stellar 2.57 last season. The biggest areas in need of improvement for Lawson will be his outside shooting (he shot 35.6% from beyond the arc) and his decision making in the half court set. With so much talent returning for the Tar Heels next year though, expect another great season with Lawson at the helm.
4. Drew Neitzel – Michigan State
It seems like Neitzel has been playing at the college level for a lot longer than just three years, but the veteran will finally be a senior this season. He has done everything you could expect from a point guard in his time with the Spartans. As a sophomore he averaged close to 6 assists per game, deferring scoring to players like Paul Davis and Maurice Ager. As a junior he was looked upon to provide more scoring, and he did just that, averaging 18.1 points per game and connecting on 41.2% of his shots from beyond the arc.
While he isn’t the most athletic player on the floor, Neitzel is very smart and has a great court sense. He knows how to effectively run and offense and get the most out of his abilities and his teammates. His most appealing characteristic is his ability to hit the big shot and make the big play during crunch time. There may be more physically gifted point guards, but you’d be hard pressed to find too many teams that would pass on having Neitzel running their offense this upcoming year.
5. Tyrese Rice – Boston College
By no means a pass-first point guard, Rice still makes the list because he is such an offensive threat. He is a slasher in every sense of the word, using his agility to get into the lane and create. Rice has good speed, but it is his agility that keeps defenders off balance and makes him tough to cover in one-on-one situations. He is another smaller point guard (just 6’1”) that is able to take contact and finish in the paint. Rice does a good job recognizing double teams in the lane however, and picks up a lot of his assists by dishing to open men when their defenders come to help. Despite his tendency to shoot first (he averaged a very solid 17.6 points) Rice still averaged better than 5 assists per game.
Rice is a lefty, and his right hand could still use a little work, but he has the skills and athleticism to be one of the best point guards in the country next season.
Incoming Point Guards To Keep An Eye On
Derek Rose – Simeon HS – Committed to Memphis
Johnny Flynn – Niagara Falls HS – Committed to Syracuse
Jerryd Bayless – St. Mary’s HS – Committed to Arizona