The 10 Most Underrated College Basketball Players This Season

The 2013-14 NCAA season is sure to be an interesting one. Due to the high number of recruits making their one-and-done arrivals on the collegiate level, this has been one of the most highly anticipated seasons in recent memory. The amount of NBA talent available is the largest it’s been in years, which means the draft should be stacked from top to bottom. However, despite the upset in the NBA Draft this past April, with UNLV’s Anthony Bennett going as the top pick, there’s certainly no debate this year.

Barring any significant change in thinking, diaper dandies Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker — both considered to be NBA-ready but statistically unproven at the collegiate level — are scheduled to go as the first and second picks in the 2014 NBA Draft. Wiggins and Parker have comparable body types, and possess an unparalleled ability to score the basketball from anywhere on the floor while simultaneously making their teammates better in the process. However, with accolades comes pressure and though they’ll be analyzed based off their production for their respective college teams, their names will forever be attached at the hip from their high school dominance. Critics and fans alike will issue a smattering of talk about which one is the better player for the NBA level.

Those two aside, there are proven college players – go figure – who are also lottery locks if they can improve upon the numbers they produced last season. There’s Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State’s 2nd-team All American who literally does it all as a burly 6-4 point guard. Creighton’s Doug McDermott is an offensive juggernaut who produced a filthy 54/49/87 (fg/3pt/ft) shooting line for the Bluejays last season. Other players like Glenn Robinson III, Adreian Payne and Mitch McGary, who aren’t as heralded as Parker and Wiggins, have nonetheless shown brief flashes of dominance, and could sneak their names into the discussion of top-5 draft picks with a phenomenal 2013-14 campaign.

All that being said, due to the hoopla surrounding this season, the typical fan is probably already aware of the aforementioned players and their statistics. No disrespect to those guys, but this list isn’t about them. This is a list of those college basketball players toiling in semi-anonymity with few outside their college campus familiar with their games. Players like Travis Bader, Jerami Grant and Okaro White remain largely undiscovered by the general public, but they have a chance to place themselves within the group of elite players with proper exposure (i.e. a Herculean performance against a top-tier school). This list varies between great players who have produced big numbers, to those who don’t have the numbers but are extremely vital to their team’s success and could explode for a big year.

So here are 10 underrated players – as well as five honorable mentions – that you should keep a lookout for this college basketball season.

*** *** ***

10: K.J. McDaniels
As a sophomore, he averaged 11 points and 5 rebounds per game and led the ACC with 2.1 blocks as well. As the leading scorer for this returning Clemson Tigers squad, he’ll be depended on to score more, and he should be up to the challenge after averaging 7 more points per game between his freshman and sophomore seasons. McDaniels shot just under 50 percent on shots inside the arc last season, and he’s a great penetrating forward who can slash to the basket with his athleticism. He had a multitude of highlight reel plays last season, including a few put-back dunks against Wake Forest.

McDaniels can increase his free throw attempts and assist totals but as the main option this season, that’ll eventually come with more responsibility. The Clemson small forward was invited to the LeBron James Skills Academy this summer and apparently learned some things from James and Kevin Durant, so expect to see some progression in McDaniels’ game this season.

9. Spencer Dinwiddie
The NCAA has been put on notice. As of late, the use of oversized point guards has quietly become a fixture in college basketball. Last year, Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams was the floor general for an Orangemen team that surprised a few observers by making it all the way to the Final Four. Colorado’s 6-6 junior point guard Spencer Dinwiddie has the ability to lead the Buffaloes just as far in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

Dinwiddle led his team in scoring and assists last year, and although he earned himself All-Pac-12 honors, he’s still fallen under the radar of most. He’s a shoot-first guard with a decent outside shot whose size allows him to get any shot off over smaller defenders. He shoots well from the free throw line and his mid-range game is superb. With the inclusion of the Antawn Jamison floater to his arsenal – which looks a lot more graceful than Jamison’s does – he’s versatile enough to keep opponents guessing.

Like most athletes, Dinwiddie has to make a few improvements if he wants to be mentioned alongside the best in the NCAA. There were too many instances last season where the guard forgot about his size advantage, settling for jumpers instead of attacking the basket and putting pressure on the front-court. He’s not a volume shooter – he averaged 9 shots per game in 2012 – but he’s not efficient either, shooting just over 41 percent. Instead of penetrating into the paint from the start, he occasionally waited until his shots didn’t fall from the perimeter. Despite attempting 1.5 more shots from beyond the arc in his sophomore season, his shooting percentage from deep dropped from 43 percent his freshman year to 33 percent last season.

The most telling statistic might be Dinwiddie’s rebounding and assist totals, which both sit just above three. For his size, he has too much of an advantage not to exploit his length on the boards. That comes down to just being more aggressive. It would do him wonders if he established a back-to-the-basket game just to expand his versatility because he’s sure to draw more fouls and is addicted to the charity stripe.

Dinwiddie shot 9 free throws or more last season in 12 games – going 8-4 – and he converted 9 or more in all of them except one, a 58-55 home loss to Utah. Once he develops that low-post game, it’ll open up more shot attempts for his teammates, which should help increase Dinwiddie’s assist totals.

Scouts took notice of Dinwiddie’s numbers last year, and with swingman Andre Roberson already in the NBA, those numbers should increase. He has the skill-set to make big things happen in 2013, and if he can become more efficient and aggressive, he could lead the Buffaloes to a deeper tournament run and possibly sneak into NBA lottery discussions.

8: T.J. McConnell
ESPN’s Seth Greenberg called McConnell “the best transfer in college basketball,” so the guard has gotten some recognition. However, after leaving Duquesne for Arizona, McConnell should shine on the bigger stage.

McConnell’s game was made from the same cloth as Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, as both possess the scrappy intangibles that aren’t quantifiable on a stat sheet. The 6-1 guard shot over 50 percent from the field last season, including 43 percent from deep, while dishing out 5 assists per game and maintaining a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s a pass-first point guard, which should prove wonders for returning starters Nick Johnson and Brandon Ashley, two of the Wildcats main offensive weapons. And on defense, he averaged 2.8 steals, which was third in the nation last season. McConnell provides stability and constancy to a team that has had five different point guards under Coach Sean Miller, and should win the Pac-12.

7: Okaro White
White is one of the grinders on this list. When asked who’d he compare himself to if got a chance to play in the NBA, he mentioned Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen. With Michael Snear gone, White is one of the three seniors this season. If Florida State wants to compete in the ACC this year, White will have to establish himself not only as a leader, but as a viable scoring option.

White’s bread and butter is in the paint, tussling with the trees in the front-court. However, he’s worked on his outside game because FSU want to use him as a stretch four, allowing them to space the floor.

He was second on the team in points last season, averaging 12.4 game, and a career-high 5.9 rebounds — the latter of which led the squad. He’s versatile enough to play at power forward, and he shoots it well enough for defenders to commit to stopping his perimeter jumpers, which opens up his ability to slash to the basket. He’s also a monster on the defensive end just off his length and presence alone, and needs only 33 more to become the 13th player in FSU history with over 100 blocks for his career.

6: Bryce Cotton
The 6-1 Cotton has reminded the folks in Providence of another guard who scored the rock at a prolific pace, Marshon Brooks. Cotton averaged 19.1 PPG in the Big East last season, and should continue to do the same this year. He could improve upon his passing and shoot with more efficiency; he connected on 43 percent of his attempts from the field last season. As the Priars main weapon, Cotton’s going to called upon to score the rock, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll falter in that department.

5: Keith Appling
For a top 10 team last season, the Michigan State Spartans had more turnovers than assists – 489 to 474 – which almost seems unfathomable. It’s collectively a team effort that led to such an alarming statistic, but coach Tom Izzo blamed it on not having a pass-first point guard in Keith Appling.

Appling can get to the basket at will with his speed and athleticism, but on many occasions he penetrated and forced a terrible shot instead of looking for open teammates with a better look. Izzo’s point wasn’t that Appling was the only one turning the rock over, but he wasn’t creating good looks for his teammates when the opportunity presented itself. In turn, that led to more turnovers.

The 6-1 guard shot over 41 percent from 3 last season and was a 2nd-Team All-Big Ten player. However, Michigan State has its fair share of offensive potential in Gary Harris and Adreian Payne; both have a strong chance at being named All-Americans this season. Appling is lightning quick and doesn’t shy away from the big moments. That’s crucial for a player of his caliber, but for the Spartans to win a title this season, Appling must manage the team and focus on his teammates production just as much as his own.

4: Cleanthony Early

Yes, there’s a lot of hoopla surrounding Kansas for a certain high school phenom’s arrival. However, let’s not forget that Wichita State was the team that made the Final Four last season. And it was because of Cleanthony Early. The 6-9 hybrid forward, who was inconsistent most of the regular season, showed out in the NCAA tournament, especially in the 72-68 loss to Louisville during the Final Four. Early dropped 24 points and snagged 10 rebounds in the matchup against he eventual National Champions. He also opened up the eyes of NBA scouts, who said he’d go in the top 15 if he declared. He didn’t, and if he can stay consistent, the Shockers could shock the world again this season.

3: Travis Bader
Bader is another high-production, low-exposure player. He led the country after he hit 139 3-pointers last season, and averaged 22.1 PPG for Oakland. Golden Grizzlies head coach Greg Kampe went on record to state that Bader “can never shoot enough threes” for him. Oakland’s offense is uptempo and oriented around the dribble-drive. They make their name by attacking and dishing to the sharpshooters on the perimeter. The Golden Grizzlies should hit 3-pointrs at such a high volume next year, and Bader is at the forefront of that plan of attack. He hoisted 380 attempts last season, and connected on 39 percent of them. Now, he sits only 101 treys away from J.J. Redick‘s Division I record for most 3-pointers. With Oakland making a move to the Horizon League, Bader might finally get the recognition he deserves.

2: Jarnell Stokes
At 6-9 and 260 pounds, Stokes is a monster. He’s added more mass to his frame, and equipped with massive hands and long arms, expect for the power forward to dominate in the 2013-14 season. He essentially averaged a double-double last year with 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game, and because of his size, he’s capable of shielding his man off the ball while making a strong move towards the basket. He possesses a solid mid-range jumper — though he isn’t great on the perimeter. Stokes makes his name in the paint, and he’s dominant on the offensive glass. Expect an All-SEC season from Stokes in 2013.

1: Shabazz Napier
Napier did everything for a Huskies squad that won 20 games last season, despite a postseason ban and new coach Kevin Ollie under the helm. He provided clutch moments, tenacious defense and was the unanimous leader in the locker-room. Napier averaged over 17 PPG for the Huskies in 2012, and teamed up with Ryan Boatright to form one of the most dangerous back-courts in the nation. Combined, they dropped 33 PPG on their opponents. However, what makes Napier elite is his playmaking ability. His cat-like quickness allows him to penetrate and find open teammates, and his willingness to be unselfish shows in the improvements of DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey.

With the creation of the new American Athletic Conference, Napier should show out against inferior teams with the only formidable opponent being defending champion Louisville. Napier has received multiple preseason awards, but has received minimal press coverage. Knowing him, I’m sure he’s satisfied with staying off the front pages. He’s a very reserved kid off the court, with supreme maturity for a college player. For a basketball program that seemed on the fringe of falling apart just a year ago, it was Napier that decided to stay in Storrs, providing the foundation for others to remain as well. His contributions to UConn cannot be understated.

Awards or not, Napier is a bright kid who is UConn’s best player; he’ll also be a valuable commodity on an NBA roster. Now that the postseason ban has been lifted, expect the Huskies to return to the top of the college ranks with Napier spearheading the charge.

Honorable Mentions: Tyler Haws, Roberto Nelson, Eric Atkins, Jerami Grant, Naadir Tharpe

What do you think?

Follow Quenton on Twitter at @QGNarcisse.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.