10 College Basketball Role Players with Golden Opportunity to Thrive in 2014-15
Few sports terms are thrown about with careless abandon more than "role player," the all-encompassing description that can be used to illustrate pretty much anyone other than a team's stars.
Whether it's by coming off the bench or via a starting position, certain players who aren't asked to do everything end up getting labeled as a role player, especially in basketball.
But being able to provide some scoring punch in a reserve role, or being just a great rebounder or defensive stopper can only last for so long. Eventually, some of those role players have to take on bigger, well...roles.
Whether they can meet those expectations is unknown, but an enhanced function has to be looked at as a great opportunity. We've identified 10 of these so-called role players from this past season who likely will be asked to do much more in 2014-15 season.
(NOTE: Years listed for each player are as of the 2014-15 season.)
Dominic Artis, Oregon
Height, weight: 6'1", 186 lbs.
Dominic Artis played nearly 23 minutes per game as a freshman in the 2012-13 season, but that number dropped to less than 17 minutes last year. This was partly due to the improved play of senior point guard Johnathan Loyd, but it was also because Artis missed Oregon's first nine games while suspended for selling team gear.
As a result, Artis went from averaging 8.5 points to 4.1 per game for the Ducks, and only saw 18 minutes in their two NCAA tournament games. His role had been reduced to spelling Loyd and keeping Oregon's offense moving during those breaks, with scoring as a minimal part of that task.
Loyd has graduated, though, and he is one of several Oregon players who are gone from last year's squad. This means Artis will likely step back into a more prominent role, asked to distribute to returners such as Damyean Dotson and Joseph Young while also finding his own points. Artis only took 97 shots last year, making just 34 percent of them, so he'll need to become more proficient in that area while also improving on a career 1.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Mo-Alie Cox, VCU
Height, weight: 6'6", 250 lbs.
VCU's "Havoc" approach to basketball is predicated on speed, using it to create chaos on defense and drive opponents crazy with constant movement of hands, feet and bodies. But Mo-Alie Cox has a chance to bring about a different kind of havoc next season, in the form of sheer physical domination.
Cox averaged 3.3 points an 3.6 rebounds in 14.4 minutes per game as a redshirt freshman for the Rams, but he was played behind the now-graduated Juvonte Reddic. He's much thicker, though, as his 250 pounds wasn't stretched out on a 6'9" frame like Reddic's, so look for Cox to use his entire body when he's on the court.
It's what he did late last season for VCU, averaging seven rebounds per game in just 59 total minutes in three Atlantic 10 tournament games. After opponents will get done dealing with the Rams' quick backcourt, having to endure Cox banging about down low might just be too much to handle.
Anthony Gill, Virginia
Height, weight: 6'8", 230 lbs
Anthony Gill was third on his team in scoring and rebounding last season, at 8.6 points and 4.0 boards per game, despite logging the sixth-most minutes. As the Cavaliers' "instant offense" guy off the bench, he provided a spark that would help ignite them on a run and turn a methodical attack into one with some giddy-up.
Gill is set to start in 2014-15 with the graduation of Akil Mitchell, and that will probably mean much more inside-out offense from Virginia. With his ability to score and defend, he fits in perfectly with Tony Bennett's scheme and will help take some of the pressure off Malcolm Brogdon to be the primary scorer.
Kasey Hill, Florida
Height, weight: 6'1", 181 lbs.
Kasey Hill was a significant part of Florida's seven-man rotation this past season, averaging 22 minutes per game and serving as a great facilitator either when Scottie Wilbekin was off the court or in more of a scoring mode. Hill didn't really have that gear, taking just 4.4 shots per game.
As the Gators' likely starting point guard in 2014-15, he'll have the chance to use all of his skills on a full-time basis, which means we'll need to keep our focus when watching or risk missing the speedster race past our view. Hill is one of the fastest players in the game, and if he's able to use that quickness to slice through defenses he'll be tough to defend.
Hill's main role will still be as a passer, and he did that effectively as a freshman with a nearly 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. But getting more involved on the scoring end will take him up several notches and keep Florida neck-and-neck with loaded Kentucky for the SEC crown.
Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
Height, weight: 6'7", 250 lbs.
Nigel Hayes had a hard time getting a lot of minutes in his first year of college basketball, stuck behind one of the most versatile and athletic starting lineups in the country. But when he did get on the court, he showed the kind of skill and technique that not only earned him Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year honors but also provides Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan with a solid personnel option for next season.
In just over 17 minutes per game, Hayes averaged 7.7 points and 2.8 rebounds, while his 51 percent shooting was second only to breakout star Frank Kaminsky among regulars. He struggled mightily at the free-throw line, but made up for it with his physical play as a complete opposite to the rest of the Badgers' players.
With only Ben Brust graduating, Hayes might still be a bench player if Wisconsin stays small and inserts Bronson Koenig in at shooting guard. But if Ryan decides to increase his team's inside presence, and by that we mean keep someone in the paint instead of how Kaminsky and Sam Dekker regularly float out to the perimeter, then Hayes is poised to have a monster impact on Wisconsin's attack.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona
Height, weight: 6'7", 215 lbs.
Nick Johnson was Arizona's most dangerous scorer, while Aaron Gordon provided the Wildcats with so much raw athleticism he was among the country's top interior defenders. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was a lesser version of both of those players' best attributes, which is a good thing since they've both left early for the NBA draft.
Hollis-Jefferson grabbed a handful of starts as a freshman, but otherwise he was the first player off the bench for Arizona, finishing with 9.1 points and 5.7 rebounds in 25 minutes per game. He was among the nation's most-used subs, but that was as much due to the Wildcats' thin bench as anything else. Yet, when he was on the court there was a level of intensity that would transform the game.
He may not start again in 2014-15, as his most natural position will likely get taken by top recruit Stanley Johnson. But there's no doubt he'll be flying all over the place in a fury of elbows, slashing moves and his patented pre-free-throw shimmy in a role that will take him from occasional contributor to all-around glue guy.
Zak Irvin, Michigan
Height, weight: 6'6", 200 lbs.
Zak Irvin had one clear job when he got into the game for Michigan this past season: shoot the ball, preferably from as far outside as possible. The freshman obliged, taking 146 of his 196 field goals from three-point range and hitting 42.5 of them, with his 62 makes second-best on the team despite the fact he was seventh in minutes at 15.4 per game.
The only person to make more threes last year was Nik Stauskas, the Wolverines' leading scorer. But he's off in search of a professional career now, which opens up a spot for Irvin to use the skills he's already shown off and also introduce what else prompted Michigan to recruit him in the first place.
Irving should easily double his 6.7 scoring average next season and, along with fellow 6'6" guard Caris LeVert, create one of the most deadly shooting duos in the country.
Stefan Nastic, Stanford
Height, weight: 6'11", 245 lbs.
Stefan Nastic was in the starting lineup of all but one of Stanford's 36 games last season. However, at times it felt like that was only because the Cardinal needed to put five guys on the floor and felt some sort of allegiance to tradition by having one of them be a center. As games progressed, though, Nastic often spent more time on the bench than in action, and for the year he averaged fewer than 20 minutes a contest.
Yet when Stanford moved to a bigger lineup during the NCAA tournament, Nastic's minutes went up. That was particularly true in the upset of Kansas, when he logged a season-high 31 minutes. In Stanford's three tourney games, he averaged 25 minutes apiece and was a dominant offensive force by making 14 of 18 shots.
Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis, the Cardinal's main inside scorers, have both graduated, so the burden falls on Nastic to provide that offensive punch down low. With more of an opportunity to be what a center on offense can be, Nastic is primed for a huge senior year.
Dwayne Polee II, San Diego State
Height, weight: 6'7", 195 lbs.
It didn't have the kind of national reach and staying power as Frank "The Tank" Kaminsky or Doug "Dougie McBuckets" McDermott, but Dwayne Polee II did start getting referred to as "The Human Pogo Stick" (compliments of CBS Sports Network analyst Doug Gottlieb) as the season went on. Watch Polee a little bit and see how he seems to jump out of the building and you'll understand why.
Polee was third in scoring for San Diego State at 8.5 points per game last year, despite playing fewer than 18 minutes a game. He maximized his playing time with both a solid three-point stroke but also the kind of hops that enabled him to sky to the basket at a moment's notice. He was also disruptive on defense, using his length to rattle shooters.
Polee should see a lot more action in 2014-15, as the Aztecs must replace leading scorer Xavier Thames and rebounding expert Josh Davis. His final five games were almost an audition for that gig, as he averaged 15 points and was 12-of-21 from three-point range.
Terrence Samuel, Connecticut
Height, weight: 6'4", 190 lbs.
It was hard to really characterize what role Terrence Samuel had as a freshman, because he played so little—failing to log a minute in 10 games—that there wasn't enough time to settle into a role. That is, until the postseason began, at which time he became the capable backup point guard Connecticut needed heading into the future.
Samuel scored only 2.4 points in nine minutes of play per game, but he had more than 40 percent of his points for the season during the NCAA tournament, and that stretch included two scoreless outings. When Shabazz Napier fell into foul trouble against Villanova, Samuel held his place in line and scored a career-best 11 points, including 7-of-8 from the foul line. He followed that up with 10 points in a career-high 23 minutes against Iowa State.
With Napier gone, Samuel gets to try to step in as the point guard on a team defending the national championship. He won't have to do it all, as Ryan Boatright is also returning in the backcourt, but he showed the ability to step up down the stretch and in 2014-15 it will be his chance to show that can happen on a regular basis.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.