Dynamic Athletes to Watch in the 2014-15 College Basketball Season
One of the pleasures of college basketball is the opportunity to watch great athletes come into their prime. The best Division I stars pack a combination of speed, strength, quickness and leaping ability that can stack up against top players from any sport in the world.
One such standout who’s going to be firmly in the national championship discussion next season is Willie Cauley-Stein. The fleet-footed big man has already treated Kentucky fans to two seasons’ worth of highlights on the strength of his sensational mobility and power.
Herein is a closer look at the Wildcats’ unparalleled 7-footer, along with the rest of the dozen college hoopsters with the most remarkable collections of physical tools heading into the 2014-15 season.
Stanley Johnson, Arizona
As the de facto successor to Aaron Gordon on the Wildcats roster, Stanley Johnson has a perilously tough act to follow.
Although the Californian freshman isn’t quite up to Gordon’s standard of skywalking prowess, he might be even tougher on an inch-for-inch basis than Arizona’s latest lottery pick.
At 6’6” and 225 pounds, Johnson has drawn comparisons to a young Ron Artest for his physicality and defensive commitment, per an ESPN Insider scouting report (subscription required).
He pairs that muscle with more than enough leaping ability and speed to take advantage of the alley-oop feeds point guard T.J. McConnell will be handing out next season.
Jordan Mickey, LSU
Not many freshmen arrived in the college ranks last season with the tools to dominate right away at the level that Jordan Mickey did. None of the others are back for another year, but LSU’s rising sophomore will again be rising high and fast in Baton Rouge.
Mickey’s sensational leaping ability (and, at 6’8”, remarkable quickness) made him one of the nation’s top shot-blockers at 3.1 rejections per game.
Even in an SEC loaded with elite power forwards, he also had the strength to rack up 12.7 points and 7.9 rebounds a night—not to mention the speed and energy to shine in head-to-head matchups with the likes of Julius Randle and Jarnell Stokes.
DeAndre Mathieu, Minnesota
It will come as no surprise that 165-pound DeAndre Mathieu isn’t on this list for his raw power. When it comes to quickness, though, the 5’9” Minnesota floor general is the gold standard for 2014-15.
Mathieu’s numbers speak for themselves, as he managed to carve up bruising Big Ten defenses for 12 points and 4.2 assists per game in his first season after transferring from Morehead State.
Add another year of seasoning to his speed and impressive collection of ball-handling moves and the rising senior will be one of the most dangerous point guards in the country next season.
Sam Thompson, Ohio State
They don’t call Sam Thompson “Slam” for nothing. The 6’7” Buckeye can soar with any leaper in the country, and his alley-oop finishes are the stuff of Columbus legend.
In an Ohio State frontcourt that’s short on options down low, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Thompson slide into the tweener forward niche that’s recently made stars of Deshaun Thomas and LaQuinton Ross.
If he does get that vital offensive role, he’ll really get to show off the quickness and open-floor speed that have helped make him one of Thad Matta’s most valuable role players over the past couple of seasons.
Skylar Spencer, San Diego State
The defense that made San Diego State a Sweet 16 team last March was built on an extraordinary collection of long, lean speedsters. Most of those stoppers are back for another year, and the best of the bunch is center Skylar Spencer.
Despite his nearly total incompetence as a scorer, Spencer held down a starting job by virtue of his astonishing mobility at 6’10”.
Quickness and leaping ability (both in abundance) accounted for most of his 2.5 blocks per game, but he’s also stronger than his skinny frame makes him appear.
Rico Gathers, Baylor
The greater the popularity of the skinny, high-post power forward archetype, the greater the opportunity for a diametrically opposed style of big man to make an impact.
There isn’t a player better poised to prove that in 2014-15 than Rico Gathers, a Pro Bowl offensive lineman disguised as a Baylor forward.
Gathers packs 270 pounds of solid muscle onto his 6’8” frame, and you won’t find a stronger player anywhere in college hoops.
Even as a reserve last season, the rising junior mauled his way to 6.4 rebounds per game—or one for every 2.8 minutes that he was on the floor.
Dez Wells, Maryland
With a roster gutted by transfers and a daunting new conference to adjust to, the Big Ten newbies at Maryland look to be in for a long season.
No matter how tough the road ahead, though, Terrapins fans can count on the explosive Dez Wells to provide some welcome highlights.
Wells is a pure slasher whose 14.9 points come overwhelmingly from attacking the paint with his quickness and leaping ability.
He’s also got enough power to absorb his share of contact—nearly one-third of his scoring comes from the foul line—a resource that will be sorely tested in his quite physical new league.
Theo Pinson, North Carolina
Few programs are as consistent about finding players who belong on lists like this one as the Tar Heels of North Carolina.
The latest of Roy Williams’ showstopping athletes is Theo Pinson, who scored one of the signature moments of the McDonald’s All-America Game by throwing down a dunk (pictured) over Kelly Oubre Jr.
Pinson doesn’t have as pretty a jump shot as UNC classmate Justin Jackson, but his speed and agility make him a premier defender. He’s also stronger than many incoming freshmen, though he will need to pack some more bulk onto his 6’6” frame.
Branden Dawson, Michigan State
Having spent last season in a dead heat for the title of most athletic Spartan, Branden Dawson now stands alone.
With Adreian Payne off to the NBA, the rising senior forward is ready to become the face of Michigan State's team, not to mention the most impressive all-purpose athlete in the Big Ten.
Although he stands just 6’6”, Dawson has a blend of speed and power that translated to an eye-popping 8.3 rebounds a game last year.
Perhaps the best demonstration of his capabilities—which do not include a viable jump shot—was his NCAA tournament showcase against Harvard: 12-of-15 from the field for 26 points and nine rebounds, against an underdog that nearly pulled the upset anyway.
Cliff Alexander, Kansas
A close call over recruiting classmate Kelly Oubre Jr., Cliff Alexander gets the nod here because his brand of crowd-pleasing leaping ability comes with 240 pounds of muscle attached.
The 6’8” power forward is the best candidate to grow up to be Blake Griffin since Griffin himself terrorized the Big 12 five years ago.
Alexander is an unstoppable dunker when he gets a look at the rim, but his high-flying game isn’t limited to the offensive end. He also has the quickness and timing to be an elite shot-blocker, a virtue Kansas will be glad to have in Joel Embiid’s absence.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
Willie Cauley-Stein would be an impressive physical specimen on power alone. The 7’0”, 244-pound center muscled his way to 6.1 rebounds per game as a sophomore, but that’s not even close to the best part of his game.
Cauley-Stein is a former high school wide receiver who can outrun plenty of guards, not to mention any centers big enough to match up with him.
His lateral quickness is a huge factor in making him the country’s best interior defender (with, among other qualifications, 2.9 blocked shots per game).
Chris Walker, Florida
After Chris Walker belatedly joined the Gators roster last season, Florida fans got an 87-minute appetizer portion of the most impressive raw athlete in the recruiting class of 2013. Next year, it’s time for the main course.
The 6’10” Walker can jump out of the gym, and his speed and quickness are nearly at the same level.
He doesn’t have the raw muscle of some bulkier forwards, but the dunking and shot-blocking talent he’s already shown indicate that he’s certainly got enough strength to get the job done.