With the 2019-20 season rapidly approaching, here’s a look at eight sophomores that are poised to step into the spotlight and become the next college basketball breakout stars.
(Author’s note: players who are their team’s leading returning scorers- AJ Lawson, Isaiah Joe, Kyle Lofton, etc., or projected lottery picks- Jalen Smith, were not included)
Joe Wieskamp: Guard/Forward, Iowa
With Jordan Bohannon doubtful to play this season after undergoing offseason hip surgery, Isaiah Moss transferring to Kansas and Tyler Cook departing early to the pros, Joe Wieskamp will be heavily relied upon to score the basketball this season for Iowa.
The 6’6″ wing from Muscatine, Iowa, has great size for a shooting guard and possesses one of the best pure jump shots in college basketball. As part of an offense with a wide array of weapons last season, Wieskamp averaged 11 points per game on just seven shot attempts and was very efficient with shooting splits of 49/42/77.
His scoring will undoubtedly increase this year as he becomes the go-to guy in the Hawkeyes’ backcourt.
With NBA teams putting more emphasis on shooting in recent years, Wieskamp fits the mold of the tall wing that can drill open threes that we’ve seen taken in the mid-late first round the last couple of seasons (Kevin Huerter, Cam Johnson, etc.), and if he can keep his three-point average above 40% with greater volume this year, there’s no reason he can’t play his way into being a late first-round prospect.
Raiquan Gray: Forward, Florida State
One of the more under-the-radar guys on this list, Gray wasn’t able to get on the court a whole lot last season, averaging just four points and two rebounds in 12 minutes per game. However, he flashed a ton of skill and potential when his number was called.
Gray was the third power forward on the Seminoles’ roster last year, stuck behind senior starter Phil Cofer and first-round draft pick Mfioundu Kabengele. When Cofer went down with an injury in the ACC tournament, Gray was able to get on the court a lot more, starting all three NCAA tournament games, delivering big time.
At 6’8, 260 lbs, Gray is always going to be one of the strongest guys on the floor, but he also surprises defenders with great quickness and strong ball-handling ability. This allows Gray to play in the post, on the perimeter, and even bring the ball up the court, making him a matchup nightmare for traditional big men.
In the Seminoles’ second-round win over Murray State, Gray’s diverse skill set was on full display when he put up 11 points and five steals.
With starter minutes this season, there is no doubt Gray will put up big numbers, and I think he could end up an all-ACC player by the end of the year.
Tyrese Haliburton: Guard, Iowa State
College basketball enthusiasts and NBA front offices already know about Tyrese Haliburton, but the casual fan will learn how good he really is as he assumes a bigger role for the Cyclones this season.
Haliburton was on the floor a lot last year (33 minutes per game), but he deferred to Lindell Wingington, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Marial Shayok often on the offensive end. All those guys are gone now, so Haliburton has the keys to the offense and will have to shoot more as well as create shots for his new supporting cast.
Haliburton has great size for a point guard and did an excellent job of taking care of the ball last year, evidenced by his 3.6 assists to 0.8 turnover per game averages. That’s an insane ratio that will be tough to keep up with the ball in his hands more this season, but nevertheless, his overall numbers will increase and he’ll be a household name come March.
Andrew Nembhard: Guard, Florida
Another point guard with great size (6’5, 190), Nembhard proved to be one of the elite playmakers in the country last season, averaging 5.4 assists per game. Nembhard has excellent vision and just a great overall feel for the game.
He got a chance to play for Team Canada in the FIBA World Cup over the summer, an invaluable opportunity to compete against the world’s best players and improve his all-around game.
The Gators have a ton of incoming talent with Virginia Tech grad transfer Kerry Blackshear and highly touted recruits Scottie Lewis and Omar Payne stepping on campus this fall, giving Nembhard a wealth of options to distribute the ball to. His shooting numbers could use some improvement, as he hit just 41% from the floor but a promising 35% from three last year, but with a nice looking stroke and a long offseason to get better, there’s a reason to believe his shots will start falling.
Nembhard will likely average double figures and be one of the nation’s leaders in assists on a team with Final Four potential, a recipe for postseason accolades and serious looks from NBA scouts.
Osun Osunniyi: Center, St. Bonaventure
Fans of A-10 schools already know about Osunniyi, an athletic center who wreaks havoc on the defensive end of the floor. The 6’10, 190 lb big has a 7’8 wingspan and possesses off the charts defensive instincts and a great motor, making him a nightmare for opponents trying to score around the rim.
Osunniyi averaged an impressive 2.7 blocks per game as a freshman and altered many more shots than that on a nightly basis. On the offensive end, he’s still a work in progress but has a couple of nice go to post moves and runs the floor really well for a center.
Osunniyi grew from 6’2 to 6’10 from his sophomore to junior year of high school, so he’s still growing into his frame and will keep improving dramatically every year of his collegiate career.
With fellow sophomore stars Kyle Lofton and Dom Welch returning from a team that reached the A-10 Finals last March and riding a ton of momentum into this season, the Bonnies have NCAA tournament potential and could have a season finishing with Osunniyi making big plays on a national stage in March.
Aaron Henry: Guard, Michigan State
Aaron Henry was a big-time recruit that didn’t quite live up to the billing for most of his freshman season. After starting the year coming off the bench, Henry moved into the starting lineup when Joshua Langford went down with an injury in late December just before conference play. Henry was somewhat disappointing filling in, as he averaged just six points per game on the year and wasn’t as aggressive on the offensive end as he should’ve been.
However, Henry stepped up to the plate in a big way during the Spartans’ Final Four run, playing his best game of the season in a Sweet 16 win over LSU, going off for 20 points, eight rebounds, and six assists.
Henry is a skilled lefty slasher that is a very tough matchup when he gets his mid-range game going, something that we finally got to see during that LSU game and throughout the tournament.
This season, Langford will return to the lineup, but Henry should remain a starter as Matt McQuaid graduated last spring. With Cassius Winston still in East Lansing running the show, both Langford and Henry will get plenty of open looks, and I think the Henry we saw in the NCAA tournament is the one we’ll get most of this season.
As seen in our top 50 returning college players article, we here at Basketball Society think that Henry will have a monster season and could outscore his veteran running mate on the wing.
EJ Montgomery: Center, Kentucky
Another big-time recruit that didn’t quite live up to the billing as a freshman, Montgomery showed flashes late that he could turn into a big-time player with more opportunity.
Montgomery played just 15 minutes per contest last season as he found himself in a crowded Wildcats frontcourt that consisted of first round draft pick PJ Washington, star grad transfer Reid Travis, and sophomore center Nick Richards.
Few young big men across the country could crack that lineup, and Montgomery was able to earn spot minutes thanks to his great energy and willingness to hit the glass hard on both ends of the floor.
Montgomery will be fighting for playing time again this year, as Richards returns and highly touted newcomers Nate Sestina (Bucknell grad transfer) and Keion Brooks (freshman) will be in the mix.
However, I think Montgomery’s size (6’10, 225 lbs), effort, and experience in the Wildcats’ system will lead to him logging some major minutes.
While he may not have quite the success that Washington saw last year, a lot of signs point towards Montgomery following in Washington’s footsteps to have a breakout sophomore season.
Trevion Williams: Forward, Purdue
Like Montgomery, Trevion Williams had trouble carving out minutes in a crowded front-court during his freshman campaign. Purdue was a guard dominant team last year led by Carsen Edwards, and in order to play to the strength of the team, coach Matt Painter rarely put two true bigs on the court at the same time.
This resulted in only ten minutes a game for Williams, a tough, strong forward who has an array of moves and great touch in the low post, as he sat behind 7’3 center Matt Haarms. However, even with Haarms returning, expect the Boilermakers to use Williams a lot more this season, as Painter is one of the best coaches in the country at working with what he’s got and adjusting his schemes to fit the team’s personnel.
Look for Purdue to get the most of their talent and switch things up in the post-Carsen Edwards era by punishing teams down low by playing both Haarms and Williams (6’9, 280 lbs) at the same time. Trevion Williams has the talent and skill to put up big numbers and be an all-conference caliber player, all he needs is the opportunity on the court to prove it.