Every college basketball season, no matter the conference, we get "break out" playes; guys who go from relative unknowns to starters, or role players to stars. And for as long as I can remember, I assumed that the largest improvement in a college basketball player’s career occurred between their sophomore and junior seasons. Why? Probably because of the (somewhat) widely held belief that the “sophomore slump” is actually a thing. So when I sat down to try and identify some potential NEC breakout players in 2019-20, I became curious if second year players do, in fact, struggle. Or perhaps just improve less than, say, juniors and seniors.
In order to arrive at a conclusion, I decided to utilize Bart Torvik’s “PORPAGATU!” as my measurement of value; some people may prefer PER, or Win Shares, but I like the methodology behind PORPAGATU!, and well, we’re all guessing anyway right? If you don’t want to click the link, think of it like baseball’s WAR metric. It’s essentially “Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game”. No, it doesn’t include defense. And no, I wouldn’t view at it as gospel. But it’s the best we’ve got, as far as I’m concerned.
Before we get into it, it’s important to understand what the PORPAGATU! values mean. Here’s a quick primer, at least based on 12 years of NEC research:
~5= All-time Great- Just 4 players have topped 5 PORPAGATU! in the past 12 years; Ken Horton (CCSU) in 2011, Shane Gibson (SHU) in 2012, Karvel Anderson (RMU) in 2014, and Junior Robinson (MSMU) in 2018
~4= NEC Player of the Year-ish- 19 players have had a season with more than 4 PORPAGATU! (a little more than 1.5 per season).
~3= All-NEC 1st team
~2.5= All-NEC 2nd team
~2.2= All-NEC 3rd team
~1= Solid starter
(Editor's Note: I'm using data from league games only)
Since 2008 (which is as far back as Torvik’s site goes), there have been 1,605 individual seasons, and unsurprisingly the number of seasons per class trends downward, with there having been 455 freshman, 407 sophomores, 402 juniors, and 341 seniors.
Also unsurprisingly, players get better as they get older; the average freshman played just 29.8% of their team’s available minutes and averaged less than 0.2 PORPAGATU!, while seniors played close to 51% of available minutes, averaging almost 1 PORPAGATU!. But that’s where things stopped going as I expected. Check it:
On the whole, freshmen improved astronomically from Year 1 to Year 2, with much smaller jumps to Years 3 and 4. However, it’s important to note that freshmen transfer out of D1 with a higher frequency than any other class because, well, playing Division 1 basketball is hard! The freshmen numbers listed above are likely pulled down by guys who probably had no business playing at this level.
What I then decided to do was look at ONLY players who played as freshmen AND sophomores, then sophomores/juniors and juniors/seniors. How much are the PLAYERS improving, rather than the classes as a whole?
There were 296 players in the past 12 years who played both as a freshman and a sophomore, with those players improving an average of 0.31 PORPAGATU!. Sure, a smaller jump than when all freshman and sophomores are included, but still significant. Players improved, on average, 0.22 PORPAGATU! from their sophomore to junior seasons, and just 0.12 PORPAGATU! from their junior to senior seasons.
So…why is this happening? Obviously experience is a good thing, but I’ll theorize that the biggest factor is spending an entire summer on campus working on your game, as well as in the weight room. Freshmen arrive at school much closer to the fall, while their older teammates have been working with the coaches, playing against each other, and just generally getting up shots since the season ended. Plus, the strength and conditioning at Division 1 schools is generally much better than what players are getting in high school. Sophomores are, on the whole, going to be much stronger than when they arrived on campus.
Last season, no sophomore improved more than Sacred Heart’s E.J. Anosike. The rugged 6’8” forward sat behind a veteran frontline in 2017-18, logging just 13.8 mpg. In his 2nd season in Fairfield, however, he blossomed; 15.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in conference play, earning 2nd team All-NEC honors. Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Anosike added a perimeter shot to his game; in his first collegiate season, he attempted just five three-pointers, missing all of them. This past season? 19 for 52 (36.5%), including 42% in league play. At least according to PORPAGATU!, Anosike played more like a POY than a 2nd teamer; his 3.9 PORPAGATU! in NEC play outpaced everyone (including Keith Braxton, who registered “just” 3.2). What’s more; his 3.7 PORPGATU! Improvement in one season is tied for the third highest ever tracked by Torvik’s site.
Of course, Anosike wasn’t the only sophomore last season to see a big improvement between his first and second years.
Charles Bain, Robert Morris (-0.1 to 1.4)- A long 6’8” forward, Bain went from a backup (he started 9 games as a freshman, averaging 17 mpg) to starting all 35 games for the Colonials, averaging 10.2 ppg and 4.7 rpg. His biggest improvement was on the boards; he grabbed 15.7% of his defensive rebounding opportunities, which was up from 10.5% as a freshman, and also limited his fouls (3.5 fouls per 40 minutes, down from 4.6). Combine that with an ability to knock down shots from the perimeter (35% on 4 attempts per game), and you have a really good stretch 4.
Jahlil Jenkins, Fairleigh Dickinson (1.9 to 3.1)- Jenkins’ 1.9 PORPAGATU! in 2017-18 was more than any freshman in the NEC not named Jalen Jordan, and yet he was able to improve quite a bit in year 2. While his per game figures didn’t see a big jump, dig deeper and you an see a guy who went to work in the off-season. His development shooting the ball was stark; 40% from three as a sophomore compared to 30% as a freshman, and 85% from the free throw line (just 70% in year 1). He also cut down on his turnovers (1.8 turnovers per 40 minutes, down from 2.6). Jenkins deserved to be an All-NEC player in 2018-19, and should be a pre-season 1st teamer. He’s the best point guard in the league, hands down.
Jalen Jordan, St. Francis-Brooklyn (1.9 to 2.6)- Like Jenkins, Jordan had such a good freshman season that it’s difficult to improve that much. Yet, somehow he did. For the second year in a row, he shot over 40% from three (well, 39.6% in NEC play, but who’s counting?), and also managed to get to the charity stripe a bit more, making 52 of his 62 (84%) of his free throw attempts. But ultimately, he saw a larger role in the offense, seeing his usage increase from 16.6% to 20.9%, yet his O-Rating remained high (113.9). It’s a shame NEC fans won’t get to see what he can do as an upper-classmen, as he transferred to Middle Tennessee St. in May.
Chauncey Hawkins, St. Francis-Brooklyn (0.5 to 1.2)- The diminutive guard carved out a role for Glenn Braica as a 6th man in 2018-19, improving his scoring average (from 7.4 ppg to 10.5 ppg), while also cutting down in his turnovers. Hawkins was on the inconsistent side, but he had some huge games, especially in non-conference play; 27 points against Presbyterian, 26 at Lafayette, 22 at Niagara, 23 vs. Sacred Heart, 18 at Sacred Heart. If he could find some more consistency with the three-ball (he shot 41.5% as a freshman), we could have a big time scorer on our hands.
As we head into the off-season, who are some of last year’s freshman who could see major improvements in year 2?
Koreem Ozier, Sacred Heart (0.7)- The talent is undeniable, but Ozier struggled from the field in league play; 35% overall and 32% from three. What jumps out to me is his 27% shooting on two-point jumpers. That's usually a sign that a player is forcing his offense, and while I certainly didn't watch every Pioneers game, there was some clear evidence of that. With some improved shot selection and the natural growth that comes with being a sophomore, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him become a 1st team All-NEC player come March 2020.
Myles Thompson, St. Francis U. (0.4)- The 6’6” freshman started the season’s first 14 games, as Red Flash head coach Rob Krimmel opted to use a lineup with two true bigs. However, after SFU lost to Fairleigh Dickinson on January 5th, Thompson largely fell out of favor, never again surpassing 18 minutes in a game until SFU’s NIT loss at Indiana. Despite the lack of minutes in league play, there was a lot to like; he was 3rd among all NEC freshman with a 9.8% offensive rebounding percentage, he showed an ability to step out and shoot it (13 for 53 overall), and he was aggressive around the rim. With some of Krimmel’s horses gone to graduation, Thompson should become a key cog for the Red Flash next season.
Cameron Parker, Sacred Heart (0.3)- No, this isn’t becoming an SHU-fan blog, but man did I love Anthony Latina’s roster last season (I also could have put Aaron Clarke on this list). Parker put up the big assist totals, but look closer and he wasn’t great. He made just 35% of his two-point field goal attempts, he averaged 5.5 turnovers per 40 minutes, and converted only 70% of his free throw attempts. That all adds up to a sub-par 96.2 O-Rating. I guess that’s what happens when you give a freshman the keys to the offense. But when that freshman averages almost 7 assists a game and makes 43% of his three-point attempts? Sign. Me. Up! He’ll naturally learn to cut down on those turnovers, and if he can become a better finisher (he made less than 48% of his shots at the rim), he’ll go from good to great.
Ian Krishnan, Central Connecticut (0.2)- Krishnan was largely one-dimensional offensively last season; he made 33% of his three-point attempts (42 for 127), but struggled elsewhere. He made just 35% of his two-pointers, attempted just 17 free throws in league play (making 15), and averaged barely an assist per 40 minutes. However, if you watched any Blue Devils games last season, you know that the offense ran through Tyler Kohl and his 31.6% usage rate. Kohl has graduated, and Donyell Marshall will look to Krishnan to become more of a scorer than just a shooter. Plus, though it’s not captured in PORPAGATU!, he has the skills to be a lockdown perimeter defender.
Brandon Powell, Fairleigh Dickinson (-0.3)- Powell didn’t get a ton of run last season, averaging just 9.6 mpg. However, with Xzavier Malone-Key injured in the post-season, the 6’2” wing stepped up in a big way; in the semifinals against Robert Morris, Powell scored 11 points in 31 minutes, including making some big plays. With Darnell Edge having graduated, the minutes are there for Powell to make a major impact for the Knights next season. He could be the next guy up for head coach Greg Herenda, and could take advantage as defenses will undoubtedly focus on stopping Jahlil Jenkins.