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April 29, 2011
The Year of the Sophomore?

by John Gasaway

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In college basketball it's long been generally assumed that players experience a big jump in effectiveness in between their freshman and sophomore seasons. Only recently, however, have analysts been able to test that assumption, thanks in large part (if not entirely) to the years of individual player data compiled by Ken Pomeroy.

It turns out the assumption is, for the most part, correct. Simply put, players tend to improve the longer they stick around. Seniors, as a group, have better stats than juniors, who have better numbers than sophomores, who are superior numerically to freshmen. But, that being said, the biggest jump in performance, on average, does indeed come between the freshman and sophomore years.

Which is a scary thought if your team is scheduled to play Ohio State and Jared Sullinger next year. I don't know about you, but I thought Sullinger looked pretty good as a mere freshman. Nor is Sullinger the only player set up for a special sophomore season. Last week I looked at Harrison Barnes at some length. This week I want to highlight other sophomores-to-be. Who will benefit most from the well-documented freshman-to-sophomore "jump"? Likely those players that were already good to begin with....

Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
In 2008-09 there were two incredible sophomore big men on the loose in college basketball: Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, and Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair. As second-year players they were both quite simply amazing. And while I don't want to put any undue pressure on Jared Sullinger, the plain fact is that he posted better numbers as a freshman than either Griffin or Blair did in their first seasons. Significantly better. For a freshman to log this many minutes, stay out of foul trouble, make 70 percent of his free throws, take care of the ball, and dominate the boards at both ends of the floor is very rare. Perhaps we can grasp the magnitude of Sullinger's decision to stay in school by noting that his freshman year stacks up pretty well against what Kevin Love was able to do for UCLA in 2007-08. Love promptly entered the NBA, where as a rookie he came very close to averaging a double-double for the season (11 points, nine boards) against the best players in the world -- this despite the fact that he logged just 53 percent of the available minutes. Sullinger is probably about as good now as Love was then. Fans in Columbus should get ready for an absolute monster season.

Perry Jones, Baylor
If this were a "normal" year, Sullinger would be going to the NBA and this column would be leading off with how incredibly good Perry Jones is going to be next year. No, strike that, in a normal year Jones would be entering the NBA too. He'll have to sit out an NCAA-mandated five games next year due to loans that his mother received from an AAU coach while Jones was in high school, but once he gets on the floor the sophomore from Duncanville, Texas, should be dominant. He's not as strong on the boards as Sullinger is (or as Griffin, Blair, and Love were), but Jones made 56 percent of his twos as a freshman. With leading scorer LaceDarius Dunn graduating, there will be plenty of shots available for the taking in the Bears' offense next year. Most of those shots will fall to Jones.

Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut
By the end of the Huskies' national championship season, a case could be made the Jeremy Lamb was rapidly becoming as important to his team as Kemba Walker was. The freshman was that good, making 56 percent of his twos and 52 percent of his threes in UConn's 11-game postseason. Of course with Walker entering the NBA draft opposing defenses will be able to key on Lamb next year. Still, I have a feeling the sophomore will be able to adjust. That's what the best players do.

Doron Lamb, Kentucky
Continuing our all-Lamb theme, meet the rare Kentucky player who chose to stay in school. (Teammates Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight, and DeAndre Liggins have entered their names for the NBA draft.) Mind you, with still another highly-talented freshman class set to arrive in Lexington this fall, Lamb will again have to fight for shots in the UK offense. But anyone who makes 49 percent of his threes, as Lamb did as a freshman, should get an occasional look from his teammates.

Joshua Smith, UCLA
Smith simply couldn't stay on the floor last year -- he averaged nearly six fouls per 40 minutes -- but if he ever gets that figured out (and lowers his body fat percentage, as per Ben Howland's wishes) he gives indications of being one of the finest offensive rebounders the college game has seen in a long while.

Will Barton, Memphis
Barton couldn't make a three to save his life as a freshman, but a first-year player sinking 53 percent of his twos usually presages good things to come. Besides, Barton's respectable 70 percent shooting at the line suggests his perimeter struggles may have been somewhat of an aberration.

Kendall Williams, New Mexico
As a freshman Williams functioned as a co-point guard alongside Dairese Gary. But now that Gary has graduated, Williams will have an opportunity to show what he can do -- namely, 43 percent three-point shooting and plenty of assists.

Travis McKie, Wake Forest
No one noticed because the Demon Deacons as a team suffered through an 8-24 season, but McKie actually had a very encouraging freshman year. While fellow freshman J.T. Terrell took -- and missed -- many more shots, McKie was notably efficient in a supporting role, making 54 percent of his twos while serving as the best defensive rebounder on a very poor defensive rebounding team. If you're looking for signs of hope in Winston-Salem, McKie is where you start.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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