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Emerging impact players for 2012-13

9/5/2012

Thomas Edison once said, "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."

He wasn't a basketball coach, but he was echoing what many coaches have believed through the years: Good teams are made from October to March, and good players are made from March to October.

This season, a number of players have the opportunity to grow into larger roles depending on how hard they worked this summer at improving areas of weakness and enhancing their strengths, and the success of their teams could even depend on it.

Here are seven players who could make a much larger impact this season and how they need to improve to do it.

Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, Michigan State Spartans

Need to improve: Low-post offense, rebounding, defense

"Paynix," the two-headed monster at center for Michigan State, averaged a combined 15 points and nine rebounds in 37 minutes last season. Both Payne and Nix, in fact, showed dramatic improvement from the season before.

With All-American Draymond Green off to the NBA, Tom Izzo will need both big men to take their games to a new level if the Spartans are to be in the hunt for a Big Ten title this season. I'd look for Izzo to utilize both together frequently, but it will require improvement in a number of areas.

Nix, who has been in Izzo's doghouse at times, must stay focused on being in the best condition of his career if he is to play more than 19 minutes a game. He has kept his weight down in anticipation of having a more prominent role in Michigan State's offense. And while he works to establish excellent position in the low post, finishing on more than just dump-offs and offensive rebounds is imperative. He's 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds and very capable of accomplishing that.

Payne, the more explosive of Izzo's two big men, is quick and active inside but must improve his low-post offense, as well. Hopefully he has added a left-handed move that would allow him to finish over both shoulders in order to keep defenses honest. He can make an open jump shot, but playing full-time on the perimeter is not a strength yet.

Both Nix and Payne can become more assertive rebounders on both ends of the floor and can improve defensively. Payne, particularly, struggled guarding on the perimeter last year and may find himself out there more this season as a power forward. While neither is a great player yet, both will continue to improve under Izzo's "tough love" coaching. And having them in the lineup together will be like having an imposing offensive line, which is right up Izzo's alley.


Angel Rodriguez, Kansas State Wildcats

Needs to improve: Decision-making, shot-making

If you watched Rodriguez as a freshman point guard in the Big 12 last season, you saw a player who kept both teams in the game at times. But the net result was very positive and portends an improved sophomore season for Rodriguez.

There's no question Rodriguez has a toughness and fearlessness that serves him well. He's not afraid to challenge bigger players in the lane or thread the needle on passes if he sees an opening. But too often he saw plays that weren't there. He had four or more turnovers in 11 different games and shot only 36 percent from the field. Both were products of poor decision-making.

Rodriguez was introduced to new coach Bruce Weber's motion offense this summer as the Wildcats took a foreign tour to Brazil, but his improvement is less about offensive fit and more about the normal maturation that most young players undergo between their freshman and sophomore seasons. The second time around the Big 12 should help Rodriguez recognize the plays he can and can't make. He'll get into the paint off the dribble and, hopefully, "see" the correct "read."

Like many small guards, Rodriguez should go to school on players like Chris Paul and Steve Nash and work on developing a "middle game" that incorporates floaters and high-paint pull-ups. This alone will improve his field goal percentage. And his 32 percent 3-point shooting will be improved with more judicious shot selection. Rodriguez has a bright future, and now it's up to Weber to get it out of him.


C.J. Wilcox, Washington Huskies

Needs to improve: Creating his own shot

Playing with two NBA first-round picks, Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross, last season, the 6-5 Wilcox quietly averaged 14 points a game. But coach Lorenzo Romar is counting on the junior from Pleasant Grove, Utah, to step back and be one of the best players in the Pac-12 this season.

Wilcox has proven to be one of the best shooters in the country, shooting 40 percent from behind the arc last season. In fact, he attempted more 3s than 2s, as he used Wroten's attacking ability and Ross' quality shooting to stretch the floor and get good looks for himself.

Romar's Huskies are experimenting with the UCLA high-post offense, a screening system that requires players to read the opposing defense, this summer and eschewing the motion offense they have run in recent years. It should help create good scoring opportunities for Wilcox.

For Wilcox to expand his game and become a more prolific scoring threat, he'll need to improve his ability to create shots off the dribble and get himself to the foul line more. Last season, according to kenpom.com, he drew only 3.3 fouls per 40 minutes and shot a paltry 27 free throws per 100 field goal attempts.

Given the amount of defensive attention Wilcox will command this season, it's imperative that he is not a one-dimensional scorer. Without a penetration game, he will still be effective but guardable. If he expands his repertoire, he'll be a nightmare for opponents.


Kenny Kadji, Miami Hurricanes

Needs to improve: Aggressiveness

After two relatively nondescript years at Florida -- his sophomore season was shortened due to injury -- and sitting out the 2010-11 season, Kadji was a revelation for coach Jim Larranaga at Miami last season. His return makes the Hurricanes a potential NCAA tournament team this season. The 6-11, 251-pound Kadji went for double figures in his first 13 ACC games. He played so well, some even considered him an ACC Player of the Year candidate toward the end of the regular season.

With behemoth Reggie Johnson also returning, Larranaga has serious size up front. This allows Kadji to float to the perimeter, where he shot 42 percent behind the arc last season. But that also creates a potential problem. In Kadji's last six games last season, he lost his aggressiveness, in my opinion, spending more time away from the basket. He shot 26 percent from the field and only 3-of-18 behind the arc. This made him less effective inside, as he grabbed fewer than four rebounds per game and shot only two free throws per game.

While Kadji's perimeter shooting is a weapon, his combination of size, agility and athleticism makes him a potent threat on the offensive glass. He must bring a "disposition to dominate" attitude in the lane every night even if he is not a pure post-up big man. It's not always easy to utilize two post players like Kadji and Johnson, but Larranaga is more than cagey enough to figure that out.

Kadji's perimeter skills already make him a huge weapon for the Hurricanes, and if he better utilizes his size and athleticism in the painted area, Miami could be in the hunt for an ACC title.


Anthony Collins, South Florida Bulls

Needs to improve: Perimeter shooting

Collins may have been the biggest revelation in Big East play a year ago, as the Houston native, ignored by programs in the Big 12 and SEC, ended up on the conference's All-Rookie team. In fact, his point guard acumen was a major reason the Bulls got to the third round of the NCAA tournament.

Collins showed remarkable poise for coach Stan Heath, averaging 33 minutes per game in Big East play with almost six assists, 88 percent shooting from the foul line in conference play and 54 percent shooting from the field overall. He was also a major disrupter on defense.

If there was one area of weakness, it was Collins' perimeter shooting, as he made only seven of 24 from deep. While it's not a deal-breaker for Heath, improvement in this area would make Collins virtually unguardable. As stats guru Ken Pomeroy points out, a guy who shoots as well as Collins does from the line should be able to make that improvement.

Because of Collins' size (6-1, 180) and physical attributes, he reminds me a lot of Missouri's Phil Pressey and could be a potential All-American. While that's a lot for Heath to ask for, the Bulls' continued resurgence will be directly related to Collins' performance this season. That is a comforting feeling for the coach.


Le'Bryan Nash, Oklahoma State Cowboys

Needs to improve: Efficiency in the lane

The Cowboys should be one of the most improved teams in the country this season, especially with the arrival of freshman guard Marcus Smart. The two-time Texas 5A state champion has winning in his DNA. But while Travis Ford also welcomes back a host of players who gained valuable experience through last season's struggles, no player may be more important to OSU's success than Nash.

Nash, a 6-7, 230-pound sophomore, came to Stillwater with huge expectations off a McDonald's All-American senior year in high school. At times early in his freshman year, he looked lost, often playing with little energy and trying to do too much, especially on the perimeter.

He ended up with very pedestrian shooting statistics -- 39 percent from the field and 24 percent from the 3-point line -- because he spent too much time playing away from the basket. In Big 12 play, however, he started to assert himself around the basket and increased his numbers, averaging almost 15 points and five rebounds on 42 percent shooting before a late-season injury sidelined him.

Nash's efficiency should improve dramatically this season. First of all, after dominating in high school, he has a level of understanding of how much harder the college game is around the basket. (I saw him start to get that mentality midway through the Big 12 schedule last season.) He will also be surrounded by better offensive talent this season, so he won't have to force as much.

Nash may not be Thomas Robinson yet, but given the chance to play earlier in his career, he is off to a more prolific start. If he can play with anywhere close to Robinson's effort level, he'll become the same type of force in the Big 12.