Commentary

Most improved players taking over the spotlight

Originally Published: January 31, 2008
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Knee injuries. Life-threatening illness. Off-court problems. Infrequent opportunities to get on the court.

There are myriad reasons many of college basketball's most improved players didn't produce in the past.

Wayne Ellington
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesA missed 3-pointer last season compelled Wayne Ellington to work on his game last summer.

Pittsburgh's Sam Young was bothered by tendinitis in each of his knees last season, leaving the Panthers forward unable to do what he does best: seemingly jump out of the gym. Before Syracuse's Arinze Onuaku shattered a backboard at Midnight Madness in October, he was recovering from a knee injury that nearly shattered his dreams. And Connecticut's A.J. Price dealt with a double-whammy of heartbreak: a brain hemorrhage that nearly killed him four years ago and then a self-induced dose of immaturity that almost cost him his scholarship.

The main reason college basketball's most improved players are better? They're a year older.

At least that's why North Carolina coach Roy Williams says guard Wayne Ellington has blossomed into the No. 4 Tar Heels' second-leading scorer this season. Entering Thursday night's game against Boston College at the Smith Center (ESPN, 7 ET), Ellington is averaging 16.8 points and 3.8 rebounds. He averaged 11.7 points and 2.9 rebounds as a freshman.

"He's a sophomore instead of a freshman," Williams said.

And Ellington is now a scorer instead of a shooter. Last season, Ellington was reluctant to drive and score off the dribble. He allowed defenses to pinch forward Tyler Hansbrough and North Carolina's other interior players, while he waited for a pass on the perimeter.

"I really worked in the offseason," Ellington said. "I worked hard and got the mentality of becoming more of a scorer. Last year, I was just more of a shooter. Now, I'm getting to the basket more and creating more opportunities for my teammates. I'm trying to get to the foul line."

Ellington also was greatly motivated by one of his last shots of the 2006-07 season. With the score tied against Georgetown in the East Regional finals of the 2007 NCAA Tournament, Ellington missed an open 3-pointer from the right wing as time expired in regulation. The Hoyas then scored 14 consecutive points in overtime to stun the top-seeded Tar Heels 96-84.

"It was tough, especially with us losing that game," Ellington said. "To end the tournament and our season that way was hard. I just used it as motivation and worked hard to get better."

Ellington got a dose of redemption earlier this season in a 90-88 victory at Clemson on Jan. 6. He scored a career-high 36 points and knocked down a winning 3-pointer with 0.4 of a second left in overtime.

"Everybody made such a big deal about him missing that shot against Georgetown last year, and he's going to have to live with that," Williams said. "But he made a bunch of shots to get us to Georgetown last year, too. I told him he'd get another chance, and that wasn't coachspeak."

Ellington is making a bunch of big shots for North Carolina this season.

[+] EnlargeSam Young
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireNo longer slowed by knee injuries, Sam Young is now The Man for Pitt.

"Wayne is a scorer," Williams said. "He can shoot it deep. He can put it on the floor and drive. You have to have a scorer like that, especially with a guy like Tyler inside."

Here's a look at some of college basketball's other most-improved players this season:

Aron Baynes, Washington State, Jr., C: The big Aussie has doubled his points (11.9 per game) and rebounds (6.2) production from last season. The bearded 21-year-old spent time playing for Australia's national team this summer, which helped his confidence and skills around the basket. He still isn't as aggressive as he needs to be at times; He took only three shots in an 81-74 loss at UCLA on Jan. 12 and four shots in a 56-55 win at Arizona State on Saturday.

Lee Cummard, BYU, Jr., G: The player once known as the Cougars' defensive stopper has emerged as a scoring threat in his second season as a starter. Cummard is third in the Mountain West Conference in scoring with 15.7 points per game and is sixth in both rebounds (6.3) and assists (3.4). The native of Mesa, Ariz., has five games with 20 points or more and leads the league in field-goal percentage (55.8). Cummard has nearly equaled his 3-point production from last season.

Ricky Harris, UMass, Soph., G: The sharp-shooting guard has helped the Minutemen get into position to end a 10-year NCAA Tournament drought. After averaging only 4.5 points as a freshman, Harris is averaging 19.9 points and shooting 45.3 percent from the floor. Along with point guard Chris Lowe and small forward Gary Forbes, Harris gives coach Travis Ford one of the most lethal scoring trios in the country. Harris, from Baltimore's Calvert Hall High, is shooting 38.2 percent on 3-pointers and scored 20 points or more in five consecutive games until managing only seven in a 77-65 loss to Xavier on Sunday.

Luke Harangody, Notre Dame, Soph., F: The bruising 250-pound forward has helped the Fighting Irish to a surprising 4-2 start in Big East play. After a solid freshman campaign in which he averaged 11.2 points and 6.2 rebounds, Harangody has become one of the Big East's most dominant players. He leads the league in scoring with 19.3 points per game and is second in rebounding with 9.6. He also ranks in the top 12 in the league in field-goal percentage (51.2 percent) and foul shooting (80.2 percent). Harangody already has nine double-doubles this season, including 25 points and 10 rebounds in a 90-80 win at Villanova on Saturday, Notre Dame's first true road win of the season. Harangody relies on his brute strength much of the time, but he has especially soft hands and great touch around the basket.

Lazar Hayward, Marquette, Soph., F: The Golden Eagles expected Hayward to make an immediate impact in 2006-07, but his arrival was delayed two months while the NCAA clearinghouse investigated his transcripts. He averaged 6.6 points and 3.6 rebounds as a freshman, while struggling to find his role on the team. Hayward still isn't sure of his role this season. He has played small forward, power forward and even center for the smallish Golden Eagles. But his versatility has been invaluable for coach Tom Crean. Hayward averages 13.4 points and 6.3 rebounds and is making 53 percent of his shots. The 6-foot-6 native of Buffalo, N.Y., is strong enough to score in the paint and still make 48.6 percent of his 3-pointers.

[+] EnlargeArinze Onuaku
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliArinze Onuaku's scoring has dipped of late, but the Syracuse forward has been a big-time beast so far this season.

Gerald Henderson, Duke, Soph., G: Until this season, Henderson was best known as the Duke player who clobbered North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough with a flying elbow. But Henderson has emerged as a true scoring threat for the Blue Devils, nearly doubling his scoring average to 13.6 points with 4.7 rebounds. Like DeMarcus Nelson, Henderson is adept at driving the basket and scoring off the dribble, making the Blue Devils less reliant on 3-point shooting. He had his best performance of the season in Sunday night's 93-84 win at Maryland, scoring 23 points on 9-for-12 shooting.

Trevon Hughes, Wisconsin, Soph., G: As goes the new point guard, so goes the Badgers' fortunes in the Big Ten race. Hughes is still struggling to find his role, as either a scorer or point guard. He isn't forcing as many shots as he did earlier in the season, but he has nearly as many turnovers (48) as assists (51). But at times, the sophomore from Queens has been invaluable for coach Bo Ryan. Hughes is averaging 13.1 points and 3.1 assists after playing only 7.7 minutes per game in 2006-07. He is shooting only 43.4 percent from the floor and 61.5 percent from the foul line, but he is making an effort to be more selective when trying to score.

Darnell Jackson, Kansas, Sr., F: Maybe we shouldn't be surprised Jackson waited to blossom until his senior season. The Oklahoma City native didn't start playing basketball competitively until ninth grade in high school, and he was a nondescript bench player for the Jayhawks in each of the previous three seasons. But Jackson has been an inside force for Kansas this season, averaging 12.5 points and 7.2 rebounds. Along with sophomore Darrell Arthur, Jackson has relieved the pressure on Kansas' perimeter players. Jackson might not be as physically gifted as the departed Julian Wright, but he has been more consistent.

Arinze Onuaku, Syracuse, Soph., F: As far back as Midnight Madness, Syracuse fans received a not-so-subtle hint that Onuaku was fully recovered from a left knee injury that caused him to miss all of the 2006-07 season. He shattered a backboard that night, and has been the Orange's most improved player since. Onuaku is averaging 13.5 points and 8.4 rebounds and is shooting 67 percent from the floor. He still is a liability at the foul line, making only 46 percent of his attempts. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim still calls Onuaku his team's best inside scoring threat since Otis Hill from 1993-97. Boeheim will need more consistency from Onuaku down the stretch; he was held to 10 points or fewer in four of the past eight games.

Eniel Polynice, Ole Miss, Soph., F: The sophomore from Sarasota, Fla., has been Mr. Do-Everything for coach Andy Kennedy. After averaging only 3.9 points and 2.2 rebounds as a freshman, Polynice is scoring 13.0 points with 5.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.8 steals per game. The lanky forward has extraordinarily long arms and exceptional dribbling skills, creating matchup problems for most opponents. Polynice still struggles with inconsistency at times, and Kennedy has worked to keep his most improved player motivated on the court. Polynice shoots only 54.7 percent on foul shots and is apt to force 3-pointers. Kennedy will need even more from Polynice in the second half of the season as the Rebels try to catch rival Mississippi State in the SEC West standings.

A.J. Price, Connecticut, Jr., G: Talk about an Amityville Horror. The junior from Amityville, N.Y., waited two years for his college career to get off the ground. As a freshman in 2004, he suffered a brain hemorrhage that left him in critical condition for two weeks. Radiation treatments kept him off the court during the 2004-05 season, then off-court problems sidelined him the next season. Price was suspended for the entire 2005-06 season after he was charged with three felony larceny charges and lying to police, a misdemeanor, for his role in the theft of laptop computers. He finally played as a sophomore last season, averaging 9.4 points and 3.6 assists. Price has led the Huskies' resurgence this season, averaging 14.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 6.1 assists. He leads the Big East with 122 assists and is second in assist-turnover ratio (2.65).

Marreese Speights, Florida, Soph., F: Gators coach Billy Donovan said his sophomore big man faced unfair expectations coming into the season, but Speights has more than lived up to his lofty billing. Speights is a big reason the Gators are off to a surprising 18-3 start after losing each of the five starters who helped them win the last two national championships. Speights barely saw the court last season playing behind Joakim Noah and Al Horford. This season, he is averaging 14.1 points and 7.9 rebounds and is making a whopping 64.3 percent of his shots from the floor. He made 23 of 33 shots in Florida's past three victories, over Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

Curtis Terry, UNLV, Sr., G: Jason Terry's little brother moved back into the starting lineup after coming off the bench last season, when the Rebels advanced to the Sweet 16. Averaging 30 minutes, Terry has emerged as one of the team's top offensive threats. He averages 11.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists and ranks fifth in the Mountain West Conference with 43 made 3-pointers. Just as importantly, Terry is second in the league with 78 assists and has twice as many as assists as turnovers. He had 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting in a 70-41 rout of BYU on Jan. 15, which helped UNLV take the early lead in the MWC standings.

Sam Young, Pittsburgh, Jr., F: The Washington, D.C., native was an enigmatic reserve for the Panthers in each of the past two seasons, and was hobbled by tendinitis in each of his knees during the 2006-07 season. But after moving into the starting power forward role this season, Young is vying for both most improved and most valuable player in the Big East. He is fourth in the league in scoring with 18.1 points per game and averages 7.0 rebounds. Once known only for his rim-shaking dunks, Young has expanded his game. He is shooting 43.1 percent (25-for-58) on 3-pointers after making only 17 in his first two college seasons combined. Young has kept the Panthers in the Big East race after they lost guard Levance Fields and small forward Mike Cook to injuries.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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