Commentary

Grades for our preseason All-Americans

Originally Published: December 16, 2010
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

It's a tradition. Every year, we college hoops "experts" -- and yes, I included the scare quotes for you already -- sit down, look at the college hoops landscape and offer up our predictions. Top 25. Preseason All-Americans. Coaches on the hot seat. Programs on the rise. Red-pen dates worth circling on the calendar.

And every year, these predictions are almost immediately outdated. That's a tradition, too.

As anyone who has ever filled out an NCAA tournament bracket knows, attempting to predict college hoops is like attempting to predict which of your friends is going to film your ill-advised late-night behavior and sell it to TMZ. (No cameras, Miley! Come on!) It's even more difficult in the preseason. Pragmatic, educated guesses fall by the wayside. The wildest picks end up looking prescient. Some things happen exactly as they should. Some, well, don't.

How did we do this year? It's much too early to assess final grades -- lots can happen between mid-December and mid-March -- but in honor of Captain Hindsight and in a week when many professors are grading exams, let's take a look back at our ESPN.com expert picks for the Preseason All-America team and see how they stand up to date. Call them midterm grades.

One quick note: These grades are directed at our picks when seen in retrospect. They're not an appraisal of that player's play to date. Got it? Got it. Good.

First Team

ESPN.com pick: Jacob Pullen, G, Kansas State
Grade: C
Status: Shaky
Skinny: Pullen entered the 2010-11 season riding a wave of individual expectations. He was one of only two players listed on all 10 ESPN.com first-team All-America ballots. The other one? Returning Final Four MOP Kyle Singler. In the context of those expectations, Pullen has thus far been disappointing. He's averaging more rebounds and assists than last season, but his turnovers are up, his points are down, and his shooting percentages are disconcertingly flagging. Pullen shot 40 percent from 3 last season; so far this year, he's hitting just 33 percent of those shots. His effective field goal and true shooting percentages have also taken a noticeable hit.

Whether these numbers are the cause of a fluky drought or a complication from the loss of point guard Denis Clemente is hard to tease out with two-thirds of the season left to play, but the answer will reveal itself soon enough. Pullen hasn't been bad, but he hasn't lived up to last year's breakout performance. We may have a soft spot for the ebullient, bearded playmaker, but with so many guards elevating their games in November and December, Kansas State's star isn't shining quite so bright.

Deserving replacements: Kemba Walker, G, Connecticut; (a healthy) Kyrie Irving, G, Duke; Nolan Smith, G, Duke

[+] EnlargeJimmer Fredette
AP Photo/Colin E BraleyFredette is averaging 23.7 ppg for the 10-0 Cougars.

ESPN.com pick: Jimmer Fredette, G, BYU
Grade: A
Status: Cruising at high altitude
Skinny: No issues here. Fredette is still the undisputed leader of BYU's fast-paced attack and one of the most important guards in the country. His first month of hoops has been every bit as good as his 2009-10 season led us to project: Fredette is still one of the more frequently used guards in the country, he's still scoring at a highly efficient rate, he's still dishing out assists and getting to the free throw line with ease, and he's still not turning the ball over. And he's even contributing more steals on the defensive end. In BYU's first 10 games, Fredette has averaged 23.7 points, 4.1 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. His moment of the season came in the Cougars' toughest test: On Dec. 11, playing Arizona in Salt Lake City, Fredette exploded for 33 points, nine rebounds and three assists. Fredette's 3-point field goal percentage (35.8) has dipped from last season (44.0), but that's less a criticism than cause for opposition concern. If Fredette starts making even more 3s, look out. As it is, he's still producing at an All-American level.

Deserving replacements: N/A

ESPN.com pick: Kyle Singler, F, Duke
Grade: B-minus
Status: We'll see
Skinny: If Kyrie Irving's toe was functional, it might be worth downgrading Singler a notch or two. Irving and Smith have been by far the more important players in Duke's breezily dominant early-season run. Since this list is a mere look back, and not a forward projection (we've had enough predicting for the year, thank you very much), the Singler selection is looking somewhat questionable. But there are a couple of reasons Singler might still end up an All-American. For one, with Irving out indefinitely, Duke will need Singler's scoring more than ever, and he's likely to get many more scoring opportunities now that the dazzling freshman won't be ending possessions with high-flying transition layups all the time. Singler struggled with his shooting in the early going last year, only to find his stroke come tournament time. In 2010-11, Duke's small forward is already shooting the ball well, especially from inside the arc. Expect his numbers to improve in the post-Kyrie fallout.

Deserving replacements: Marcus Morris, F, Kansas; Markieff Morris, F, Kansas; Jon Leuer, F, Wisconsin; Terrence Jones, F, Kentucky

ESPN.com pick: Harrison Barnes, F, North Carolina

Grade: F

Status: Oof

Skinny: This summer, Barnes landed in Chapel Hill with his suitcases, a 6-foot-8 frame, a feathery jumper and sky-high expectations. Barnes was going to be a game-changer for the Tar Heels; he was going to single-handedly rescue Roy Williams' program from the NIT purgatory it experienced last season. Thanks both to his own ability and to the one-and-done-era trend of top freshmen dominating immediately (see: John Wall), Barnes was the first freshman picked to the AP preseason All-America team in history, and North Carolina was ranked in the top 10 to start the season.

In retrospect, it's hard to figure out which one of those projections was more wrong. The Tar Heels limped out of the gate with a 1-2 trip to Puerto Rico, barely salvaged a close home win over Charleston, and were handily exposed in a road loss to Illinois. Thanks to a curious lack of assertive play and a confusing gameplan from the top down, Barnes struggled throughout. UNC has since showed signs of life by beating Kentucky in Chapel Hill, but its prized freshman has yet to dominate in the manner of Terrence Jones, Jared Sullinger and a handful of other rookies who have made immediate impacts on the national landscape. There's still plenty of time -- again, almost two-thirds of the season -- left for Barnes to find his stride. It's far too early to give up on a player this talented and driven. But for now it appears the preseason hype was just that. Hype.

Deserving replacements: Jared Sullinger, F, Ohio State; Rick Jackson, F, Syracuse; Derrick Williams, F, Arizona

ESPN.com pick: JaJuan Johnson, F, Purdue
Grade: B-plus
Status: So far, so good
Skinny: Johnson hasn't been the most efficient player on his team -- that honor goes to guard E'Twaun Moore -- but he is its most important. With Robbie Hummel again rehabbing his torn ACL, Purdue lacks a solid second forward who can score in the lane and help Johnson out on the glass. Frankly, Purdue lacks a second forward, period: The Boilermakers' top seven non-Johnson contributors all stand shorter than 6-foot-5. That's left Johnson to man Purdue's middle on his own, and he's performed admirably. The senior forward is averaging 18.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. The rebounds have proved especially important; no other Boiler collects offensive or defensive boards at a rate near what Johnson has achieved. There were bigger names to fawn over in the preseason, but the AP and our own experts did a nice job honing in on Johnson. He hasn't disappointed.

Second Team

ESPN.com pick: Kalin Lucas, G, Michigan State
Grade: C
Status: In recovery
Skinny: At first glance, Kalin Lucas' numbers don't look so bad. He's averaging around 15 points per game, he's making 43 percent of his 3s and he's the leading scorer on the 15th-ranked team in the nation. Sounds pretty good, right? Despite all that, though, Lucas' Spartans have struggled, going 7-3 in their first 10 games as losses to Connecticut, Duke and Syracuse resulted in their plummet from No. 2 in the polls. Part of the reason for that disappointing start has been Michigan State's ongoing turnover issues. The Spartans turn the ball over on 24 percent of their possessions, one of the highest marks of any high-major team in the country. Lucas shares much of that blame; his turnover rate of 21.9 is far too high for a player of his caliber. Or for any point guard, really.

Still, Lucas hasn't been a complete bust, primarily because he's been gamely fighting Michigan State's brutal nonconference schedule alongside the nagging effects of last season's Achilles tear. He's lacked burst and finishing ability, not to mention the conditioning he missed when he was rehabbing his heel throughout the offseason. It's entirely possible Lucas will soon blossom into the elite point guard he was before that injury. But to this point, he and the team he should be leading have been a bit of a letdown.

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Delaney
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonDelaney and the 5-4 Virginia Tech Hokies have been disappointing in the early going.

ESPN.com pick: Malcolm Delaney, G, Virginia Tech
Grade: D
Status: Exposed
Skinny: Delaney, who earned his spot among the preseason honorees by leading the ACC in scoring last season, is still getting his points. The guard has averaged 20.1 per game this season, and he's shooting a lethal 47.3 percent from 3. There are unfortunate problems at work, though. For one, Delaney is turning the ball over far too frequently; his 27.1 percent turnover rate has been devastating to his, and consequently his team's, offense. He's also had some of his worst games when the Hokies needed him most (nine turnovers at K-State, 2-of-18 shooting versus Purdue). And as Virginia Tech's stock has dramatically fallen -- the Hokies have gone from NCAA tournament team and conference contender to just another mediocre ACC team -- so has Delaney's. Virginia Tech finally scheduled some competition in November and December, and in its four losses (at Kansas State, versus UNLV, and at home to Purdue and Virginia) the Hokies and their star guard have been found wanting.

ESPN.com pick: Nolan Smith, G, Duke
Grade: A
Status: Bump-worthy
Skinny: If anything, Nolan Smith didn't get enough preseason love. You can understand why. Though Smith was a key contributor to Duke's NCAA title run last season, he was in many ways overshadowed by Jon Scheyer, Singler and even -- and I still can't believe I'm writing this -- Brian Zoubek during the championship afterglow. No more. Smith has been as good as any guard in the country this season, including the precocious freshman with whom he shares/shared a backcourt -- and he's been Duke's most or second-most important contributor throughout the entire season. It will be interesting to see how Smith adjusts his play with Irving sidelined indefinitely, but it would be a mistake to overlook Smith again this season. Right now, he belongs up with the first-teamers. We should have known.

ESPN.com pick: Marcus Morris, F, Kansas
Grade: A
Status: Mr. Efficient (along with his brother (and Thomas Robinson)
Skinny: When Cole Aldrich jumped to the NBA this offseason, he left a gaping hole -- literally and figuratively -- in the Jayhawks' frontcourt. It has been ably filled by the Morrii, most notably Marcus. The versatile forward hasn't seen the slightest dip in production in the wake of Aldrich's departure. (In fact, with an offensive rating of 130.2, he's been more efficient than ever.) Credit is also due to his frontcourt mates, twin brother Markieff Morris and athletic big man Thomas Robinson, both of whom have cleaned up on the glass while Morris goes to work in the high-low face-up game. Thanks to that Big Three, Kansas has jumped out to another 9-0 start. And if the planned arrival of uber-recruit Josh Selby goes as well as planned -- Selby will make his debut Saturday versus USC -- don't expect the Jayhawks, or the Morii, to slow down anytime soon.

ESPN.com pick: Jared Sullinger, F, Ohio State
Grade: A-plus
Status: More love required
Skinny: Like Smith and Morris, Sullinger is another second-team pick that, as we now know, belongs in the first-team discussion. Actually, don't even call Sullinger's first-team place a "discussion." Call it an open-and-shut case. Fellow freshman Harrison Barnes received much of the preseason hype this summer and fall, but Sullinger has been by far the more impressive of the two. (Don't call that a discussion, either.) The Buckeyes forward has averaged nearly a double-double (18 points, 9.3 rebounds per game) and announced his presence with a 26-point, 10-rebound effort at Florida on Nov. 16. He punctuated his dominance with a 40-point, 13-rebound effort in a too-close-for-comfort win over IUPUI in Columbus. He is the rare collegiate big man who instinctively plays around the rim, who prefers drop-step dunks to midrange jumpers and offensive rebounds to pick-and-pops. It's refreshing. If you're one of the Big Ten coaches preparing to play Sullinger in conference play, it's also thoroughly frightening.

So what's the final verdict? Of the 10 players we honored as either first- or second-team All-Americans to begin the season, four received grades of C or worse. The rest of the group has either performed up to expectations or, in the case of Smith, Morris and Sullinger, vastly exceeded them. You might flip a few players here and there, and Captain Hindsight is always going to find things to quibble over -- remember, Miley, no cameras! -- but for the most part, these teams have held up reasonably well.

Will we say the same in March? Your guess is as good as ours.

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog.