Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Kevin Sweeney

Top Men’s College Hoops Breakout Player Candidates

When the men’s AP All-Americans were announced last spring, two of the first-teamers hadn’t even averaged double-figure scoring the prior season. Massive jumps in production, like the ones we saw from Johnny Davis and Keegan Murray in 2021–22, happen every year—even if they don’t all blossom into All-Americans. With that duo off to the NBA, which players are best positioned to follow their lead and be the breakout stars of the ’22–23 season? Here are 10 names to learn now before they’re household names come March.

Note: For the purposes of this article, a breakout player is defined as a player who averaged less than 10 points per game and is returning to the same team they played for last season.

Can Murray (center) follow in his twin brother Keegan’s footsteps as a breakout player?

Jordan Prather/USA TODAY Sports; Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen/USA TODAY Network; Ron Johnson/USA TODAY Sports

Kris Murray, Iowa

While it’s not fair or realistic to expect an explosion from Kris that matches what his brother Keegan did last season, it’s clear Kris Murray will be the centerpiece of the Hawkeyes in 2022–23. After seeing only spot minutes as a freshman, Murray blossomed into one of the best sixth men in the sport as a sophomore, averaging nearly 10 points in under 18 minutes per contest. He’s not quite as adept defensively as Keegan was, nor is he as good a shooter off movement. But Kris has every chance to emerge into a first-round pick in his own right this season thanks to his skill level, versatility and fit in Fran McCaffery’s offensive system, which should give him tons of space to operate.

RJ Melendez, Illinois

Melendez played under 10 minutes per game as a freshman, but showed enough in that limited run to make it clear why the Illini are anticipating a big jump in his second year in Champaign. Melendez had some impressive scoring outbursts off the bench last year, like his nine points in 20 minutes in the NCAA tournament against Houston. He’s a perfect fit on both ends for the brand of basketball Illinois expects to play this season, a more positionless style that relies on having multiple playmakers on offense and length and instincts on defense.

Pelle Larsson, Arizona

Brought in as a transfer last offseason, Larsson was a solid complementary piece on a loaded Arizona team that featured three top-40 NBA draft picks in Bennedict Mathurin, Dalen Terry and Christian Koloko. But with all that production departing, there’s a huge hole for the Swedish guard to step up, and there’s optimism in Tucson that he’s up for the challenge. At his best, Larsson is the type of playmaking guard capable of operating with or without the ball who every coach would love to have, and he was highly efficient in his minutes last season. Expect a big jump to help the Wildcats stay Pac-12 contenders.

Trey Alexander, Creighton

Alexander was thrown into the fire in a major way toward the end of last season after fellow freshman Ryan Nembhard went down with a season-ending wrist injury in late February. The Oklahoma City native thrived, averaging more than 12 points, four rebounds and four assists in his final 10 games. That included 14 points and nine assists against Kansas in the NCAA tournament. Nembhard’s return to full health means Alexander can shift back to playing off the ball, but the experience gained late last season should make Alexander and this Creighton team stronger. A potential starting backcourt of Nembhard, Alexander and Baylor Scheierman, all of whom are plus passers, is a major reason the Bluejays have Final Four upside.

Jacob Toppin, Kentucky

Always gifted with elite physical tools, it seemed like the game slowed down for Toppin in his second season with the Wildcats. Now with Keion Brooks Jr. gone, the power forward spot is Toppin’s to lose, and a big season could be ahead. While international trip stats only mean so much (especially against subpar competition), Toppin stood out in Kentucky’s trip to the Bahamas, averaging 17 points in four games this summer. He has reportedly improved as an outside shooter in addition to his already-established ability to put pressure on the rim because of his athleticism.

Jordan Hawkins, UConn

Hawkins has been a mainstay at the top of nearly every breakout list all offseason. Why? The former top-60 recruit flashed moments of brilliance in his freshman campaign, scoring in double figures seven times to break into the rotation of a veteran Huskies squad in 2021–22. Hawkins has the potential to be an elite shooter and has some playmaking pop. He’s a critical piece of a backcourt that also features transfers Tristen Newton (East Carolina), Nahiem Alleyne (Virginia Tech) and Hassan Diarra (Texas A&M) as well as returner Andre Jackson Jr.

Watch college basketball with fuboTV. Start your free trial today.

Nolan Hickman, Gonzaga

With Andrew Nembhard off to the NBA, the onus is on Hickman to help boost Gonzaga’s backcourt as the Zags hunt their elusive first national title. He’s a former elite recruit who was able to be brought along slowly last season thanks to the Bulldogs’ depth and experience, but he’ll play a bigger role this season even with Chattanooga transfer Malachi Smith also joining the backcourt. Hickman plays with great pace and took care of the ball relatively well for a freshman. And in time, he has a chance to be an excellent defender.

Reese Dixon-Waters, USC

Dixon-Waters was a fairly low-usage piece for the Trojans a season ago but found a way to make an impact efficiently, including 16 points on just five shots in the NCAA tournament against Miami. He should see a larger role in the offense this season on a more guard-oriented USC team, especially considering he shot 46% from three (albeit at low volume) a season ago. Plus, he’s an impact defender on the perimeter.

El Ellis, Louisville

Being a breakout guy is a mix of talent and opportunity, and Ellis has both. The former highly touted juco recruit is one of just two true ballhandlers on the Louisville roster, and the other is three-star reclassified freshman Fabio Basili. In short, the ball is going to be Ellis’s hands early and often this season, and the Cardinals’ ability to climb the ACC ladder in Kenny Payne’s first season is largely dependent on a big year from the senior guard. While not a high-assist guy, Ellis is skilled in ball screens and can really create shots for himself.

Jaden Akins, Michigan State

Tom Izzo bet big on Akins rather than hitting the transfer portal for more proven talent this offseason, and we’ll see soon whether that was the right call. A foot injury has eaten into Akins’s preseason practice time, but that hasn’t stopped the hype train surrounding what the sophomore could accomplish this year in East Lansing. It took Akins some time to really settle in offensively a season ago, but he clearly looked much more comfortable down the stretch and shot 38% from three, an impressive mark for a freshman.

Other Breakout Candidates:

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.