Dribble Handoff: Predicting college basketball’s breakout stars for the 2020-21 season

One-and-done prospects generate headlines and preseason buzz in college basketball, but it’s often the improvement of lesser-known players that propels teams to championship contention. It’s part of the sport’s beauty: seeing players without excessive recruiting hype develop and shine over the course of a multi-year career in the sport.

Take Saddiq Bey, for example. The NBA wasn’t a possibility for him after his freshman season. But now he’s headed to the draft after a breakout sophomore season at Villanova. The former three-star prospect developed into a lethal 3-point shooter in his second year of college basketball and helped Villanova to a share of the Big East title.

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Similar examples abounded throughout the sport last season, and there are sure to be plenty more ascendant players in the 2020-21 season, assuming there is one. So who is on track for a breakout season in college hoops? Our experts make their picks in this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff.

My idea of a “breakout player” is somebody who is set to go from not even being the best player on his team last season to being one of the best players in the entire country this season while starring for a school projected to be in the Top 25 and earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Iowa’s Luka Garza is a perfect example from a year ago. And a guy reasonably equipped to maybe make a similar jump this season is Duarte. 

The former JUCO national player of the year played second fiddle to First Team All-American Payton Pritchard last season. But with Pritchard now gone, his eligibility exhausted, somebody has to take the 14.9 shots per game the high-scoring guard attempted as a senior, and Duarte will get at least some of those shots — though he’ll obviously be working in what could be a crowded backcourt at Oregon, especially if St. John’s transfer LJ Figueroa receives a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately. Either way, Duarte, who was born in Canada but raised in the Dominican Republic, should improve on the 12.9 points per game he averaged last season, be a real force in the Pac-12 on both ends of the court, and help lead Dana Altman’s Ducks to what I’m predicting will be a fourth league title in a six-year span. — Gary Parrish

The Wahoos shape up as a potential top five team in college hoops, which means — if we can have a season and 2021 NCAA Tournament — Tony Bennett’s going to have a shot at “repeating” as national champion. One big reason why should be Morsell, who has the physical tools to eventually grow into an NBA Draft pick. I look at Morsell and see an altered/inferior collegiate version of Malcom Brogdon. Morsell started 13 games as a freshman and averaged 4.0 points and 1.7 rebounds in 21.8 minutes per game. 

Virginia’s Casey Morsell showed his potential last season as a freshman.

He’s a quintessential candidate for breakout player. He has good form, plays typically tough and intelligent defense in Bennett’s scheme and is capable of creating off the bounce. He just needs to round his shot into form. He made only 15 of his 85 3-point attempts last season, which is surprising. I will take a small gamble here and declare Morsell will come close to doubling his 3-point accuracy season over season, jumping from 17.6% to north of 30%. Confidence could be part of it, but it’s hard to see Morsell’s role and contributions not growing a lot in his second season. — Matt Norlander

Despite losing Cassius Winston and likely Xavier Tillman too, Tom Izzo’s Spartans should keep Spartan-ing along in 2020-21 in part because of the presence of second-year star Watts. Last season Watts was a bit piece on a preseason No. 1 team, but he’s primed to fill a major void of offensive production. And it looks like he’ll be ready right away: After averaging around only 9.0 points per game most of the season, he finished on a high note, averaging nearly double that in his final four games as his role steadily grew. That new role should be his new norm as he takes on the burden as the most fearless bucket-getter on a Sparty team that should enter the season as a top-10 team. — Kyle Boone

Washington State made significant strides in Kyle Smith’s first season as coach, due in large part to the serious leap that Elleby took as a sophomore. If you are not a Pac-12 junkie, you might not have heard of him. But Elleby is first-team all-conference performer who is poised to make a national splash in 2020-21 if he returns for his junior season.

There’s a lot to like about the formerly unheralded prospect. He’s got good size at 6-foot-6, a smooth left-handed release with deep range and was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder by a wide margin last season. Oh yeah, he also led the Pac-12 in steals per game as a sophomore. So why, you ask, isn’t this do-it-all power conference player getting more NBA Draft buzz?

Well, you can nitpick at his relatively low career 44.3% 2-point shooting mark and his unimpressive wingspan, if you wish. But the fact is that Elleby does way more for Washington State than he would be asked to do in the professional ranks. He’s a 3-and-D guy at the next level. At the college level, he’s a volume scorer for a program on the rise. That’s a fact, and it’s why he can be one of the sport’s breakout players in the 2020-21 season as Washington State battles for its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2008. — David Cobb

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