Last month the spotlight was on the college game's brightest stars, as the NBA draft cemented the elite status of outliers like Kyrie Irving, Derrick Williams, and Tristan Thompson. So this week I want to throw a little attention on a forgotten group of players, the ones who are not only coming back but are also much better than conventional wisdom says.
Here are the country's five most underrated returning players:
Festus Ezeli, Vanderbilt
Sometimes players suffer from category trouble, the kind that prevents fans from forming a true appreciation of that player's performance. Take Ezeli. His height (6-11), his slightly exotic-sounding name, and his past all unite to form one profile: shot-blocker. Well, Ezeli is a shot-blocker, a very good one, but if you think that's all Kevin Stallings has here you weren't paying very close attention last year. In his junior season Ezeli took the kind of great leap forward that puts the "im" in "improbable." As the kenpom numbers attest, Ezeli's role in the Vandy offense became much more prominent in 2010-11, yet somehow his overall efficiency went through the roof. Now the Commodores have a beast in the paint, one who makes 59 percent of his two-pointers, rebounds 14 percent of his own team's misses, and draws an incredible seven fouls per 40 minutes. (Granted, the foul-drawing beast is rather foul-prone in his own right.) On a team where John Jenkins is averaging nearly 20 a game and Jeffery Taylor is working out in the offseason with Kevin Durant, it can be hard to stand out. But make no mistake: Ezeli has the ability to make both Vanderbilt's offense and its defense markedly better. If he can stay in the game for more than his current average of 24 minutes, he'll leave his underrated days far behind.
Michael Glover, Iona
Three years is a very, very long time in college basketball, so you might not remember Michael Glover's moment of major-conference headline-making. In 2008 Glover sued the Big East and the NCAA, after he'd been ruled academically ineligible to play for Bobby Gonzalez at Seton Hall. Alas, as you've probably noticed, both the Big East and the NCAA are still doing business at the same old stands, so Glover had to move his game up I-95 a few exits, to New Rochelle, New York, and the campus of Iona. Of course given what subsequently transpired at the Hall, one could well ask whether Glover isn't better off as a Gael. Certainly Tim Cluess is happy to have him. At 6-7 Glover cleans the glass at both ends of the floor, draws fouls, and drains 61 percent of his two-point attempts. Most importantly he stays in the game, averaging just as many minutes as standout point guard Scott Machado. As one opposing coach put it succinctly, Glover "belongs in the Big East, he doesn't belong in the MAAC." (Oh, and while we're on the subject of undersized yet egregiously underrated interior players in the state of New York, two words: Javon McCrea.)
Reggie Hamilton, Oakland
If the name sounds vaguely familiar it should. The 5-11 Hamilton stole a bit of teammate Keith Benson's thunder in the NCAA tournament's round of 64 this year, scoring 25 points against what at one time was reputed to be a very scary Texas defense. (Incredibly Hamilton's stat line that afternoon was powered by 8-of-10 shooting inside the arc.) It took some late-game heroics from the aforementioned Tristan Thompson to get Rick Barnes' team past the scrappy opponent from the Summit League by the score of 85-81. Hamilton chose his occasion well: his performance that day impressed a flock of NBA scouts who'd come to see Benson and multiple Longhorns. Then again his heroics in the tournament weren't anything new. All season long Hamilton functioned as a dual-threat wing in the body of a scoring point guard. Put it this way: when you're 5-11 and you make 62 percent of your two-pointers, you're doing something right. If Hamilton doesn't at least get a look for the 2012 Frances Pomeroy Naismith award, I'm going to demand an investigation.
Arsalan Kazemi, Rice
With all due respect to Rice and the relative visibility of their hoops program, if you're a really good player and you're an Owl, the chances that you're underrated are close to 100 percent. Arsalan Kazemi is a really good player. Start with one startling number: eight. The 6-7 Kazemi drew eight fouls per 40 minutes last year, a Blake Griffin-like number. Add to that the fact that he shoots a respectable 72 percent at the line and averages 30 minutes a game and you're looking at a force of nature on offense, albeit a rather quiet one that often scores his points one at a time. On the defensive glass Kazemi's performance is so ostentatiously good (hauling down 31 percent of opponents' misses during his minutes) that one suspects head coach Ben Braun has simply designated his Iranian standout as Rice's sole and exclusive defensive rebounder. The fact that Kazemi's almost as good on the offensive glass, however, indicates that the numbers here are no accident. Conference USA must have been way better than I thought last year, because Kazemi couldn't even make first-team all-C-USA. Be that as it may I will forego any low-hanging "Houston, we have a problem" references, and instead make a simple suggestion to the C-USA's voters and the nation's hoops fans alike. Give Kazemi a look.
Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut
OK, this one's a stretch. I realize you've heard of Lamb. More than that, the 6-5 sophomore will be prominently featured this season as Connecticut seeks to defend their national title. Hey, I'm not saying Lamb is obscure or underexposed, just that he's been underrated. And while he may be off to a slow start at the U-19 World Championships, what we've seen from Lamb when he plays inside the U.S. has been far more impressive. Between the tip-off of the Huskies' opening-round game against DePaul in the Big East tournament and the final horn in UConn's remorseless dismantling of Butler in the national championship game, Lamb made 56 percent of his attempts inside the arc and 52 percent of his threes. Basically he riddled postseason opponents with made shots from everywhere on the floor -- he was arguably the NCAA tournament's most effective offensive performer. Granted, all of the above was accomplished against defenses that were busy accounting for Kemba Walker, but Lamb gives every indication of being able to carry more of the load on offense. He's listed at 6-5 but, thanks to a reported 7-4 wingspan, he looks more like 6-7 if not 6-8 when he plays. Jim Calhoun says that "In the future, you're going to see Jeremy Lamb be one of the best players in college basketball." Calhoun may well be right, and that future could be closer than he thinks.
Let's keep this list in mind during the upcoming season. The nature of being singled out as underrated means, uh, you're no longer as underrated as you used to be. (How ironic!) Accordingly, I'll do my best to keep this top-5 updated. Meantime, who'd I miss? I'm all ears.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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