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Arizona basketball: Which returner is most likely to break out in 2018-19?

The returners will have a big say in the Wildcats’ success this season

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NCAA Basketball: Northern Arizona at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

After losing their entire starting five and adding a less-heralded recruiting class than usual, the Arizona Wildcats will be leaning heavily on their returning players in 2018-19.

Unfortunately for them, none of their returners were impact players last season. Obviously that will have to change if they are going to have any semblance of success.

So, which returners are most likely to break out? We’ll let you decide in the poll and comment section below, but here is what they have ahead of them.

Dylan Smith

2017-18 stats: 14.6 MPG, 4.3 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 1.1 APG, 36.3 FG%, 33.0 3PT%, 81.0 FT%

Looking ahead: It’s hard to believe someone who averaged 4.3 PPG is Arizona’s leading returning scorer, but here we are.

Smith had a limited role last season, being mostly relegated to spot-up shooting. 72 percent of his shots were 3s and 91 percent of them came via an assist, per Unfortunately, he was streaky and only shot 33 percent from distance.

Maybe Smith can develop into a starter, but it’s easy to imagine him having a similar role as he did last year since Justin Coleman and Brandon Williams are expected to be the primary ball-handlers. So the key for Smith will be to increase his efficiency. If he can shoot upwards of 36 percent from 3, he will be useful.

He also has to show more as a slasher. Only 13 percent of his shots came at the rim last year, and he shot just 44 percent from that range, a low mark. For reference, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, not known for his interior scoring, took 26 percent of his shots at the rim and converted 48 percent of them.

Not only will being a better interior scorer help Smith up his field goal percentage and make him a multi-dimensional scorer, but it will allow him to get to the free-throw line more often, where he excels.

Smith also has to cut down on turnovers. He committed 2.5 per 40 minutes last season, which was the third-most on the team. That’s usually an area players improve as they get accustomed to the speed of high-major basketball.

Defensively, Smith has a lot of work on, but he does have the length needed to be disruptive. Still, The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie called him “probably one of the 10 worst perimeter defenders in the NCAA.”

Alex Barcello

2017-18 stats: 9.6 MPG, 2.4 PPG, 0.9 APG, 39.1 FG%, 30.8 3PT%, 75.0 FT%

Looking ahead: As Arizona’s lowest-ranked 2017 recruit, expectations weren’t high for Barcello heading into his true freshman season. And while he didn’t play well (or very often), he’s viewed as a four-year player — someone who will get better and better each season. So patience is key with him.

The freshman-to-sophomore leap is often regarded as the one where players improve the most, so that’s what Barcello has going for him.

His best attributes are his jumper and tenaciousness. He was the guy diving for multiple loose balls in a blowout win at Washington State, after all.

In non-conference play, Barcello showed his ability to distribute and defend, too. Sean Miller said his defense was a pleasant surprise.

But Barcello struggled in the Bahamas, then suffered an ankle injury in early December and his play never recovered. He only logged 40 minutes in conference play, most of them when a game was already in hand.

Minutes might not be so easy to come by for Barcello as a sophomore either, given the additions of Williams and Coleman at the point.

Perhaps Barcello’s easiest way to crack into the rotation is to complement them by becoming a 3-and-D off-guard, sort of like the role Smith had last season.

If Barcello can shoot and defend acceptably, he will find his way into the rotation. Arizona isn’t exactly brimming with shooters.

Brandon Randolph

2017-18 stats: 11.6 MPG, 3.7 PPG, 0.8 APG, 0.4 STL, 38.3 FG%, 32.6 3PT%, 73.1 FT%

Looking ahead: Randolph is Arizona’s most talented returner, and now that Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins are gone, he should see a significant increase in playing time at the 2 or 3. Most believe he will start on opening night alongside Williams or Coleman. Or both.

Like Smith, Randolph had stretches where he shot the ball well, but he was marred by inconsistency as a freshman. Also like Smith, Randolph was a one-dimensional scorer, relying almost solely on his jumper to score. He only took 15 percent of his shots at the rim, where he converted half the time.

Randolph has the skill and athleticism to be a good driver, but he needs to add strength so he can absorb contact and finish better in traffic. He realizes this and changed his offseason regimen, as he described to Seth Davis of The Athletic:

Randolph has dedicated his off-season to hitting the weight room and inhaling calories. He eats large quantities every two hours and quaffs a protein shake at the end of every meal. “At first it was hard on my stomach, but I’m more used to it now,” Randolph says. “I never lifted weights in high school, just did a bunch of push-ups and pull-ups. So I’m trying to get my body right for the season, because I know this could be a big year for me.”

That extra strength should aid Randolph defensively, too, where his quickness and length could make him an intriguing option on the perimeter since he should be able to guard multiple positions.

Emmanuel Akot

2017-18 stats: 10.4 MPG, 1.8 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 0.8 APG, 38.9 FG%, 37.5 3PT%, 45.5 FT%

Looking ahead: Akot battled knee tendinitis all throughout his freshman season, which he admitted limited his mobility and, thus, his play.

With all the roster turnover, he shouldn’t have much trouble securing playing time since he can slide between the 3 and the 4, which are positions of need.

Add that extra playing time to a clean bill of health and a year of experience, and it makes Akot an obvious breakout candidate.

Arizona, which ranked 83rd in the country on defense last year, badly needs a defensive stopper on the perimeter and Akot has all the physical tools to be one — long arms, a solid frame, and lateral quickness. Miller has compared him to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for that very reason.

Akot needs to be better on the glass. Arizona’s frontcourt is lacking its usual size and depth this season, so the wings and guards will have to help compensate for that. Akot’s rebounding percentage (6.6) was low for someone of his size.

Offensively, Akot didn’t show much as a freshman other than an ability to hit a 3 here and there, so that end of the floor is where he has the most to prove. But if he can defend at a high level, anything he contributes on offense will be a bonus.

Ira Lee

2017-18 stats: 10.2 MPG, 2.4 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.4 BLK, 46.2 FG%, 60.0 FT%

Looking ahead: If defense and rebounding are going to be staples of Arizona basketball again, Lee is a guy it wants on its side.

Among all of UA’s returners, he posted the highest rebounding percentage (13.9) and block percentage (4.7). Like Akot, Lee has the tools to be a dominant defender, but needs polish.

He averaged 7.2 fouls per 40 minutes, meaning he had trouble defending without fouling. That’s an issue if he’s going to play heavy minutes next season. (He’s slated to.)

The other question: how is Lee going to contribute offensively? He was a non-shooter last season, so he might have to be a guy who does most of his damage on the offensive glass, with the occasional bucket in transition or on the low-block.

No matter, his most useful contributions will come on defense. Dusan Ristic and Deandre Ayton were offensively-gifted. Chase Jeter, Lee, and Akot do their best work on defense.

A stylistic change, to be sure. Will it be a welcomed one?


Which returner is most likely to break out?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Dylan Smith
    (26 votes)
  • 3%
    Alex Barcello
    (22 votes)
  • 54%
    Brandon Randolph
    (332 votes)
  • 28%
    Emmanuel Akot
    (175 votes)
  • 9%
    Ira Lee
    (57 votes)
612 votes total Vote Now