The Arizona Wildcats have to replace their entire starting lineup, 85 percent of their scoring, 80 percent of their rebounding, and 80 percent of their assists next season as they trot out another revamped roster.
But who will emerge as the team’s best player? Our staff discusses.
Brian J. Pedersen — Jordan Brown
Adding transfers is a necessary evil in college basketball nowadays, a way to quickly plug holes in the dike that may or may not serve as a permanent solution. That’s certainly the case with grad transfers, one-year rentals who have to make an instant impact for their addition to be worthwhile.
But when a program opts to add a transfer who has to sit out a season, as most do, that’s much more of a long-term investment and thus higher dividends are expected. And Arizona is expecting a lot from Brown, the former 5-star McDonald’s All-American who had the Wildcats among his finalists in 2018 before picking Nevada (and hardly playing).
At 6-foot-11 and 210 pounds, Brown has the size needed to be the go-to guy in the frontcourt. And as much as Arizona tries to be guard-oriented, its best teams under Sean Miller have been ones with dominant post players. Zeke Nnaji wasn’t expected to continue that trend, not with Nico Mannion and Josh Green arriving with so much hype, but who ended up winning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year?
Adam Green — James Akinjo
In some ways trying to predict who will be Arizona’s “best” player is an impossible task. After all, “best” could mean many different things. Are we looking for the leading scorer? How about the top rebounder? Or maybe we want someone whose defense will make life easier on that end of the floor?
That’s kind of what makes this a fun question, actually, because you’re likely to get a bunch of different answers, all of which will be correct. So for me, I’m going to say the transfer Akinjo.
Why, you may ask? Unlike most of the other players who are expected to be relied on, Akinjo has experience at this level of basketball. He was the Big East Freshman of the Year after averaging more than 13 points and 5 assists per game for Georgetown, and while his sophomore numbers weren’t as good (or efficient, really) he was still someone opponents had to worry about (see his 19-point, 6-assist performance against Duke).
The point guard has a reputation for being more of a shoot-first kind of player, which is not ideal for someone who has so far shot in the low to mid 30-percent range. There are whispers about how he may fit in Arizona, but you have to figure Sean Miller did his homework before bringing Akinjo into the fold. But for all his faults Akinjo is plenty talented, and he figures to add some toughness to a team that could use it and at a position where it is vitally important.
Add in that Akinjo was with the program for the second half of last season, learning the system while getting coached by Sean Miller and practicing against Nico Mannion, and you have the makings of someone who will be ready to make a large impact the moment he’s allowed to step onto the court.
Ryan Kelapire — Terrell Brown
I’m sort of playing devil’s advocate here since I tend to believe Jordan Brown and James Akinjo are the obvious choices, but let’s not forget about Terrell Brown. He averaged over 20 points per game with Seattle, and while it’s doubtful he will replicate that at Arizona—he will have to share the ball a little more and the competition will be stiffer—his efficiency should improve since he won’t be required to create as many shots.
Brown has never been a great 3-point shooter but he is a terrific slasher and gets to the free-throw line at a high rate (and makes them). So it wouldn’t be surprising at all if he winds up leading Arizona in scoring.
And this is where it’s important to remind you that he is not just a scorer. Brown averaged 6.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game last season—superb numbers for a high-scoring, 6-foot-1 guard.
Ezra Amacher — Jemarl Baker Jr.
Jordan Brown and James Akinjo are both optimal choices here, but I’m siding with Jemarl Baker, who has the advantage of playing in all 32 of Arizona’s games last season. In a normal year that might not mean as much, but with summer and fall practices likely to be affected by COVID-19, it cuts into the amount of time for guys like Brown or Akinjo to reorient themselves after a year off. Baker struggled in the latter half of the 2019-20 season, in part due to an injured knee that put him at about 80 percent, according to Miller. Assuming he’s fully healthy by the fall, Baker could be Arizona’s most productive scorer for much of the season.
Baker’s strength is his stop-and-shoot ability, but he’s also developed better ball-handling skills since joining the program. Miller has called Baker a guy who can play any of three-guard positions. His backcourt versatility ensures that he’ll see plenty of playing time even if his shot isn’t falling. Baker needs to improve on the defensive side, where he was often over-matched athletically. A healthy knee may improve his quickness on that end. All told, Baker’s experience and utility gives him pole position to be Arizona’s top player next year.