Dribble handoff: Predicting college basketball’s breakout stars for the 2021-22 season

Just a year ago, few outside the Ohio State fan base would have pegged E.J. Liddell as a potential national breakout player for the 2020-21 season. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged just 6.7 points while playing off the bench as a freshman, and it seemed he was nowhere near the stratosphere of the Big Ten’s elite bigs such as Luka Garza, Kofi Cockburn and Trayce Jackson-Davis.

But Liddell burst onto the national scene as a sophomore, filling the void of departed brothers Kaleb and Andre Wesson in the front court and becoming the focal point of an Ohio State team that secured a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now, after averaging 16.2 points and improving as last season progressed, Liddell is considered one of the top players in the country as he prepares for his junior season.

So, who is poised to make a similar leap this year? Few will make a jump as substantial as the Liddell’s, but for this week’s edition of the dribble handoff, our writers are picking who they think are the top breakout candidates for the season ahead.

Matthew Mayer, Baylor

When you’re on a high-level team with eventual NBA players like Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague, there’s a limited number of additional points available to be scored. Matthew Mayer was never going to be a consistent bucket-getter for Baylor last season.

But he certainly had his moments — especially in March.

Though Mayer only averaged 8.1 points and 3.7 rebounds as a junior, he shined multiple times toward the end of the season. The 6-foot-9 wing got 18 points and five rebounds in a win over Oklahoma State, 19 points and seven rebounds in a win over West Virginia, and 17 points and six rebounds in a win over Wisconsin. He did all of that while developing into a legitimate NBA prospect, in part because he shot 39.5% from beyond the arc en route to helping Scott Drew’s Bears win the 2021 NCAA Tournament. With four starters from that team now gone — four starters who combined to average 39.9 shots per game — Mayer is expected to have a much bigger role as a senior. And that’s among the reasons it’s not hard to envision him having a breakout year that culminates with him being selected in the 2022 NBA Draft. — Gary Parrish

Zach Edey, Purdue

“Breakout player” is always an interesting one, because the definition of it is a bit hard to nail down, unless you’re establishing hard criteria like a) someone who didn’t start the year prior, or b) averaged less than 15 minutes and/or 8.0 points per game. Things like that. For our purposes here, I’m picking a bench guy from a season ago who nonetheless was an important role player on a good team. Edey fits that description. He averaged 8.7 points and 4.4 rebounds in 14.7 minutes for Purdue, but the 7-foot-4 (yes, you read that correctly) center should make a big leap to being one of the 30-40 best players in college basketball in what’s going to be a huge year for Matt Painter’s program.

Edey will flourish because he’ll be playing alongside Jaden Ivey (a point guard with NBA potential) and returning big man Trevion Williams. But here’s the secret: Edey has a chance to become Purdue’s MVP by the time we get to March. If he truly breaks out, as I expect him to, then Purdue will be in the conversation for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. I’ll say he finishes this season averaging 14.2 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks.  — Matt Norlander

Davonte Davis, Arkansas

I prioritized both talent and opportunity equally when scouring the sport for a potential breakout. Arkansas guard Davonte Davis, turns out, has both. The Razorbacks lost three of their top four scorers from last season’s Elite Eight team — including the top two in the category in Moses Moody and Justin Smith — so the chance to step up into a starring role is there. And he appears primed for a leap. After averaging 7.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game in the regular season, he had a mini-breakout in the Big Dance, averaging 14.25 points and 6.5 rebounds per game while serving as a defensive menace for the Razorbacks. Eric Musselman has a knack for featuring guards in Arkansas’ run-and-fun system, and Devo Davis is a rising star set to take the SEC by storm. — Kyle Boone

Keegan Murray, Iowa

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the circumstances of Iowa’s roster necessitate that Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery reinvent Keegan Murray as a lineup centerpiece. With Naismith Player of the Year winner Luka Garza and sidekick Joe Wieskamp departed, this team is going to need offensive production from somewhere. Sixth-year senior guard Jordan Bohannon can only provide so much of it, and that means Murray is poised for a breakout season in the front court. 

The 6-foot-8 forward outplayed his modest three-star recruiting ranking as a freshman off the bench last season by averaging 7.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in just 18 minutes per game. If you extrapolate that production to 30 minutes per game, it would make Murray an all-conference type of performer. He won’t come close to posting Garza-type numbers, but Murray is a better defender than Garza and should thrive as a sophomore while evolving into a focal point of the offense for the first time. — David Cobb


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