This season, dozens of elite talents will showcase their abilities at the NCAA level. Cassius Winston, James Wiseman, and Cole Anthony are some of the first names that come to mind, and rightfully so. However, there are many players at the mid-major level that are among the nation’s best, but are not as well-known. Anthony Lamb, Lamine Diane, and Jalen Pickett are part of this group, and each of them return after dominant seasons in 2019.
Anthony Lamb enters his senior season at Vermont this year looking to build on last year’s dominant campaign. This offseason, Lamb tested the draft waters and worked out with multiple NBA teams. However, he decided to return to school for one final season after feedback from scouts. Last season, the Rochester, NY native won AEC Player of the Year, Conference Tournament MVP, and was named 1st Team All-Conference and All-Defense. Lamb averaged 21.2 PPG and 7.8 RPG in his junior year, reaching career highs in both categories. His name littered the AEC leaderboard, as he led the conference in points, rebounds, usage, block %, and free-throws made. Overall, he was 21st in the nation with a 32.7% usage rate. Lamb’s consistency last season was also impressive. He scored at least 20 points in 17 games, and had 7 double-doubles.
While Lamb is not necessarily an explosive athlete, he is extremely efficient around the basket, and utilizes his 6′-6″, 227 pound frame effectively. Last season, he shot 57.7% from inside the arc. One of his most effective moves is his spin move in the low post. With his back to the basket, Lamb had success posting up his defender and using his pivot foot to spin either direction for a layup. His abilities in the paint led to a team-high amount of fouls drawn. Lamb ranked 37th in the nation last year with 6.5 fouls drawn per 40 minutes, and his league-leading 189 Free-throw attempts were 23 higher than the runner-up. Lamb not only drew multiple fouls per game, but he also converted when at the line. He shot 76.2% from the stripe, ranking 4th in the AEC. As if he wasn’t hard enough to guard already, Lamb expanded his 3-point game in 2019, shooting 37% from downtown. Although it isn’t his strongest asset, he is not afraid to pull the trigger, which forces defenders to attempt to close out, opening the lane for a drive or a cutting teammate. He is a heavy favorite to repeat as AEC POY, which would be a fourth straight for Vermont, as Trae Bell-Haynes won the award in 2017 and 2018. Despite playing in a mid-major conference without much national attention, Lamb is certainly one of the best players in the nation. This year, UVM faces back-to-back games against defending champs UVA and St. Johns, so Lamb will have an opportunity to showcase his skills against top competition in the season’s first month.
Cal State Northridge
Lamine Diane was a force for Cal State Northridge last season, and the redshirt sophomore is ready to fill up the stat sheet once again. In his first full college season, Diane’s usage rate (37.2%) ranked 2nd in the nation. He also was #1 in Division 1 in 2-point FGs attempted (678), and 2-point FGs made (333). The Senegalese product is not yet a household name, but was #6 in the country in scoring with 24.8 PPG. Diane played in 33 games last year, and scored double-digit points in all of them. His season-low was 14 points, and he scored at least 20 in 27 games. The 6’7” forward was also dominant on the glass, averaging 11.2 RPG. He led the Big West in rebounds, and tied for 5th-most in the nation. Diane finished the season with 368 rebounds, 76 more than anyone else in his conference. He also set school records for points, rebounds, and blocks in his freshman season at CSUN. Naturally, Diane was awarded Big West Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year honors. Similar to Anthony Lamb, Diane is the clear frontrunner to win conference POY again this year, and would be the first person to repeat in the Big West since Long Beach State’s Casper Ware in 2011 and 2012.
Although his competition is not elite, a redshirt freshman averaging 20 and 10 should not be ignored. In the 2017-18 season, Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley accomplished this feat, and they were the #1 and #2 picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. Diane will not be a lottery pick if he chooses to leave after this season, but there are a few ways that he can improve his stock. The main knock on the CSUN big man is his shooting, especially from the foul line. Diane averaged 7.6 free throws per game, but shot 52.2% from the line. His shooting motion is not fluid and can appear unnatural. An improved free throw stroke would be a nightmare for Big West opponents, and would go a long way to improve Diane’s ceiling. Continued improvement on the defensive end would be ideal, but that almost seems silly to say considering he led the Big West in blocks and was 2nd in steals last season. Lamine Diane might just be the best player you’ve never seen play, but his sophomore season will undoubtedly be worth following.
Another mid-major Rookie of the Year winner is Jalen Pickett at Siena. In his freshman year, Pickett averaged 15.8 PPG and 6.7 APG for the Saints, and contributed in virtually every area. He had the 9th-highest APG in the nation, and was Top 5 in steals, blocks, and field goals in the Metro Atlantic. The 6’4” guard was a catalyst for Siena’s offense and he had 5 double-doubles with points and assists. Pickett scored 20+ points on eight different occasions, including a 46-point performance in a 3-OT loss vs. Quinnipiac. One of his best qualities is his basketball IQ. He is a tremendous distributor, and draws enough attention with his offensive skills to create opportunities for his teammates. His assist % last season was a whopping 42.6%, ranking 5th in the nation. For context, #2 overall draft pick Ja Morant ranked first in 2019 with 51.8%. As a result, Pickett was the first freshman to make 1st team all-MAAC in over 20 years and is a lock to repeat that honor this coming season.
After his electric season, Pickett examined his chances to play at the next level. However, after receiving feedback after his NBA workouts, he decided to return to Loudonville for his sophomore season. The main knock on Pickett is his shooting. Last season, he shot 43.6% from the field, and 34.8% from three-point range. He had 10 games in which he shot 15+ times, but had 15 or less points in 4 of them. While he is not a poor scorer overall, he will need to improve his shooting abilities in order to make an impact at the NBA level. This year, he is the odds-on favorite to win MAAC POY this year, which would be Siena’s first since the 2010-11 season. Pickett will lead the Saints in 2019-20 as they look to improve on last season’s 17-16 overall record. He will be on triple-double watch all season, after coming so close multiple times last year. Pickett is another mid-major standout and his development this season will be key to the Saint’s success.