Dribble Handoff: Four returning players who could be college basketball’s breakout stars in 2022-23


Making the leap from college basketball rotation player to college basketball superstar is a rarity in a sport that is known for one-and-dones and features a lot of roster turnover due to professional opportunities, transfers and injuries. But in recent years, it’s a path that has been blazed somewhat routinely, with the likes of Keegan Murray, EJ Liddell, Zach Edey and Johnny Davis all crossing the bridge from bit pieces to household names.

And that’s just in the Big Ten in the last two years.

Predicting who will be the next breakout star (or stars) to follow their lead is an inexact science, but predicting there will be some in 2022-23 is a safe bet given recent history within the sport. So with a litany of talented players primed to potentially take on more responsibilities this season, who will be the sport’s next breakout star?

Our panel of experts predict four players in the latest Dribble Handoff series who could be on a trajectory to join those aforementioned players who recently made star turns. The criteria we use below is players who averaged fewer than 10 points per game last season who could be in line to be among the best players in their respective conference — or possibly the country.

Among the most important things to look at when trying to identify a returning player on the verge of making a statistical jump is his surrounding pieces. Did any big-time (or simply better) scorers from last season’s team move on? If so, were they replaced by players obviously equipped to fill their roles?

That’s the exercise that led me to Kriisa.

The junior guard lost four Arizona teammates who combined to average 45.1 points per game last season — among them double-digit scorers Bennedict Mathurin (17.7) and Christian Koloko (12.6). And though second-year coach Tommy Lloyd did replace them with enough talented pieces to keep the Wildcats in the top 15 of the CBS Sports Preseason Top 25 And 1, I don’t think any of the additions will be more of a scoring threat than Kriisa should be as a third-year player. Last season, he averaged 9.7 points on 8.7 shots per game. That’s obviously inefficient and in need of improvement. But if the shooting percentages go up when the shot attempts definitely rise, it’s not hard to envision Kriisa going from 9.7 points per game to something close to 15 for a team projected to compete for a second straight Pac-12 title. — Gary Parrish

I’m glad we’re stretching the definition of “breakout player” here, because I’ve personally held the thresholds be fewer than 8.0 points and 20.0 minutes per game in order to qualify. If that was the case here, Zeigler would have been slightly too prominent a season ago, when he averaged 8.8 points in 22.1 minutes for the Volunteers. He also averaged 2.7 assists and shot a respectable 35.2% from 3-point land. From the foul line, among the best in the SEC: 84.3%.

Zeigler was the secondary point guard option in 2021-22, due to one-and-done Kennedy Chandler. But if you watched the Vols play frequently, you saw the 5-foot-9 Zeigler as a bona fide power-conference point guard option. Zeigler’s steal percentage (4.5%) was 11th-best in the country. There’s a chance I could be one year too early with this prediction — at least in terms of whether or not Zeigler will be an All-SEC First Team honoree in 2022-23 — but I’ll buy in heavily now.

Coach Rick Barnes brings back Santiago Vescovi and Josiah Jordan-James from a UT squad that finished No. 9 at KenPom.com and had the third-ranked defense. At 6-3, Vescovi is also a willing and capable distributor, but Zeigler will have the ball in his hands most. If Tennessee is a top-three team in the SEC again, it could have the best point guard in the conference. — Matt Norlander

Creighton is one of my way-too-early Final Four picks for 2022-23 and Alexander, coming off a strong freshman season, is a big reason for that. No, his 7.4 points and 3.7 rebounds per game stats don’t necessarily pop off the page, but he took his game to a new level down the stretch run of the season and with the Bluejays banged up, he looked like he has true star potential.

In seven of Alexander’s final 10 games, he eclipsed double figures in scoring — and the three he did not he scored above his season average (eight or nine points). That included 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the Big East tourney vs. Providence, 18 points in the first round of the NCAA Tournament vs. San Diego State and 14 points and nine assists vs. eventual national champion Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He should be able to pick up where he left off in 2022-23 as one of the brightest young stars in the game.

“He finds ways to make plays,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said of Alexander during March Madness. “He’s a pretty incredible young man. He gets it. He understands the game. You can tell he’s a coach’s son. Very high basketball IQ. He’s mature beyond his years.” — Kyle Boone

After playing sparingly as a true freshman, Murray took a significant leap in the 2021-22 season and became Iowa’s top option off the bench. Now, as the Hawkeyes bid farewell to his older brother, Keegan Murray, it’s time for Kris to shine. Kris likely won’t match Keegan’s 23.5 points per game from the 2021-22 season or be the No. 4 overall pick like his brother, but he could be close on both fronts. As a 6-8 forward with excellent positional versatility, there’s little that Kris can’t do on the floor. Offensively, he hit 38.7% of his 3-point attempts last season. Defensively, he averaged nearly a block per game despite playing just 17.9 minutes per contest.

If he can develop a bit more playmaking acumen in half-court sets and get comfortable attacking the basket with both his right hand and his natural left, then he’ll be in the mix for Big Ten Player of the Year. Iowa is playing a significantly tougher non-conference schedule in the 2022-23 season than it did in 2021-22, so Kris’ numbers and percentages may not be marvelous compared to his brother’s from last season. But he’s poised for a similar type of breakout on the national stage. — David Cobb

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