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Film Study: Mid-Majors

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

This month on 'P.I. Pulse,’ Pro Insight’s Esayas Gebrekidan highlights over 100 college basketball players to watch after pouring through countless hours of film throughout the 2022-23 NCAA season and over the summer:

Ahead of last season, we analyzed a number of college basketball’s top returners and transfers via Film Study. Since it was a productive exercise and so well-received — we upped the ante this season. Over the next week, we’ll be publishing written analysis and video breakdowns on over 100 college players. Across each Power 6 conference and amidst Mid-Majors, who are the top returners? Transfers? How about those primed for a breakout season? We've got you covered. Stay tuned later this month for plenty of content on freshmen, as well.

With that said, let's get to it — we will wrap up this series with the top returners, transfers and breakout candidates from everywhere else across non-power 6 conferences:

Top Returners

Philip Alston

6’6” Forward | Loyola Chicago | Senior

Alston is a fairly unknown name on this list but after a successful first season at Loyola Chicago after transferring up from D2 California University of Pennsylvania, he warrants the recognition. He is an athletic, high motor, stretch-4 who brings versatility and plays a physical style of basketball. Alston was a bright spot in a season in which the Ramblers won just 10 games, leading the team in points (14.6 PPG), rebounds (5.6 RPG) and blocks (1.1 BPG). For Alston, his development and improvement in certain areas of his game will be key to the success of the team.

Alston was a key contributor to the Ramblers' offense, providing excellent spacing on the floor as he connected on 40% 3FG, making him a trusty threat from long range. In limited pick-and-roll possessions, he was able to showcase his ability as a pick-and-pop or slip option. Averaging 1.8 offensive RPG in 2022-23, he used his athletic ability to crash the glass, where he converted 62.9% FG of his attempts on put-backs. One area that he’ll need to improve on the offensive end — being a threat off the dribble, as he shot just 27.8% from mid-range, last season. Additionally, his ability to finish in the paint is an area still in development, as he converted just 49.6% FG at the rim in 2022-23.

Alston brings versatility to the floor on the defensive end and he plays bigger than his listed height which allows Loyola to play small. On the ball, he struggles at times to contain guards, but showed improvement as the season progressed with his closeouts and lateral movement. In isolation situations, he held opponents to 23.8% FG from the field. He plays with active hands and uses his length to disrupt opponents while forcing them into turnovers. At 6’6”, he can protect the paint, using his athleticism to play vertically and helping over as a gap and weak side defender, holding opponents to 46.2% FG at the rim.

Lamont Butler

6’2” Guard | San Diego State | Senior

As San Diego State looks to build off their incredible 2022-23 campaign, a major component will include their returners, a list headlined by March Madness hero Lamont Butler.

Offensively, Butler plays within the flow of a game. For his career, he has averaged 7.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 2.4 APG, and 1.4 SPG, while shooting 33% from 3. He showed improvement as a facilitator last season, averaging 3.2 APG. He increased his pick-and-roll possessions as well, allowing him to showcase his playmaking ability as he created scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.

Butler is a scrappy, physical and tough defender who can throw off the rhythm of an offense by pressuring ball handlers the length of the floor. He moves well laterally, cutting off the baseline or straight line drives, forcing turnovers with his pressure.

Johnell Davis

6’4” Guard | Florida Atlantic | Junior

The reigning Sixth Man of the Year in Conference USA is poised for a big junior season full of expectations, especially coming off an extraordinary Final Four run with the Florida Atlantic Owls. The polished guard from Gary, Indiana is one of multiple players returning from a talented roster last season.

Expect Davis to take a leap forward in 2023-24 with even more responsibility considering his high level of efficiency at the guard spot, coming off a season in which he shot 48.6% from the field. There is no denying his noticeable athleticism and natural scoring abilities — he can get to his spots with his handle and finish with both hands around the rim, or space the floor with his jumper. Notably, he shot 46% from the field in spot-up scenarios last season, while also grading in the 85th percentile in isolation plays, per Synergy.

His ability to change speeds allows him to create space and to find gaps in the defense, where he has shot variety around the rim, whether it be sweeping hooks, floaters, or layups with either hand. He can also convert opposite foot finishes at the rim, adding value to his creative finishing package. Davis staying with the Owls is a major win to their trajectory this upcoming season.

Eric Gaines

6’2” Guard | UAB | Junior

One of the most athletic guards in the nation, Gaines is back for a highly anticipated junior campaign. He will now have more offensive responsibility due to Jordan Walker graduating, so expectations are heightened for him coming into this season.

With the combination of a superb athletic profile and a budding skillset, Gaines has all the necessary tools to erupt this season. He is as explosive of a finisher as there is in the college game, but efficiency must improve for him to truly reach his ceiling. As a shooter, simplicity and shot selection will be key for Gaines. For example, he ranked in the 78th percentile in catch-and-shoot scenarios last season, but only in the 22nd percentile in dribble jumpers, per Synergy. Gaines also has a blazing first step, allowing him to break down defenders quickly, where he showed playmaking instincts, averaging 4.3 APG, last season.

Defensively, Gaines’ blend of lateral quickness, verticality and anticipation makes him a defensive playmaker. He closes gaps quickly in passing lanes, using his speed and verticality to do so. He averaged 1.8 SPG and 0.6 BPG last season, indicative of his propensity to blow plays up as a defender. Also, despite being a guard, he ranked in the 69th percentile defending shots at the rim, which is unique given his height, which again points to his rare explosiveness and vertical pop.

Dae Dae Grant

6’2 Guard | Duquesne | Senior

Grant has flown under the radar throughout his collegiate career, but the 6'2'' guard has the potential to make a name for himself this season. Grant was an instrumental piece in his team’s 20-win season and CBI Tournament Berth in 2022-23. The Dukes have not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1977, and the hope is that Grant can help lead them there.

A big time shooter, Grant makes a living behind the arc, and is a career 37.3% 3FG shooter who connected on 40.3% from 3 a season ago. Taking over half his field goal attempts from 3, his ability to remain efficient and effective while scoring in a variety of ways makes him a tough player to defend.

DaRon Holmes II

6’10” Forward | Dayton | Junior

Holmes followed up his outstanding freshman season in which he was named A-10 Rookie of the Year by being named First Team All-A10 and to the All-Defensive team as a sophomore.

With his post offense accounting for just under half of his possessions, he does an effective job carving out space in the paint, getting defenders on his hip and making 55.9% of his post attempts. Holmes sets good screens, cuts hard to the rim and plays big/long, allowing his teammates to find him. Despite limited attempts, he was able to convert 31.6% from 3 last season, a significant improvement from his 14% 3FG as a freshman. His continued development and improvement in his ability to space the floor and make an impact from beyond the arc will create even more opportunities for his teammates.

Holmes ranked #26 nationally in blocks in 2022-23 and has averaged an impressive 2.1 BPG throughout his college career. He has displayed good timing and shot blocking instincts, oftentimes helping over to contest attempts near the rim. An improved on-ball defender, he uses his length to his advantage by playing long, with active hands as he defends drives and contests shots.

Dillon Jones

6’6” Forward | Weber State | Junior

The highly productive forward out of Weber State decided to return for his fourth season in Ogden (though listed as a junior) after posting impressive averages of 16.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 3.8 APG and 1.6 SPG in 2022-23. Jones brings versatility on the offensive end as a forward with the ability to pass, drive and move without the basketball. As a passer, he can make live dribble reads as a driver or find teammates from the mid-post. He uses his eyes to deceive the defense, using no look passes to find open shooters or finishers around the rim. He also possesses natural playmaking instincts in pick-and-roll scenarios, where he reads and reacts quickly, delivering passes in a timely manner, especially when throwing one-handed skip passes.

As a scorer, Jones is at his best around the rim, using his frame to maneuver opponents for advantageous opportunities to score. His polished footwork and strength also help, where he uses spins to create finishing angles for himself, either as a driver or low-post scorer. His touch is also exceptional, indicative of him ranking in the 89th percentile (per Synergy) when taking runners. He also has natural instincts moving off the basketball, especially in pass-and-cut scenarios, where he doesn’t give his opponent time to react to him cutting into open space on the floor.

Defensively, Jones is best off the ball, where he is a sound help defender. He’s constantly aware of the ball and his man, where he can rotate to deflect balls in passing lanes or rotate on the backside to wall up around the rim. He isn’t a rim protector, but will try his best to alter shots around the rim.

Aidan Mahaney

6’3” Guard | St. Mary’s | Sophomore

Mahaney began his freshman season coming off the bench, but nine games in, Coach Bennett inserted him into the starting lineup. He didn't play like a freshman a season ago, displaying a smooth transition from high school to college and in the process threw his name into the WCC Player of the Year discussion while aiding St. Mary’s in an NCAA tournament berth.

Mahaney can score in a variety of ways, play off the dribble and has the ability to act as a secondary playmaker. He shot 40% 3FG the vast majority (74%) of those attempts coming off catch-and-shoot — it’s easy to see even on film that Mahaney is consistently ready to shoot off the catch, never bringing the ball below his chest. As the 2022-23 season progressed and he became more comfortable in his evolving role, he began to attack teams off the dribble, utilizing the pick-and-roll to shoot 34.1% 3FG in such situations. He made sharp passing reads out of the pick-and-roll, as well, understanding when the big dropped in coverage the help defense had to help which allowed him to find shooters on drive-and-kicks. The potential to be a three-level scorer is there for him and adding muscle will only improve his ability to finish at the rim.

Mahaney demonstrated improvement on the defensive end throughout last season, too, showing growth and development between his first and last game. He grew to play with more effort and energy and began to embrace the physicality of the collegiate level as he fought over screens or looked to pursue rebounds.

Alijah Martin

6’2” Guard | Florida Atlantic | Junior

Martin is one of three core FAU returners looking to get back to the NCAA Tourney. Since stepping into a bigger role and being named a full-time starter in 2021-2022, he’s been a key to FAU’s success. A big, strong guard, he has good athleticism and can score in different ways.

Martin can beat opponents off the dribble, by attacking closeouts or with his off-ball movement and ability to knock down shots on the move. He converted 37.2% 3FG in 2022-23, but his success was even greater when he utilized hand-offs and came off screens. When receiving hand-offs, he shot 44% and when coming off screens, he shot 39.1%. His ability to shoot and play off the ball allows FAU to space the floor, giving room to the bigs to work in the post and for the guards to drive.

On the defensive end, he is physical, has good lateral movement and plays with good energy while making it tough on his man (he held opponents to 36.6% FG, last year). He is a good team defender, plays the gaps and is active on the defensive boards.

Elijah Pepper

6’4” Guard | UC Davis | Senior

Pepper may not be a name that pops off the screen but as he heads into his fourth year as a starter with the Aggies, he is one to know. He was one of the top scorers in college basketball a season ago, ranking fourth in the country at 22.5 PPG and brings three-level scoring ability. Last season, he shot 32.2% from 3, 44.9% from mid-range and 57.6% at the rim.

On three-point attempts, he has deep range and a quick release, making his shot difficult to contest. Pepper is a 35% 3FG shooter for his college career, making him a threat whenever he touches the ball. In transition, he does a great job providing spacing, running the floor and getting to his spots, as he converted 40% of his treys in transition during the 2022-23 season. Pepper averaged a career-high 3.4 APG last year, as well, using his pace and craftiness off the dribble to get downhill, as he found teammates on drive-and-kicks and dump-offs.

Erik Reynolds

6’2” Guard | Saint Joseph’s | Junior

Reynolds followed up his standout freshman season with a breakout sophomore year, placing him on the NBA radar. In his second year at St. Joe’s, he averaged 19.6p-3.1r-2.5a-1.3s, while shooting 43.0% FG, 37.9% 3FG, and 88.5% FT — all improved numbers from his freshman year.

Reynolds is a capable three-level scorer with deep range who can get it done on or off the ball. When it comes to his range shooting, he is just as effective on the move, showing great pace and an ability to switch gears as he navigates through screens to get open — he connected on 39.6% of such attempts in 2022-23. Reynolds utilizes his shooting ability to attack closeouts, get downhill and collapse the defense, which allows him to find teammates on drive-and-kicks or dump-offs.

Lassina Traore

6’10” Forward | Long Beach State | Junior

Traore stepped in and made an immediate impact at Long Beach State as he led the Big West in RPG and FG%, earning All-Big West First Team and Newcomer of the Year honors in 2022-23. He also posted 17 double-doubles on the year (#9 in the country).

Traore is a strong, physical frontcourt piece who does most of his work in and around the paint. In the post, he is going to make you work to beat him, as he is extremely physical and does a great job at using his 230-pound frame to initiate contact and finish through opponents. He ranked within the top-20 in the country in 2022-23 at 3.4 offensive RPG, and made it possible by consistently boxing out opponents, playing low and using his strong lower body to hold off his man, turning offensive rebounds into easy buckets as he shot 67.7% FG on put-backs. He also sets hard screens and seals off his opponent, riding them up the paint when his teammates drive baseline and also does an effective job screening away to get shooters open.

Defensively, Traore is a rim protector who can occasionally step out and defend away from the paint. He consistently crashes the boards, having ranked #14 in the country in defensive RPG (7.1) in 2022-23.

Top Transfers

Nigel Burris

6’7” Forward | Utah State | Sophomore

The reigning Big Sky Freshman of the Year will head south from Moscow, Idaho to Logan, Utah, this season. At 6'7'' with a big frame and strong physique, Burris is a versatile prospect who has the ability to make an immediate impact vs. Mountain West competition. Possessing requisite physical tools, he has the ability to score at multiple levels and switch defensively, making him a player to monitor moving forward. Embracing his initial role coming off the bench for the Vandals, he impacted both ends of the floor, leading to him ultimately starting 25 of 32 games, while averaging 25 MPG. Burris finished the season with outstanding shooting splits of 52.7/44.8/87.0 and a TS% of 63.8.

Burris flashed multi-level scoring in Moscow, shooting 45% from, 52% from mid-range and 61% in the paint. Per Synergy, he ranked in the 96th percentile on catch-and-shoot attempts from 3, shooting 46.9% 3FG. Burris’ ability to play and move off the ball makes him a threat to score at all times. Cutting made up for 14.7% of his offense in 2022-23, and in these situations he converted a near-lethal 74.1% on attempts at the rim.

Burris defends, but does have the tools to improve and provide even more versatility on this end of the floor. Playing with energy and a high motor as a freshman, he showed he was serviceable while defending on the perimeter, flashing some lateral agility and utilizing his length to disrupt opponents.

Ryan Nembhard

6’0” Guard | Gonzaga | Junior

In his two seasons at Creighton, Nembhard led the Bluejays to back-to-back tournament appearances and top 10-national rankings. The addition of this heady point guard provides Gonzaga with a leader, competitor and a proven winner who is skilled, with a high BBIQ. Nembhard is also an elite playmaker who limits mistakes and possesses scoring potential.

In pick-and-roll situations, he uses and reuses the screen as he looks to get downhill. When he sees space, his ability to change speed, direction and play angles makes him tough to contain as he gets to his spots to create for his teammates or himself. Averaging nearly 5 APG last season, he assisted on 25% of his teammates' field goals, displaying his ability to see the floor as the play develops and get the ball into tight spots. His ability to collapse the defense off the dribble also benefited his relocating teammates for range jumpers or for cutters and divers. Nembhard can score, too, evidenced by his 30-point outing against Baylor in the NCAA Tournament and his 35.6% 3FG in 2022-23.

On the defensive end, Nembhard moves well laterally and plays with a high motor and good energy. He is an active on-ball defender with good hands and the instincts and awareness to swipe at the ball at the right time.

Mike Sharavjamts

6’8” Wing | San Francisco | Sophomore

Sharavjamts’ move to San Francisco and the WCC comes after an inconsistent year in which he had some really intriguing moments for Dayton. At 6’8”, he has the ability to act as a primary ball handler, showing an ability to read and react to defenses while averaging 2.6 APG.

He looks comfortable navigating ball screens as he looks to get downhill and to the rim but also really excels shooting off screens, where he connected on 35.6% 3FG in 2022-23. With his positional size and smarts, he can defend multiple positions and does it effectively by playing with hustle and effort. As the primary defender at Dayton, he held opponents to just 31.8% FG and 24.3% 3FG.

Primed to Breakout

Reed Bailey

6’10” Forward | Davidson | Sophomore

Bailey is ready to carve out a bigger role for himself heading into his second year in the A-10. With the Wildcats losing a bulk of their offense to graduation, he will have the opportunity to step in and fill the void. As a freshman, Bailey averaged 5.5 PPG, 2.8 RPG on 49.6% FG and 34.5% 3FG — numbers that we expect to significantly increase in 2023-24.

A season ago, he excelled as a floor-spacer, as a cutter (80.8% FG on cuts), and by crashing the offensive boards (66.7% FG on put-backs). This season, he should see more opportunity working out of the post and as a pick-and-pop or slip option. On the defensive end, Bailey offers some versatility, with the ability to defend multiple positions, using his length on closeouts to take away the shot while also defending the drive.

Chisom Okpara

6’8” Forward | Harvard | Sophomore

With size, length, mobility, and versatility, Okpara is a player to track this season. He played a semi-limited role last season, coming off the bench in all but two games for the Crimson Tide. He has a strong chance to expand on his role and usage this season as he looks to become a every-night starter, which should inevitably increase his production.

Okpara showed some flashes of what he may provide as a full-time starter by putting up a 24-point, 8-rebound, 1-assist, and 1-steal outing against Siena early in the 2022-23 season. He does a great job playing off the ball as a cutter and attacking the boards. He brings length, toughness, physicality, and versatility to the defensive end and is someone Coach Amaker can assign to guard multiple positions.

Caden Pierce

6’7” Forward | Princeton | Sophomore

The 2022-23 Ivy League Rookie of the Year was a crucial component in Princeton’s run to the Sweet 16. Not only was Pierce named the Ivy League’s best freshman, but he also broke the record for most rebounds in Princeton history for a first-year.

Pierce brings energy and toughness on both ends of the floor. Offensively, he’s a fierce competitor on the offensive glass, where he averaged 2.1 offensive RPG in 2022-23. He has a knack for tracking the ball off the rim and elevating in traffic to snatch balls from opponents. He also doesn’t need the ball to be effective, using curls to the rim for easy finishes or spotting up from range off dribble penetration, where he is a respectable shooter (32.5% from deep as a freshman). Despite lacking elite burst off the dribble, he can straight line-drive effectively, where he uses his frame to create driving angles to finish with either hand around the rim.

Defensively, Pierce is disciplined, as he keeps the ball in front and stays vertical challenging shots around the basket. He is at his best guarding forwards and smaller centers, where he can hold his own physically and use his upper body strength to counteract contact at the basket.

Jevon Porter

6’11” Forward | Pepperdine | Sophomore

For Porter, everything seemed to be coming together as the calendar flipped from 2022 to 2023. In his final eight games of the season, he averaged 16.3 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.6 APG, and 1.0 SPG while shooting over 50% FG and approaching 40% from 3. Throughout that month, there were plenty of stretches where he was the best player on the floor.

At 6’11”, Porter has great size and is quite versatile in his ability to space the floor with his shooting, operate in the mid-range and finish inside. Connecting on 35.1% of his 3FG on the year in 2022-23, he notably hit a whopping 45.5% of his catch-and-shoot attempts in pick-and-pop 3 situations. Porter’s rebounding impact extends to both ends of the floor, but he is an excellent offensive rebounder (2.2 offensive RPG) and is coming off a season where he converted 78.1% of his put-back attempts. He plays through and embraces contact, evidenced by his 71.4% FG at the rim in 2022-23.

Porter has the ability to defend multiple positions making him one of the more intriguing forwards/bigs in the country. When tasked with defending smaller match-ups, he can slide laterally, stay in front and use his length to contest shots. In the post, he walls up and plays vertically, making it tough for opponents to finish over him.


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