Six sophomores could be primed to make a big impact out west, including Arizona’s Kylan Boswell.
As the 2023-24 season quickly approaches, players who spent last season in limited roles will work to prove they deserve more minutes, more shots and more love from the fans. As coaches figure out their rotations, some of these players will emerge as potential breakout candidates in their respective conferences.
One of the most popular situations that analysts look for when projecting these breakouts is a freshman who finds themselves in line to take a big step forward, by way of departing players or just an additional offseason of development. This “sophomore leap” is not a sure bet, but is one of the more reliable projections, primarily due to the fact that rookie mistakes are a common occurrence and often the easiest to fix.
While many of the conferences out west have become known for being upperclassman-heavy leagues —the Big West’s two all-conference teams featured eight upperclassmen to just two sophomores — there were still plenty of freshmen whose production is bound to see an improvement this season.
For the purposes of this non-exhaustive list, only sophomores who played minutes last season for their current team will be considered. That means guys like UC Santa Barbara’s Yohan Traore and Gonzaga’s Jun Seok Yeo will not be featured, even if their season outlook is positive.
Let’s take a look at one player from each conference in the West with the potential to take the proverbial sophomore leap this season.
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Big Sky: Oakland Fort, guard, Northern Arizona
One would be forgiven for thinking that Oakland Fort had already had his breakout year, what with his buzzer-beater 3 to beat Big Sky regular-season champion Eastern Washington in the conference tournament. During NAU’s surprising Big Sky Tournament run, Fort averaged 11 points on 60 percent from the floor, 61.5 percent from deep, and a perfect 6-for-6 from the free-throw line.
Prior to March, however, Fort’s numbers were not nearly as impressive. Playing behind two-time All-Big Sky guard Jalen Cone, Fort averaged just 4.5 points, 1.7 assists and 1.6 rebounds during the regular season. During this stretch from November to February, he shot 31.4 percent from the floor and 25 percent from deep, along with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.2 — clear signs of a freshman who was acclimating to the Division I game. However, his 80 percent success on free throws and his late-season explosion are emblematic of a player with the talent to take advantage of any opportunity he is given.
And he has been given a massive opportunity.
Jalen Cone is on his way to Berkeley to play for Mark Madsen at Cal, and NAU coach Shane Burcar did not make any transfer portal additions to the backcourt. This shows Burcar’s trust in his young guard, and it puts Fort in a role that could see his minutes jump from 14 per game last season to 25, or even 30, this season. If he can increase his playmaking for others and find scoring efficiency closer to what he showed in the Big Sky Tournament, Fort could be the foundation Northern Arizona needs in the backcourt to move the program forward.
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