Nevada basketball has been a factory for stars since moving to the Mountain West in 2012.
In its first eight seasons in the conference, the Wolf Pack has produced 12 players who have made the All-MW first, second or third team. Those 12 players have accumulated 18 appearances on the all-conference team, including two last year. Both of those players – Jalen Harris and Jazz Johnson – are off to professional careers, leading to this question: Who will be the next star of the Wolf Pack?
I asked this question prior to last season and fingered Harris as a lock to make the All-MW team, barring injury, which in hindsight looks like an easy prediction, but let's not forget he didn't make the preseason all-conference team, so his incredible play was a surprise to some in the conference. Given its history, it'd be a surprise if Nevada didn't have at least one All-MW player next season. The Wolf Pack has had at least one all-conference player in all eight of its seasons in the MW. In fact, Nevada has had at least one all-conference player since the 2002-03 season, a string of 18 straight seasons.
With Harris turning pro after his junior season, here's a look at Nevada's top candidates to become the team's next star and next All-MW representative.
It would have been a lot of fun watching Harris and Cambridge play together given their length and athleticism for backcourt players. Nevada has gone down the path of landing an Ivy League transfer before, doing so with Leland King, who didn't get much run with the Wolf Pack before being an All-Big West player at UC Santa Barbara. King's relative lack of athleticism was evident in the MW, but the 6-foot-4, 180-pound Cambridge will not have that problem. He's an excellent athlete with great competitiveness. He's also a wired scorer who was the Ivy League rookie of the year at Brown, where he played for two seasons. Cambridge averaged 16.5 points per game for the Bears and posted 12 games of 25-plus points. That included a 25-point, four-rebound, two-assist, two-steal effort in a blowout win at San Diego State during his sophomore season. He made 9-of-15 shots that night. The big question mark on Cambridge is his efficiency. He only made 38.6 percent of his shots at Brown, and that was in the Ivy League. He wasn't efficient from two (45.3 percent) or three (32.6 percent).
Upon transferring, Cambridge trimmed his list of potential destinations to Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech and Stanford before reopening his options and picking Nevada, so he's a Power 5-level player. ESPN ranked Cambridge as the 27th-best sit-out transfer who will be eligible this season. Of Nevada's 12 all-conference players in its MW era, eight were transfers. Thanks to a sit-out season, Cambridge should have a strong grasp on Nevada's system and should have made improvements in development, namely to his efficiency and ball handling. He's the odds-on favorite to lead Nevada in scoring next season, and if I had to better whether he would or wouldn't be an All-MW player next year, I'd put my money on him earning those honors.
I've said since he committed to Nevada, I believe Meeks will be an all-conference player at some point. Could that happen during his sophomore season? We'll see. But he'll have the ability to put up some big numbers with the Wolf Pack losing its top four scorers and top five players in minutes logged from last season. There's a scoring void on the roster, and Meeks will be asked to fill it. He showed as a freshman he's ultra-confident. The 6-10 Meeks is Nevada's top returning scorer after tallying 6.4 points and 3.7 rebounds per game last season. Most of his scoring came from the 3-point line: 120 of his 197 points to be exact, although he did shoot 54.8 percent from two. Meeks' biggest area for growth comes on defense.
"Personally, I have to be able to guard really well on the perimeter," he said earlier this offseason on NSN Daily. "That's one thing I've always struggled with, the kind of lateral movement I've been working on back home. And secondly, I have to develop inside. I can sit out there and catch-and-shoot threes with the best of them. A lot of times toward the end of the year they were switching on me, putting little guys on me and I have to take the ball, take two dribbles and get a basket every single time."
I could see Meeks developing into a bigger (and right-handed) version of Boise State's Justinian Jessup, whose 325 career made threes is a MW record. Jessup made the All-MW team during his junior and senior seasons.
If Eric Musselman were still Nevada's head coach, it's safe to say Hymes would not be on the Wolf Pack's roster, but the 6-11 big man got a second chance to make an impact at Nevada under Steve Alford, whose system is more center friendly, and Hymes was solid as a freshman. His biggest issue was staying on the court as Hymes averaged 9.4 fouls per 40 minutes, which is insanely high. Hymes led Nevada in points per possession efficiency. The Wolf Pack was 8.6 points better than its opponent over 40 minutes with Hymes on the court. So he made an impact, especially on defense. The question is how long he can stay on the court without picking up fouls. Hymes' career high in minutes played is 21, and he'd have to average at least 25 minutes a night to become an All-MW player. With the Wolf Pack deeper in the frontcourt this season, I don't see Hymes getting the kind of minutes required to be all-conference as a sophomore, but he should take a step forward from the 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds per game he offered last season, which came on 53.2 percent shooting.
I'll be honest in saying I have no idea what to expect from Washington next season. He'll be Nevada's first 7-footer since JaVale McGee and David Ellis in 2007-08, and the game has changed a lot since then. Namely, everybody shoots threes and nobody tosses the ball into the post. Washington's one season at Oregon State doesn't tell us a whole lot since he only played 7.8 minutes per game and averaged 1.3 points and 1.4 rebounds a night, shooting 53.6 percent from the field. Washington was a three-star prospect coming out of high school with a handful of high-major offers, so he was highly regarded and will be one of the MW's biggest players. Like Hymes, I don't see Washington getting enough minutes to be an all-conference player this season, but the potential is there in the future. If anything, Washington is probably best labeled as the team's "X factor" in 2020-21.
Truly, those are the only four Nevada players I see with at least a chance of being an All-MW player in 2020-21. The Wolf Pack' only other returning scholarship players are Kane Milling, who could earn a starting job next season, and Robby Robinson, who is a strong defensive player but averaged just 2.7 points in 19.1 minutes per game last season. His offensive usage rate of 9.6 percent ranked 2,214th out of 2,226 qualified Division I players. There's a lot more offensive game there based on his junior-college numbers (he scored 15.3 points per game as a freshman at San Diego City College), but can he jump to the 13 to 15 points per game required to get all-conference recognition?
As far as Nevada's five incoming freshmen are concerned, the Wolf Pack last had a freshman make All-MW in 2015-16 when Cameron Oliver did so. But he was a next-level talent who got 29.4 minutes per game. I don't see any of Nevada's freshmen next year getting that much run. Je’Lani Clark, Tre Coleman, DeAndre Henry and Alem Huseinovic each have all-conference ceilings, but that's down the road. Since 2010, the MW has only had seven freshmen make the all-conference team (in 10 seasons), so it's rare.
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.