College basketball: With the game on the line, who do you want taking the last shot?
College basketball’s most well-known shot-makers from last season are gone. With apologies to some, Kris Jenkins, Dillon Brooks, Melo Trimble and Luke Kennard were responsible for the most memorable late-game heroics over the past few years.
That just means new heroes will need to be born. We determined this list by identifying players who excel in creating their own shot – ideally, guys who can score inside, outside and in between. From there, we looked at big-game experience. Of that pool, who has the best NCAA tournament track record? Who routinely bails their team out of dire situations, in crucial spots?
Here are six guys you want to have the ball with the game hanging in the balance.
KeVaughn Allen, Florida
We talk about “three-dimensional scorers” – the ability to slash, shoot 3s, and hit from mid-range. Allen can do it all, as Wisconsin knows:
He scores in so many ways. In this clip alone, he gets buckets in transition, as a spot-up shooter, as a pull-up shooter, in isolation, as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, and attacking closeouts. And this wasn’t just against any defense. It was against Wisconsin, one of the most tenacious and disciplined teams in the country. Players don’t score 35 points in Sweet 16 games against the Badgers by accident. Wisconsin has made many talented players look ordinary in its sustained run of success.
Allen’s offensive diversity makes him tough cover for even the most well-schooled defenses. Why? Because he’s unpredictable, so even the top coaches struggle to account for him. Late in games, the defensive screws tighten. Teams can’t run their normal stuff. That’s when talent takes over.
Allen has plenty. Florida will be more even more adventurous using him as the primary pick-and-roll ball-handler with Kasey Hill gone. He could have a monster year.
Devonte' Graham, Kansas
Frank Mason was Kansas’ go-to guy in the clutch last year, as Duke knows.
But Graham is the Jayhawks’ unquestioned leader, and best player, this season. He’s going to get those last-second opportunities. Based on what we’ve seen in his career, he should make the most of them.
Graham goes all Kemba Walker on Connecticut in the clip below. With the shot-clock winding down, Graham displays some nifty ball-handling, fires a contested jumper, and hits bottoms. Sure, Kansas was well in control at this point. But it’s the kind of shot five percent of players can make on a regular basis, and it’s one you’ll commonly see at the end of games. Graham makes it look easy:
Graham has had mixed NCAA tournament results. Kansas receives as much March scrutiny as anyone, given its tendency to falter in the tournament despite turning in dominant regular season after dominant regular season. In three tourney wins in 2017, Graham averaged 20 points. In Kansas’ loss to Oregon, he scored three points.
It was the opposite in 2016, though. Graham was up and down in the Jayhawks’ three wins. But in their loss to Villanova, he was one of the few who played well, scoring 17 points on 13 shots. He’s put up monster numbers in key regular season games, too. Graham averaged 24.5 points against Oklahoma the year it had Buddy Hield and reached the Final Four.
Bottom line: he’s a guy you want on your side in tight moments.
Joel Berry, North Carolina
Berry will miss about four weeks with a broken bone in his hand, but he should be at full strength once North Carolina's schedule heats up. He's still poised for a big senior year.
Berry is 11-1 in his last 12 NCAA tournament games and has been the engine of an offensive juggernaut. That alone should qualify him for this list.
He doesn’t have the “signature shot” like Marcus Paige’s clutch leaner in the 2016 national championship game. But Berry routinely comes up big in big moments. In last year’s title game against Gonzaga, he led the Tar Heels in scoring with 22 points. He made four 3s -- excluding Berry, UNC went 0-for-14 from beyond the arc against the Bulldogs. North Carolina wouldn’t have advanced as far as it did without him, of course. But let’s go a step further -- in the biggest game of the year, his team would have gotten destroyed without him. Might sound like an oversimplification, but it’s true.
He was also far less than 100 percent.
“If I could have, I would have taken a picture and showed you guys all the bruising I had on my ankle,” Berry said. “I played games with the bruising on there. I never sugarcoat anything. I fought through it. I was legit hurt.”
It’s been cool to see Berry’s game evolve. As a sophomore, he was mostly a secondary creator and spot-up shooter, making clutch shots like this:
As a junior, he notched career highs in points, 3-point makes and free-throw attempts. The ability to rain from distance while also forcing contact is a recipe for late-game success.
Berry may not have his Paige moment yet. But expect him to will North Carolina to a few wins in the final minutes this year.
Moritz Wagner, Michigan
The only big man on this list, Wagner is a walking mismatch. A disclaimer: for Wagner to be effective at the end of games, he needs a good pick-and-roll partner. He had Derrick Walton a season ago. John Beilein has a few guys who could step into that role this season.
If Wagner has a dangerous ball-handler to work with, he’s the most lethal screener in the country. Louisville’s strategy last year in the NCAA tournament was simple: switch everything. Given the Wolverines’ bevy of 3-point snipers, it appeared to make sense.
But Wagner single-handedly ate that plan alive:
Poor Deng Adel, often stuck on Wagner after these switches (and Adel is good defender! But it shows how tough of a cover Wagner is). Like Allen, his game is diverse. He shoots 3s, can face up against bigger buys, and overpower shrimps.
There might not be a more reliable play in college basketball than a pick-and-roll with Wagner as the screener. Switch, which teams are doing more of these days, and Wagner will toy with a smaller defender. Trap the ball-handler, and Wagner is wide open for a 3, where he shot 39.5 percent. Hedge, which is probably the best option, and Wagner is athletic and intuitive enough to dart to the rim unattended.
Wagner averaged 12.1 points in 23.9 minutes per game last year. Expect him to get more run, in general, along with more usage down the stretch.
Shake Milton, SMU
His first name is an apt description of his game. Milton can wiggle with the best of them – he’s a key ingredient for a defensive-minded SMU squad. Milton has a knack for salvaging possessions for the Mustangs that often appear unsalvageable.
He was a knockdown shooter the moment he arrived on campus. Milton shot better than 42 percent from 3 in each of his first two seasons, a number that would make bona fide stars like Berry and Graham jealous. But as a sophomore, he made serious strides as a playmaker, averaging 4.5 assists. Milton doesn’t play for a blueblood, but he’s a name you need to know.
Milton looks like a running back playing the point guard position. He’s an expert at changing gears, and subtly drawing contact when necessary. On the second play of this clip, Kyle Washington, one of the best defenders in the AAC, is switched onto Milton. He beats him with a smooth hesitation dribble and draws the foul:
Notice: in the third play of that clip, he catches the ball with five seconds in his own backcourt and goes coast-to-coast for the deuce. Like Allen, Milton is a multi-dimensional scorer. He’ll be a joy to watch this year.
Markus Howard, Marquette
Howard doesn’t have the big-game experience many on this list do. But he’s so efficient, and so good, that it might not matter. From a numbers perspective, any Howard shot attempt is a winning proposition.
As a freshman, he shot 55 percent from 3 on a hefty 4.8 attempts per game. That’s obscene. The question: is that sustainable?
“Well, the numbers say [it] is, so it’s hard to argue with the numbers,” Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski told NCAA.com in the preseason. “But I don’t know. With the increased awareness of defenses, the increased number of attempts, a larger role — regression is possible. But he’s an elite shooter. If anyone can sustain that, Markus can.”
If that 3-point percentage drops by like, 10, Howard still belongs here. And there’s more to his game than shooting. He averaged 24 points per 40 minutes and made 89 percent of his free-throws, getting to the line twice a game.
The free-throw attempts number needs to rise. With more playing time, it should. Howard has shown flashes of a dynamic floater game, as you’ll see on the first play of the clip below. Keep developing that, and Howard will transform from “tough to cover” into “impossible to cover.”
Howard had one of the most efficient freshman seasons ever, and he’s far more than a standstill shooter. There aren’t many guys you’d rather have taking a shot at the end of the game.
Joe Boozell has been a college basketball writer for NCAA.com since 2015. His work has also appeared in Bleacher Report, FOXSports.com and NBA.com. Joe’s claim to fame since joining NCAA.com: he’s predicted the correct national championship game twice… and picked the wrong winner both times. Growing up, Joe squared off against both Anthony Davis and Frank Kaminsky in the Chicagoland basketball scene. You can imagine how that went.