Top 15 NEC Players for 2021-22
It's the pre-season, and you know what that means; more rankings!
Rather than just unveil an All-NEC team, I wanted to go through who I believe are the top 15 players in the league.
A caveat; these rankings are essentially who I would want on my team, if I were drafting a squad. Let's face it; we all like different types of players for different reasons. Me? I like point guards, shooters (and point guards who can shoot!), high usage offensive players, and bigs who provide versatility.
I leaned heavily on the data, but not completely; I've watched a lot of games over the last few years, and some guys I ranked more with my heart than my head.
#15. Jordan Minor, Merrimack, Jr., 6'8", 240 lbs.
The Good: Despite being a true back-to-the-basket big, Jordan Minor led Merrimack in both usage (28.4%, 2nd highest in the NEC) and field goal attempts (173), which shows just how much Joe Gallo leaned on Minor in 20-21. Minor is adept at finishing in the paint with either hand, and he's also a very good passer; his 13.7% assist rate was 3rd amongst players who would be considered 5-men (SFC's Vuk Stevanic and SFU's Mark Flagg were at 15.4% and 14.9%, respectively). Add in the fact that Minor is able to anchor that Merrimack zone thanks to his career 5.8% block rate, and you have one of the premier bigs in the NEC.
But...: It's tough for high usage players to be efficient, and Minor was no exception in 20-21; he shot "just" 50% at the rim (not ideal for a man of his stature), and has yet to make the jump shot part of his game; he's made just 4 of 13 3-pointers in his collegiate career, and he's a 57% free throw shooter.
My Take: The NEC is a league full of talented bigs, so the fact that Minor finds himself on my list shows how much I believe in his talent; guys this big and athletic are tough to find, especially when they have the ability to pass out of the post, block shots, and play nearly 30 minutes per game. Sure, he fouls more than you'd like and he could be more efficient offensively, but he offers more than your typical '5' at this level.
#14. Nana Opoku, Mount St. Mary's, Sr., 6'9", 215 lbs.
The Good: Opoku grabbed a lot of hardware last March; he was named the NEC Defensive Player of the year, as well as NEC Tournament MVP after putting up 18 points, 7 boards, and 5 blocks in the NEC title game. Overall, Opoku put up a 6.4% block rate, using his length and quickness to become a staple on the wing of Dan Engelstad's defense. Because of that length, Opoku finished 8th in the league in offensive rebounding rate (8.7%).
But...: The Mount big has struggled to shoot it in his career, putting up a 48/25.5/60 (51.1% eFG%) shooting line. After making 31.6% of his threes as a sophomore, he shot just 7 for 34 from deep in 20-21, and has seen his performance on the charity stripe go from 73.6% as a freshman to 46.2% as a junior. His 99.9 O-Rating on 18.6% usage is weighed down by a 16.2% turnover rate (though that's improved over his 3 years).
My Take: Opoku is a dynamite defender, and it's not just because of the blocked shots; he's quick enough to keep smaller ball-handlers in front of him, and he affects the game both on and off the ball. What limits his upside is an offensive game that doesn't provide much versatility; he's not shown an ability to consistently stretch the defense, and while he's good at the rim (62.2% in 20-21), his struggles at the free throw line limit his effectiveness in the paint. If he could even become an average 3P shooter who could make 1 per game, and get that FT% back up near 70%, he'd have a shot as a 1st teamer in 21-22.
#13. Hall Elisias, Bryant, 5th-Sr., 6'8", 230 lbs.
The Good: Elisias is a physical specimen who, somehow, seems to play even bigger than his 6'8", 230 lbs. frame. It starts on the defensive end for Bryant's big man, where Elisias put up a league-dominating 9.4% block rate in 20-21 (Nana Opoku was 2nd at 6.4%), which correlated with 2.5 blocks per game. He was also 5th in the league with a 22.3% defensive rebounding rate. On the offensive end, Jared Grasso hasn't asked Elisias to do a whole lot (16.8% career usage rate), but he's been efficient as a 5th option, putting up a career 63.3% eFG%, including 63 dunks in 2 seasons.
But...: As I said above, Elisias isn't a guy who is going to do much with the ball, as 88.2% of his field goal attempts come at the rim, with 68% of his "at the rim" makes coming off assists. The bigger issue? His minutes have been curtailed due to a career 4.9 fouls/40 minutes.
My Take: Last season, despite battling injuries, Elisias was straight-up dominant at times in the paint; there aren't many (any?) NEC bigs who can match his size and athleticism, and he's got tremendous timing as a shot blocker that allows him to protect the rim both as a 1-v-1 defender, as well as a help guy. I have no issues with Elisias limitations on the offensive end; every team needs someone to do the "dirty work", and Elisias does it better than anyone. But can he become more than a 24mpg guy? If he were on the floor for close to 30 minutes per game, he's got a change to be an All-NEC 1st teamer. However, Jared Grasso went out and brought in an experienced big in Greg Calixte, which tells me they are likely to share minutes at the '5'.
#12. Aaron Clarke, Sacred Heart, Sr., 6'1", 185 lbs.
The Good: Clarke is a heady point guard who brings significant experience and an ability to both facilitate the offense, as well as play off the ball as a scorer, giving Anthony Latina some flexibility in the backcourt. During his first 1.5 years at SHU, Clarke was a role-player who played in the shadows of former Pioneer Cameron Parker. However, when Parker went out with an injury in January 2020, it was Clarke who steadied the ship, helping lead the Pios to a 9-3 finish to the regular season and an NEC semifinal appearance. Clarke finished that season with a 36/39/81 (45.5% eFG%), and a 105.2 O-Rating on 21.6% usage.
But...: The 20-21 season could be considered a lost one for Clarke, who battled injuries while also handling a larger offensive loan that he had been used to (24% usage). The result? A career low 41.6% eFG%, largely due to making just 26% from deep. The true senior doesn't do any one thing that truly stands out; his career 18.1% assist rate is merely solid, and for his career he's made just 30.3% of his 3-pointers.
My Take: Clarke won't wow you athletically, and because of that I think he can be a bit underrated around NEC circles. But if he's healthy...which all signs point to 'yes"...then he's got All-NEC potential as a combo-guard who can do a variety of things offensively. Yes, last season was a tough one on the whole for Clarke, but take a look at what he did in February; in six games, Clarke averaged 16.8 ppg to go along with a 22.8% assist rate (just 8.3% turnover rate), and got to the free throw line a whopping 37 times (making 30). With Tyler Thomas handling the majority of the scoring load, Clarke should be able to settle in as a playmaker and 12-15 ppg scorer who makes winning plays late.
#11. Ramiir Dixon-Conover, St. Francis (PA), 5th-Sr.; 6'3", 185 lbs.
The Good: RDC averaged a team-high 15.5 ppg thanks to the 4th highest usage rate in the NEC last season (27.6%), and finished 2nd in assist rate (29.5%), cut his turnovers from 35.6% in 19-20 to 20.8%, and was arguably the best perimeter defender in the league (3.1% steal rate). The lefty has a quick first-step which he utilizes to consistently beat defenders into the lane, and impressive vision which allows him to find open teammates. He's a very good finisher for a guard (54% at the rim), and made nearly 75% of his free throws in 20-21.
But...: Dixon-Conover is the rare example of a guard who excels without having much of a jumper; he's made just 28.3% of his 3-point attempts since arriving in Loretto, and in 20-21 he was just 14-44 on 2-point jumpers. Because of that, opposing defenses sagged off him at times, daring him to beat them from the perimeter.
My Take: Last season, RDC carried the Red Flash offensively, and while his 46.7% eFG% was lower than you'd want, it's tough to be efficient when you're relied upon that much. Dixon-Conover really stuffed the state sheet; 15.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.4 assists, and as mentioned above, really disrupts opponents on the defensive end. However, my favorite stat; per Bart Torvik, SFU's 'Game Score' when RDC was in the lineup? 27.4. When he wasn't (4 games)? 14.5. He's an impact player at an impact position.
#10. Jalen Benjamin, Mount St. Mary's, Jr., 5'10", 160 lbs.
The Good: Benjamin comes to Emmitsburg after playing two seasons for Alabama-Birmingham (Conference USA), where he started 26 games as a freshman and 3 as a sophomore. The electric combo-guard earned a spot on CUSA's All-Freshman team in 2019-20, then saw his role reduced a bit as UAB brought in a new head coach in Andy Kennedy. Benjamin is a major three-point threat, making 33.1% of his 154 3P attempts last season, and he takes care of the ball (13.8% turnover rate).
But...: Benjamin could be described as a somewhat one-dimensional offensive player; he's been more of a shooter than a facilitator as a college player, putting up a career 12.6% assist rate to date, and last season 164 of his 246 field goal attempts were from beyond the arc. He doesn't get to the free throw line much (just 47 attempts last season, though he made them at an 85% clip), and he doesn't wow you on the defensive end (his 2.3% steal rate last season was solid but unspectacular).
My Take: It's rare that we get a rotation player from a top 15ish conference to transfer into an NEC program, but that's what we've got here. Forget what he wasn't at UAB, and look at what he was; an efficient (101.7 O-Rating on 23.8% usage) combo guard who can both handle the ball and be a high level shot maker. I expect Benjamin to see time at both guard positions, and may be one of the top scorers in this league, at least on a rate basis (the Mount plays at a slower tempo). In fact, Benjamin could be even better than Damian Chong Qui was. He's a high level talent who, if anything, might be too low on this list.
#9. Brandon Rush, Fairleigh Dickinson, Jr., 6'3", 175 lbs.
The Good: As a sophomore, Rush shot 48/42/74 (59.2% eFG%) en route to averaging 14.3 ppg. But he didn't just score, he scored efficiently; he had a 115.9 O-Rating on 20.4% usage, and turned it over on just 13.6% of his possessions. A lefty, Rush is able to score it at all three levels, using his impressive athleticism to finish around the rim (58%), while showing an adept mid-range game (47.2%) in addition to being a long-range sniper (he made 56 three-pointers last season). What's more, Rush knows what a good shot is; a whopping 83% of his field goal attempts were either at the rim or 3-pointers.
But...: In 20-21, Rush was able to blend in on a team that had seniors Jahlil Jenkins and Elyjah Williams. Both are gone, and Rush will now be The Guy for coach Greg Herenda. That 20.4% usage rate will surely increase, so the question is; can Rush remain (relatively) efficient while being asked to do more offensively while defenses game plan to shut him down? If that's to happen, his 8.4% assist rate will have to tick up a bit, and he'll have to look to get the charity stripe with more frequency (just 2 free throw attempts per game last season).
My Take: If you watched any FDU games last season, Rush's athleticism surely jumped off the screen to you; he's a high riser who can really get it done in transition, and he's got a quick first step that allows him to get by defenders. Can he take that next step and become the go-to-guy for a young team? One of the things I really dig about Rush is that he can get his shot up off-the-dribble; just 16% of his three-point makes were assisted (and just 10% of his mid-range makes). Another; he was one of the most improved players in the league last season, making huge strides in multiple areas. I'll bet on the athleticism and work ethic, and predict that Rush has a major breakout this season.
#8. Eral Penn, Long Island, 5th-Sr.; 6'7", 210 lbs
The Good: After sitting out 2019-20 due to injury, Penn looked like a different player in his Redshirt-junior season; he put up a 55/32/61 shooting line (58.4% eFG%) while increasing his minutes from 40.1% in 2019 to 77.6%, and seeing his usage go up from 14.6% to 21.1%. Penn led the league in rebounding at 10.4 rpg, finished 9th in scoring (15.9 ppg), and finished in the top five in both blocks and steals. Oh, and the advanced metrics loved him; he finished 1st in Bart-Torvik's PORPAGATU!, 2nd in Sports-Reference's Win Shares, and his 1.35 SQ PPP over at Shot-Quality was 2nd. A deserving 1st-team All-NEC player for sure.
But...: Penn put up an uber-efficient 121.1 O-Rating last season, and while his 21.1% usage rate is high for a frontcourt player, he'll likely be asked to be even more involved in the offense now that Jermaine Jackson, Jr. is gone. Can he get that usage rate to, say, 24%, while remaining efficient? That may involve putting the ball on the floor a bit more and creating some offense for the Sharks, and increasing the number of three-pointers he takes (was 10 for 31 last season).
My Take: Penn might be the best rebounder in the league, he's a DPOY candidate thanks to his ability to switch on pick-and-rolls and protect the rim, and offensively he's dominant in the paint (64% at the rim) while showing an ability to keep the defense honest by taking, and making, threes. Why's he not higher? I'm partial to guys who can do a bit more with the ball in their hands, and I'm not sure he's truly a reliable three-point shooter (he was just 61% from the free throw line). Plus, I do worry that the addition of Isaac Kante to LIU's frontcourt could take some of the shine off Penn's game, as he may be asked to be more perimeter oriented than he's used to (Kante is a back-to-the-basket big, and is not someone who will wander around the perimeter).
#7. Elijah Ford, Wagner, 5th-Sr., 6'5", 205 lbs.
Small Ball 4
The Good: Ford is a bowling ball in the open floor, combining speed, strength, and an impressive vertical that has helped him become one of the best offensive rebounders in the league (9.6% OR%, 5th) despite being listed at just 6'5", as well as one of the league's best finishers (65% at the rim). Ford knows his limitations, and because of that makes good decisions with the basketball. On the defensive end, he can guard 1-4, and he had the league's highest steal rate (3.6%) last season. He's also very good from the charity stripe; 74.5% over his two seasons. No wonder he earned a spot on the All-NEC 1st team.
But...: The 5th year senior hasn't been able to make perimeter shooting part of his game; he's just 3 for 16 in his two seasons on Staten Island after making just 13 of 46 in two seasons at Barton Community College.
My Take: Ford doesn't fit into any boxes; he could be described as a wing without much of a perimeter shot, or an under-sized big who doesn't provide rim protection. You know what he is though? A hooper. Despite the lack of perimeter production, Ford is one of the premier rebounders, finishers, and on-ball defenders in the Northeast Conference, and the advanced metrics love him; he had the highest Box +/- in the NEC (6.3), the 2nd highest PER (29), and 3rd most Win Shares (3.3). It can be difficult fitting a guy like Ford into a lineup; you really need a big who can step away from the basket. But with a talent like Ford, you figure out a way (as Bashir Mason has).
#6. Tyler Thomas, Sacred Heart, Jr., 6'3", 195 lbs.
The Good: Thomas can flat out score the basketball; his 19.1 ppg in 20-21 easily led the Northeast Conference, and it takes a special player to put up a 103.1 O-Rating with a 28.2% usage rate. His 39/33/81 (48% eFG%) was more than solid, especially when considering how much he had the ball in his hands, and Thomas also showed an ability to make plays for others (19.6% assist rate) while taking care of the basketball (15.8% turnover rate).
But...: In his 2nd season at SHU, Thomas forced quite a bit of offense. Per Shot Quality, he put up a 0.85 SQ PPP, and just 18% of his possessions were "good". Now, that's not all on Thomas; the Pios were young, and really didn't have anyone outside of Aaron Clarke who could create offense. Can Thomas take the next step and become a more efficient offensive player?
My Take: Every few years, it seems that a Sacred Heart guard goes from rotation player to star in just one or two seasons, and Thomas is just the most recent. Make no mistake about it; the New Haven product is a killer with the basketball in his hands, and perhaps the best pure scorer in the league. He doesn't provide as much of an all-around game as some of the players ahead of him on this list, but any coach would take his ability to make things happen offensively.
#5. Isaac Kante, Long Island, Sr., 6'7", 240 lbs.
The Good: An incoming transfer from Hofstra, Kante is as good of a 5-man as you'll find at this level; he's a dominant rebounder (he finished 4th in the CAA with a 26.7% DR%), he's efficient around the rim (60.3% in 20-21), he provides rim protection without fouling, and he made over 70% of his free throws last season. As a true junior, Kante averaged 12.9 points and 10.1 boards and was named to the All-Colonial League 2nd team (the CAA was the 19th ranked league per Kenpom, while the NEC was 29th). He does a great job in using his brute strength to seal off defenders on the block, and has shown an ability to knock down 12-footers with proficiency.
But...: Kante is a really good true '5', but he's still a true '5' in a day-and-age where the center is not highly valued. He's a back-to-the-basket player who likely won't create much offense on his own (68% of his shots at the rim came from assists), and he's never attempted a three-point attempt in three collegiate seasons. His career 1.3% block rate is fine, but not what you'd want from a true center.
My Take: Quite honestly; if I were putting a team together, a player with Kante's profile would be low on my wish list. So why is Kante so high here? At the risk of overrating the unknown (at least to the NEC), the strength's to Kante's game are elite; he's arguably the best rebounder in the league, and while his offensive game isn't versatile, he's got a career 60.6% eFG% (just four NEC players had an eFG% north of 60% last season), and his career 69% from the free throw line is more than adequate for a big. Plus; yeah, he's not a great shot blocker, but he uses his strength well to keep opposing bigs off the block and out of the lane. Kante is likely to be the best "big" in the NEC, and that's saying something with guys like Hall Elisias, Malik Jefferson, Mark Flagg, and teammate Eral Penn kicking around. He could up some dominant numbers.
#4. Charles Pride, Bryant, Jr., 6'4", 175 lbs.
The Good: Just tell Chuck what you want done on the basketball court, and he'll do it. As a sophomore, Pride put up a 49/41/78 shooting line (57.7% eFG%) on his way to averaging 13.7 points, 7 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game. Perhaps overshadowed by teammates Peter Kiss and Michael Green III, Pride was super efficient offensively (117.4 O-Rating on 19% usage) while proving to be one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, including a 2.3% steal rate.
But...: Can Pride become a go-to offensive player? In each of his first two seasons in Smithfield, he's carried a 19% usage rate; in 20-21, that trailed MG3, Kiss, and Chris Childs. With Green gone, the expectation is that Pride graduates from role player to a guy who has the ball in his hands quite often. The question will be; can he remain efficient? If so, we have a POY candidate.
My Take: You may be reading this and think I'm being generous with Pride's placement on this list, but make no mistake; I dig his game. His length and quickness make him a major problem on the defensive end, he made over 40% of his three-point attempts last season, and he rebounds incredibly well for his size. At a minimum he's a "3 & D" guy who will have a long professional career. But I think he takes a step forward offensively and shows that he can create his own shot consistently. I thought it was criminal that Pride was left off all three All-NEC teams last season. That won't happen in 21-22.
#3. Ty Flowers, Long Island, 5th-Sr.; 6'9", 200 lbs.
The Good: The Northeast Conference has not seen many players who have the combination of length and skill that Flowers has; at 6'9" he can shoot it from the perimeter, put the ball on the deck, rebound, play the passing lanes and protect the rim. As a true senior, his per game numbers were straight out of a video game; 17.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.9 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game, all while playing 33.2 mpg. The advanced stats dig him as well; he put up a 107.9 O-Rating on 24.9%, shot 65% at the rim, and his 23.1% assist rate was tops of any NEC player who isn't considered a point guard.
But...: Where did the shooting go? Over his last two seasons, Flowers has made just 29.6% of his three-pointers after shooting 39.3% as a sophomore. If he were a big who used the perimeter shot to just keep defenses honest, that'd be one thing. But over the last two years he's attempted 287 shots from beyond the arc. Given that he shot just 66.7% from the free throw line and 38.3% on mid-range jumpers, I can't help wonder if Derek Kellogg will look to get Flowers more touches on the block to take advantage of his size.
My Take: After entering the Transfer Portal this past off-season, the Waterbury, CT product is back for a 4th season at LIU (he began his career with Kellogg at UMass). Flowers is a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches in the NEC; there are few players who have both the size and athleticism to guard him. Of course I'd like to see him shoot it better, but even as a ~30% 3P shooter he's an All-NEC player given all he can do on the court. Plus, the analytics love his ability to provide efficient offense and rebounding, and he gives Kellogg plenty of lineup versatility. He was a 2nd teamer last season, but I'd expect him to land on the All-NEC 1st team in 21-22, and could be a POY candidate.
#2. Peter Kiss, Bryant, 5th-Sr.; 6'5", 200 lbs
The Good: One of three returning All-NEC 1st teamers from 20-21, Kiss does just about everything a coach could ask; he finished 5th in the league in scoring at 17.0 ppg while chipping in 6.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. He's able to score at all three levels, putting up a 50/42/85 shooting line (56.9% eFG%), and can do it off the bounce while being dangerous off the ball. His O-Rating of 114.0 was 2nd to Elijah Ford among all players with a usage rate > 22%. At 6'5" 200 lbs., he's a matchup nightmare at the NEC level, as he's typically either bigger/stronger or quicker than his defender. Defensively, he's athletic with quick hands, which allows him to provide versatility on that end of the floor.
But...: Last season, Michael Green III ran the show for Bryant. Now that he's off to Robert Morris, can Kiss increase that usage past 22.5% and still be efficient (MG3 had a 25.8% usage rate). He'll likely have to take over games at times...It's probably nit-picking, but Kiss is known for some on-the-court antics which can get under people's skin. Because of that he can draw the ire of opposing fans, which is fine; that chip on his shoulder is what helps fuel his game.
My Take: Kiss answered every question in his first season in Smithfield; he shot it well, he defended, he rebounded, made plays for others (18.1% assist rate) and he assimilated well onto a talented team. And he put up those numbers while deferring to a ball-dominant lead guard. With Green III gone to play for old friend Andy Toole at Robert Morris, this will clearly be Kiss' team. I expect the scoring to increase (he may lead the league in ppg in 21-22), and while it'll be difficult to remain this efficient, there's not another wing in this league that I'd want.
#1. Alex Morales, Wagner, 5th-Sr.; 6'6", 180 lbs
The Good: The reigning NEC Player of the Year, Morales is a matchup problem who does nearly everything one can do on the basketball court; he finished 5th in the league in scoring (16.8 ppg), 5th in assist rate (25.1%), 10th in rebounding (7.0 rpg), and led the conference in usage rate (28.7%). Playing mainly on the ball, he utilizes his length to score over smaller defenders, and his quickness to get by bigger guys, which resulted in 137 field goal attempts "at the rim", which trailed only Merrimack's Jordan Minor and LIU's Eral Penn, both of whom are bigs. But it's not just the offense; Morales' 3% steal rate was 8th in the league (his 36 steals was 7th), and his long arms are constantly causing problems for opposing guards.
But...: The 5th-year senior entered his name into the NBA Draft before ultimately returning to school, and I'd imagine NBA scouts told him to work on the jumper. As a true senior, Morales put up a 44/32/71 shooting line (47.5% eFG%), which is good for a player with as high a usage rate as the Wagner guard had, but could certainly be improved upon, especially the 3-point shooting. Look for him to try and take better shots in 21-22 (his 0.87 Shot Quality PPP was towards the bottom of the NEC), which will only help him become more efficient.
My Take: He's got work to do to become a better professional prospect, but there's no player I'd rather have on my (theoretical) roster heading into the season than Alex Morales. At 6'6", he can handle the ball, make plays for others, score it, rebound, and defend. Try to defend him with a quicker guard? He'll go right over you. Throw some length at him? Blow-by city. He's impossible to defend, and I think we will see more efficiency from him, especially given the fact that he's got dudes like Elijah Ford, DeLonnie Hunt, and Will Martinez flanking him. I wouldn't be surprised to see that usage rate come down into the mid-20s and that 3P% get up into the high 30s. If that's the case, Morales will be one of the best guards in the country, not just the league. Either way, he should be a Player of the Year favorite, and a must-watch guy.