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Counting down the WAC’s 25 best returning players, Part V

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NCAA Basketball: Grand Canyon at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

When the news is slow and the season is still months away, what else is there to do but make lists?

Newcomers are exciting, and there will be plenty of time to break down incoming players like Jarkel Joiner and Casey Benson. But for now, let’s look at the WAC’s top-25 returning players to get a sense of how the league could shake out in 2017-18.

Some of this is based on production. Some of it’s based on potential. All of it’s based on one person’s opinion, so please feel free to tell that person (me) how wrong he is in the comments.

Check out the full rundown on Nos. 25-21 here, Nos. 20-16 here , Nos. 15-11 here and Nos. 10-6 here.

25. Moataz Aly
24. Xavier McDaniel Jr.
23. Morgan Means
22. Broderick Robinson
21. Zach Nelson
20. Conner Toolson
19. Aaron Menzies
18. Isaiah Ross
17. Kenneth Ogbe
16. Gerard Martin
15. Fred Sims Jr.
14. Zach Moore
13. Brandon Randolph
12. Shon Briggs
11. Brent Wrapp
10. Sidy N’Dir
9. Matej Kavas
8. Keonta Vernon
7. Oscar Frayer
6. Damiyne Durham

5. Isaac Neilson (Utah Valley)

Neilson put on 30 pounds — in a good way — after transferring from BYU and sitting out the 2015-16 season. It paid off during his first year at UVU. The senior big led the WAC in offensive rebounding percentage (16.6%), defensive rebounding percentage (26.8%) and block percentage (8.1%) during league play. He didn’t become the centerpiece of the Wolverine offense, but he didn’t have to with so many weapons around him. He also didn’t wilt against the best competition, with big games against BYU (26 points, 9 rebounds), Utah (28 points, 15 rebounds), Grand Canyon (14 points, 16 rebounds) and New Mexico State (14 points, 10 rebounds). Mark Pope said in December that Neilson was playing more minutes than he’d like, and that may have wore on him as the season went on. That shouldn’t be as much of an issue this year, as Oklahoma transfer Akolda Manyang can share some of the rim protecting burden. That should mean a fresher, and even better, Neilson.

4. Nick Dixon (UT Rio Grande Valley)

From a cold numbers perspective, Dixon’s KenPom page screams his value. It’s littered with yellow, as the senior finished in the top-11 in league play in 12 of the 17 rate or percentage stats that the site lists. This added up to a masterful season, where Dixon was a potent scorer (18.8 PPG) that got to the free throw line at will, and pitched in all over the court. But the story of Dixon’s season goes beyond the numbers. The journey to 2016-17 included a multi-year layoff from competitive basketball, two NCJAA Div. II All-American seasons and a departure from the UTRGV program in 2015-16 for personal reasons. Of all the compelling stories in college basketball, Dixon’s is right up there. He could well lead the WAC in scoring in 2017-18, though he’ll need to do it without his backcourt running mate. Antonio Green transferred to Middle Tennessee, and his 94 made three-pointers freed up space for Dixon all season. Adversity, however, has not held Dixon back.

3. Jemerrio Jones (New Mexico State)

The JuCo transfer was one of the WAC’s biggest surprises in 2016-17. A member of the all-newcomer team, Jones made an impact all over the place for a 28-win NMSU squad. He nearly averaged a double-double in somewhat limited minutes (24.5 MPG), scoring 9.7 points and grabbing 8.4 rebounds per game. Rebounding is his forte, but what makes him especially valuable is that he gives Chris Jans flexibility. The senior takes care of the ball and can operate as a point forward if needed. If the Aggies want to play fast — as they did at times last year — Jones is at home in transition. And if they want to play slow, he’s another playmaking option and potential frontcourt mismatch. Like last year, he might yield a starting spot to Jonathon Wilkins. But that shouldn’t obscure how valuable a player he is.

2. Eli Chuha (New Mexico State)

Jones wasn’t the only surprise in the Aggie frontcourt. Chuha went from a sparingly-used freshman to sophomore star. He was the most efficient scorer in WAC play, leading the league in both true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage. And he was no slouch on the glass, finishing second in offensive rebounding percentage (16.4%) and fourth in defensive rebounding percentage (21.6%) against league competition. The Aggies backcourt has high potential, but will rely on either players coming off injury (Sidy N’Dir) or suiting up for the program for the first time (A.J. Harris, Zach Lofton). That could put the onus on Chuha to carry the team offensively more than may be expected. He should be up for the challenge. Last season he scored in double figures in 12 straight games from Nov. 30 to Jan. 14.

1. Joshua Braun (Grand Canyon)

Without a doubt, the WAC’s story of the year will be GCU’s quest to truly put national attention on “college basketball’s best party” with an NCAA Tournament bid. There’s a good shot that happens because of all the Lopes on this list, but none more so than Braun. The 2016-17 WAC Preseason Player of the Year missed the entire month of December (nine games) with a knee injury. But he lived up to the hype when he returned. Braun notched the highest scoring average of his career (17.5 PPG), and scored in double figures in all but one game in league play. He’s a three-point threat, and his slimmed-down frame should make him a better defender and better free throw generator (not that either part of his game was a problem). Losing Dewayne Russell will hurt, but playing alongside Oregon transfer Casey Benson and an improving Oscar Frayer should ensure defenses can’t clamp down on him. Braun may not lead the WAC in scoring, but he’s the most dangerous offensive player in the league.