The biggest improvement a (insert sport here) player makes during his college career happens between his freshman and sophomore seasons.

It’s a phrase repeated so many times – by coaches, the media, fans, you name it – that it’s become generally accepted as the gospel truth.

And there is some substance to it.

The 1st year of college for anyone, whether it’s on the basketball court or just around campus living on their own for the 1st time, is an incredible learning experience. But there are other factors that can go into a player’s improvement, ranging from changing roles to increased playing time to recovery from injuries.

According to the ACC’s weekly basketball release, Wake Forest junior Hunter Sallis is the most improved player in the conference this season, based on a scoring average of 17.8 points per game that’s a full 13 points better than the one he posted last year.

As impressive as that stat might be, scoring isn’t the only criteria by which improvement can be judged. And Sallis is a transfer who played his 1st 2 seasons coming off the bench at Gonzaga.

When it comes to players who are still with the same team as last season, these 5 stand out as the ACC’s most improved over the 1st 3 months of the 2023-24 season (and not just because of their scoring):

5. Maliq Brown, Syracuse

Brown is one of those players that prove the “biggest improvement theory.” The 6-foot-9 power forward had a solid freshman season with the Orange in 2022-23, averaging 5.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in about 20 minutes per game as a reserve.

He’s still coming off the bench as a sophomore this season. But his production has increased to 10.3 points and 5.9 rebounds. And he’s doing it more efficiently. The former 3-star prospect from Culpepper, Va., is showing 71% from the floor and has upped his free throw percentage from a subpar .567 to an outstanding .885.

His improved skills were on full display against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 2, when he erupted for a career-high 26 points on 11-of-16 shooting with a team-leading 7 rebounds. It was one of 5 straight double-figure scoring efforts, a streak that was snapped on Saturday at North Carolina.

4. Wooga Poplar, Miami

Poplar fits the opposite profile from Brown. He’s a player whose improvement is primarily the product of opportunity rather than evolution. Although he was a key member of the Hurricanes’ Final 4 team a year ago, starting all but 1 game, he usually took a back set to ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong and other higher-profile veterans.

But this year, with Wong and Jordan Miller now gone, Poplar has taken on a more prominent role that is evident both on the stat sheet and with the eye test. His 16.3 point average is 7.9 points higher than it was as a sophomore last year. That’s the 3rd-biggest jump in the league.

His shooting touch has also improved, especially from beyond the 3-point arc. Poplar leads the ACC at 50.7% (34-of-67) after making only 37.5% of his attempts in 2022-23. He’s shooting better than 50% overall.

3. Ian Schieffelin, Clemson

At 6-8, 238 pounds with a bird’s nest of a hairdo and an unpolished style on the court, Schieffelin doesn’t exactly look the part. But despite resembling a guy playing pickup ball at the Y rather than a productive ACC player, he’s been a major reason for the Tigers’ success this season.

His 9.5 points per game are 4 more than he averaged a year ago and his 9.7 rebounds are an improvement of 5.6. He’s also shooting 30 points better at .581 and his 12 steals in 15 games are already more than he had in 34 last season.

But the numbers aren’t the only measurement for Schieffelin’s importance to the Tigers. The energy he brings to his team on both ends of the court is contagious and has led to the improvement of the entire team.

It was on full display in Clemson’s recent game against North Carolina. Although the Tigers lost to the Tar Heels, Schieffelin stood out with season-high totals of 16 points, 5 steals and 4 blocked shots to go along with 11 rebounds.

2. JR Konieczny, Notre Dame

The 6-7 guard got an extra year to improve between his freshman and sophomore seasons, having spent 2022-23 watching from the sidelines as a redshirt. The decision to sit out appears to have paid off for him.

Konieczny averaged only 3.3 minutes of playing time per game as a freshman. He managed only 11 points and 1 rebound all season, totals he surpassed in the 3rd game this season when he notched his 1st career double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds against Auburn. He also recorded 17 points and 8 rebounds in an ACC win against Virginia.

His +7.7 scoring improvement from 1.6 to his current 9.4 points per game is the 4th-best in the conference.

1. Lynn Kidd, Virginia Tech

Kidd is the definition of a late bloomer. A former 4-star recruit from Gainesville Fla., he spent his 1st season at Clemson playing behind All-ACC big man PJ Hall. After getting into only 7 games as a freshman, he transferred to Virginia Tech where things didn’t go much better. He made it onto the court only 10 times in mop-up duty during his 1st year with the Hokies.

The 6-11 center finally made it into the regular rotation as a junior last season, playing in 35 games with 5 starts. But his contribution was only a modest 5.0 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. But that’s changed this season. Kidd has finally come into his own, scoring in double figures in 11 of 15 games thus far with 4 double-doubles. He posted a career-high 31 points while going 14-of-15 from the floor in a win against American on Dec. 21.

He has improved his averages to 15.3 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 65% from the floor. His 10.3 point per game improvement is 2nd best in the league behind Sallis.