I mentioned briefly in my early season preview that one of the Huskies biggest issues moving into the ’12-’13 season is filling the power forward position that Darnell Gant has occupied for the past two years. Desmond Simmonsprovided solid relief in the non-conference season, but struggled to have a strong impact in conference play. Outside of Simmons, the Huskies had little bench support to speak of at the 4 (and 5 slot for that matter) and as a result, the frontcourt suffered.
The only certainty in the frontcourt is Aziz N’Diaye who will undoubtedly remain in the starting line-up as the go-to center for the third straight season. He improved his offensive game greatly this past year as well as his ability to play suffocating defensive ball without drawing a foul every few plays. This has allowed him the opportunity to play more minutes, leading to more scoring and game play experience. His hands softened up and the big man was able to add some nice drop step maneuvers to his skill set.
However, N’Diaye continued to struggle mightily at the foul line but another summer could prove to be invaluable for his work at the charity stripe.Oftentimes his shots would fall short or long of their mark, but remain dead on target in terms of hitting the center of the rim. If the 7 footer can bring his foul shot percentage up to 75% from his career average of 40.4%, he could see his scoring average raise at least 1 point per game (a number more significant than it may seem). This number increases even more if he can play more into contact to draw a greater number of fouls.
During the 2011-2012 season, N’Diaye averaged just under 4 foul shot attempts per game. With the Pac-12 featuring some powerful frontcourts next year in UCLA and USC, the Dawgs desperately need players to step up inside the paint and draw fouls on the opposition. While I do not expect him to pull a Derrick Williams and average over 8 foul attempts per game, seeing him raise his average from 4 to 6 would be fantastic for the Huskies.
I wish N’Diaye could play the full 40 minutes but he isn’t I.T. and those types of minutes will wear on any players as the season progresses. With that in mind it’s critical that the Dawgs find a strong relief player who can fill the paint and provide solid play on both sides of the court. The loss of Darnell Gant is felt even more when considering this problem. While Gant may not have been the strongest player at the 5, his length and speed made him dangerous as a defender and his mid-range game made Gant a tough cover for bigger centers like Josh Smith.
Maybe the most obvious man for the job is Shawn Kemp Jr. Kemp comes in at 6-9 and a very solid 265lbs. Kemp may have averaged only 7 minutes and 2 points per game last season, but Kemp did something our other frontcourt players seemed scared to do; go hard to the rim and dunk the ball. Too often for my taste, N’Diaye would lay the ball in rather than going up for the jam. I know N’Diaye can dunk, I just don’t know why he seems so scared to do throw down. N’Diaye’s length is unbelievable and very few players can get their hands up near his on the block. Kemp understands that a dunk is more than just two points. A dunk can change the momentum of a game by charging up the home crowd or silencing a hostile environment. Players rally around guys playing a tough, physical game and a center that can throw down next to the rim is an immense tool.
I believe Kemp can be that tough player. I believe Kemp can be that guy to come in and bang in the paint, drawing a few fouls while delivering a few of his own. Kemp certainly has the genetics for highlight plays and showed flashes of his abilities during his limited play time. When considering Kemp as N’Diaye’s backup you have to remember that Kemp had spent two seasons away from competitive basketball improving his academics and his conditioning and skills suffered as a result. Now that Kemp is able to refocus his efforts in basketball, expect an immediate rise in his abilities.
Who’s the New Four?
We now arrive at the biggest unknown of next season; the 4. If I had to place a bet now, I would lay my money on Desmond Simmons starting at the 4 slot. Simmons proved he is the rough-and-tumble energy guy that Romar professed him to be. Simmons was aggressive on both ends of the glass and supplied reasonably solid defense throughout a game. Some may argue that Simmons is a tad undersized for the 4 at only 6-7 but at 220lbs, Simmons has the strength to battle with taller opponents. It is truly his motor that will carry him forward and allow him to find success.
Where Simmons needs to improve is his mid-range shot. The Dawgs need Simmons to nail down that 12-15 footer that Gant was known for best. It’s especially dangerous when used on the high post screen/pick-and-roll, a play which Romar uses (not often enough). I believe this shot is a simple fix for Simmons due to the fact that he started the year hitting exactly that type of shot. I’m not sure what changed between November and January, but the “Freshman Wall” almost always rears its ugly head and Simmons ran into it in December. I doubt any Husky fan is expecting our 4 to average double digit points, but I think it is more than fair to want our starting forward to bring 7-8 points a game with him.
After Simmons, the experience level drops off pretty significantly. The Huskies have 2 players off the bench to provide some length and minutes.
I expect Martin Breunig to be a big part of the bench next season. I love this kid’s attitude and the way he plays. Defensively, Breunig had troubles picking up Romar’s style of play, which ultimately led to his limited minutes during conference play. That being said, Breunig is aggressive on offense and seems to possess solid court vision. After the Huskies ended their post season, Romar talked about how the defensive issues would be cleared up immediately and that the Husky fan base should expect a return to the “hustle and grind” style that past teams in the Romar era have possessed. Breunig has great athleticism and a will to do whatever is necessary to get the W. After a year of the learning a brand new system in a brand new country, Breunig is primed for an off season of training that is made even more valuable when considering the multi-week trip to Europe and Africa that will give The Dawgs an additional 10 practices before non-conference play. With a defensively improved Breunig, the forward slot issues could be much more easily and readily addressed.
A potential X-Factor for the ’12-’13 season is 6-10 forward Jernard Jerreau. When Jerreau first arrived at campus he had to run circles in the shower to get wet. A full year of weight lifting during his redshirt season has led to at least 15lbs of muscle being added to his lengthy frame. That additional muscle puts Jerreau at a much better 205lbs with another four and a half months to go before the games begin. Jerreau has many unique skills that others his size do not after growing 7 inches between his freshman year of high school and his senior year. Jerreau can handle the ball with a somewhat surprising grace. That, combined with his 91 inch wingspan, allows the New Orleans native to make plays above and around others with much greater ease. The key to Jerreau’s career moving forward is continuing his weight lifting regiment to gain the strength necessary to play through contact and battle more stout opponents. Jerreau will not be able to compete in the center against guys like Josh Smith or the Wear twins due to his thin frame, but he could do a lot of good against the many 6-8 and 6-9 players at the forward position where his speed and length will be much tougher to stop. I, for one, am very excited to see Jerreau step on the court and see what all he has to offer. With a great shot and decent rebounding, Jerreau could make his way into the starting 5 due to his size (Imagine a starting 5 of 6-3, 6-6, 6-6, 6-10, 7-0, I’m drooling already).
Two other players have uncertain futures with the Huskies: Austin Sefarian-Jenkins and Perris Blackwell.
Perris Blackwell is a transfer player from USF who stands at 6-9 240lbs. What is holding Blackwell back are the NCAA transfer rules and his current standing as a student. If Blackwell could somehow complete 2 quarters worth of schooling over the summer, Blackwell could apply to the UW as a graduate student allowing him to immediately join and play for the Huskies. If he can’t get that complete, Blackwell will need to sit out the 2012-2013 season as a redshirt per NCAA regulations meaning Dawg fans will have to wait to see Blackwell donning the purple and gold.
Austin Sefarian-Jenkins is a potential All-American football player who may wish to sit out the basketball season to avoid injuries that could impede his football career. Though ASJ loved and grew from his time on the hardwood, his future lies on the gridiron and risking injury as a walk-on to a sport that will not pay his bills is not the best course of action. At 6-6 and 260lbs, ASJ was great for about 7-10 minutes of play and 5 hard fouls, which is exactly what I would expect him to bring to the floor should he put on a basketball uniform for another season. What Husky fans need to keep in mind is that even if ASJ decides to play basketball once more, we will not be able to count on him until conference play as the football season extends into late December and, hopefully, very early January.
What next year’s frontcourt realistically comes down to is 5 guys playing a total of 80 minutes whom only two have any reasonable amount of experience on the court in a college atmosphere. N’Diaye should continue to pick up his 25 minutes a game and Simmons will likely add a few more to his responsibility in order to fill in the gap left by Gant’s departure. This leaves 30-35 minutes amongst 3 players, all of whom could easily contribute the 10-12 minute average that would be asked of them. The most likely scenario is that Kemp Jr. picks up 15 minutes to fill in for N’Diaye, while Breunig and Jerreau split the remaining 15-20 minutes at the 4. With a stellar backcourt once again, this Husky frontcourt should not have too much scoring pressure on their shoulders and much of the frontcourt’s responsibilities will come on the glass and defensive end. Last season, the frontcourt accounted for 30% of the team scoring and I would imagine next season’s team to average the same.
So who can take over in the frontcourt? The answer is pretty much anyone. N’Diaye and Simmons have shown they can play, but there is a lot of room for improvement and opportunity that several players could seize. Romar has always been big on players earning their starting position, stating that no one is ever guaranteed a starting spot when practice begins. While I think most fans would agree that N’Diaye will be in the starting 5, an argument can clearly be made for a number of players to start at the forward position, depending on the off-season progress made by each individual.
The conclusion is that Husky fans should not be terribly worried about our frontcourt. Our team will be much more experienced and the opportunity exist for our frontcourt to have a successful year. I’ve always been a firm believer that basketball is an inside-out game, meaning that a strong (or at least reliable) frontcourt will open the floor for a talented backcourt to take over. I believe that this group of guys can get that job done. Now we just have to wait to see if they can execute and utilize the talent on their team effectively.