Washington basketball: A look at the Huskies’ deep backcourt

Washington basketball has plenty of options to turn to in keeping with a perimeter-oriented offensive shift next season.

If it wasn’t clear immediately after the season’s abrupt end, the past few weeks have shown that  Washington basketball is undergoing an offensive metamorphosis this offseason.

For the first time in his tenure in Seattle, head coach Mike Hopkins will be without a dominant big like Noah Dickerson or Isaiah Stewart to funnel the ball to down low and catalyze movement. Few programs in the country have relied on direct post-ups to keep the offense afloat as frequently as the Huskies in the past few years, but that looks to change soon.

The loss of Stewart was obviously an expected one (as was that of Jaden McDaniels, for the most part), but the Huskies have no freshmen coming in for 2020. Hopkins’ staff took strides to go after some of this year’s top players, but struck out early on most.

The only incoming players will be transfers Erik Stevenson and Cole Bajema — from Wichita State and Michigan, respectively — and newly-eligible North Idaho College transfer Nate Pryor, who have all been cast as experienced perimeter threats over the offseason. Bajema has indicated he will sit out next year, but the other two should be ready to contribute immediately. Interesting side note: all three are Washington natives.

This recruiting pattern, combined with Hopkins’ almost intransigent pursuit of Cade Cunningham (6”6 PG, 2020’s No. 1 overall) rather than a Stewart-like traditional post hints that perhaps a shift to a more perimeter-based offense was part of the plan the whole time. This is the way that much of college basketball has been going for quite some time now, and considering the disaster that was last season, perhaps it’s a practical choice.

#12 of the Baylor Bears in the second half during the ESPN Armed Forces Classic at Alaska Airlines Center on November 8, 2019 in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

And if last season was an indication of anything, it was a testament to the importance of smart guard play and the ability to tee off from deep. After Quade Green was ruled ineligible, Stewart’s shots decreased from just over 12 to 9.2 per game and his scoring dipped accordingly. Defenses were able to key in on a less-experienced backcourt and cut off the ball more effectively, and when Stewart did get in position, teams were free to double and triple in the post quickly.

But as we all know by now, it was a variety of problems on offense that led to the Huskies’ midseason free fall. UW finished second in the Pac-12 in three-point attempts despite ranking 10th in the league at 31.8 shooting behind the arc, and ranked 11th in the conference on 68.5% shooting from the charity stripe. For any sort of offense that’s contingent on guard play to run effectively, those both have to improve.

#11 of the Washington Huskies puts up a three-point shot in the second half against the Baylor Bears during the ESPN Armed Forces Classic at Alaska Airlines Center on November 8, 2019 in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

Three Huskies attempted over 100 threes last season — Hameir Wright, Jaden McDaniels, and Nahziah Carter. But this year, it’s possible that UW rolls out a lineup with four or five mid- to high-volume shooters, even without McDaniels.

Assuming Green returns, the bulk of the roster has the capability to carry the load in an offense that will shoot more from beyond the arc than any of its previous iterations. The combo of Green (44.7% on threes last season) and Nahziah Carter (36.6% on 3.8 attempts per game) is threatening particularly because of the confidence with which both shoot the ball coupled with their ability to (in Carter’s case) explode to the basket or (in Green’s case) find a decent look quickly. Wright’s versatility is also pivotal for making this all work as well — his size and shooting does wonders for spacing.

Bajema and Stevenson are both intriguing as transfers, but there is very little statistically in their college careers that directly translates to consistent shooting from deep, especially in a starting role. Stevenson has shown a willingness to take a lot of threes — 5.4 per game, to be exact — but is a career 29.1% shooter from that range. Same with Pryor, who shot an average of 29.7% his freshman and sophomore years at the Juco level.

Bajema’s 57.1% shooting last year is a nutty stat, but the sample size and game situations in which he played last year at Michigan certainly helped with that number considerably. He only played 4 minutes per game with the Wolverines, and those minutes mostly came in blowouts. However, his 6”7’ frame and shooting ability could slot in comfortably at Wright’s position after his sit-out year.

Stevenson has the most potential to break into the starting rotation with more freedom than he was granted in Wichita, depending on whether he is given a waiver to play next year (the odds of which are likely). Last season, he was shoehorned into playing point guard, which cramped his ability to find and create shots. But he still had shooting explosions (particularly early in the season) that are difficult to ignore.

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With Green running the show and spaces on the court more synergistic with his skill set, Stevenson could be an X factor for this team as a consistent two.

All of the above being said, if UW’s shooters hit shots as infrequently as they did last year, all of this is toast. They won’t be able to threaten other teams and will have to grind games out with the 2-3 zone (which, if you haven’t realized by now, is never going to go away). Next year, the Huskies will be more capable of recovering from a poor shooting night thanks to considerably more depth, but it can’t happen night in and night out — or else it’ll be a repeat of last year, only without Stewart’s stabilizing qualities. We’ll just have to wait until November to see how much has truly changed.

 

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