October 13, 2016

Wahooze 2016-17 Hoops Preview -- Part I

First, not sure I'll have time to give you my football pick for this weekend, so here it is:

Virginia 28, Pittsburgh 27

Now, let's talk some basketball.

First up, just go ahead and review THIS and THIS.

Next, my own personal ranking of the players. Long-time Wahooze readers will remember the UVAMBB Power Rankings, based loosely on the relative measure of how I expect them to perform, coupled with an in-order listing of each player's value to the team moving forward with the current season.  So let's start our hoops preview with one of those, shall we?

#1 Austin Nichols
Surprised it's not London Perrantes?  Yeah, I'm a little bit surprised myself.  But here it is.  I truly do believe that the 2016-17 Hoos will be an ensemble-driven outfit, with no ball-dominating stars like Brog or Joe Harris.  It's a collection of parts; role players complementing role players; a team built on synergy.  Therefore, a player like Austin Nichols -- who figures to be the single most indispensable cog in the Big Bad Bennett Machine -- should be ranked #1 in the power rankings.

My take on Nichols is that he's sort of a spliced-together Frankenstein's Monster of Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, and Darion Atkins.

He's the most talented big man Tony Bennett has had his hands on, to date.

And I think the key to everything this season is the inside-out offense, Perrantes to Nichols and back to Perrantes for the trey.  Boom.  Anyway...

Lots of Hoofans haven't seen Nichols play, and don't really know what to expect.  Here's the best write-up I've been able to find to date, from Upside and Motor...

It was somewhat of a surprise when the 6-9 forward out of Briarcrest Christian High School, which is located on the outskirts of Memphis, committed to Memphis. Programs like Duke, Kansas, Louisville, Michigan State, North Carolina, Ohio State and Virginia had all offered the five-star forward who was ranked as the no. 22nd overall prospect in the nation by the 247Sports Composite Rankings. It eventually came down to Auburn, Duke, Memphis, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Virginia with Josh Pastner’s Tigers eventually coming out on top.

Nichols’ first year at Memphis was an overall disappointment as he struggled to get the playing time he deserved on a team dominated by four senior guards, Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson and Michael Dixon Jr. At the time, forward Shaq Goodwin had started coming into his own and had the best season of his career, while center David Pellom was a graduate transfer who joined the team to provide depth. Nichols struggled, only averaging 9.3 points on 58.9 percent shooting, 4.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 22.8 minutes per game.

The four guards led Memphis in field goal attempts per game that season with Goodwin coming in fifth at 7.5 field goal attempts per game. Nichols came in sixth on the team, but was one of the most efficient of the bunch. Nichols ended the season with a usage percentage of 18.9 percent, which was the third lowest of any rotation player, leading only Crawford, a three-point specialist, and Pellom, who took 81 shots all season.

What little draft stock Nichols had disappeared after his first season in a Memphis uniform. The forward with elite post moves and range out to 18-feet didn’t show up consistently, and his skinny frame allowed him to get pushed around on defense far too often. His lack of strength hurt him on the glass and he only tallied one game with double-digit rebounds as a freshman.

His sophomore season was the complete opposite, when he transformed into Memphis’ best and most important player. Had it not been for an ill-timed ankle injury he would have carried the weakest Memphis team in some time to a likely NCAA Tournament appearance. Instead they missed the postseason as they looked completely lost without Nichols.

The graduations of Jackson, Crawford, Dixon and Johnson and recruiting misses by Pastner forced Nichols into a starring role. His usage percentage sky-rocketed to a team-high 24.6 percent, which accompanied stat increases across the board. Averages of 13.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and one assist per game were all higher than the previous season. Field goal percentage is something that takes a hit as field goal attempts and usage go up as drastically as Nichols’ did, but Nichols was still a 50 percent shooter.

Such success out of the post meant that he was the focus of the opposing defense, which is when his passing ability came in handy. He could find the open man, but the Tigers lacked the talent to consistently take advantage of the open opportunities. Goodwin and Nichols developed a nice two-man team out of the high post because both were quality passers. One would post up while the other hit them with a great pass out of the high post. Nichols was the better of the two, but Goodwin struggled to finish around the rim.

Memphis didn’t limit him to being a post player, even though that is where he spent most of his time. He did find success as a jump shooter out of the high post and the pick and pop. Memphis’ guards struggled to get him the ball, but he is good at slipping the screen and finding open space for easier looks. It will be interesting to see if he can push his range out to the three-point line after shooting a mere 22 percent in his last season. While at Briarcrest, Nichols was a capable three-point shooter so Virginia could make that part of his role next season.

Nichols can also run the floor very well. He can keep up with quick guards and knows which lanes to fill. Guards find him open for dunks or easy baskets in transition frequently. Memphis plays a high tempo style of basketball so Nichols had plenty of chances. While running the left wing Nichols scored 1.8 points per possession and 1.2 points while running the middle of the floor. According to Synergy, he shot 71.8 percent while in transition.

Where Nichols made his biggest leap was as a shot blocker, averaging 3.4 per game which was good for third in the nation. Pastner was searching relentlessly for someone to protect the rim for some time, he found one in the most unexpected place as Nichols developed into one of the best shot blockers in the nation over a summer. Memphis guards were not the most adept defensive players in the world so Nichols had plenty of block opportunities. When a Memphis guard would get blown by or blow an assignment Nichols would be there to prevent the open shot.

Despite more playing time and a larger role, Nichols only committed 0.5 more fouls per game. He’s so efficient at blocking or contesting shots without fouling, only having four fouls four times and not fouling out once. Post defense is an area where he has to improve, he was still getting pushed around despite bulking up. The forward was the center of Memphis’ defense and it fell apart without him on the floor.

Despite his spectacular sophomore season Nichols’ name has not come up in NBA Draft talk. Part of it could be the lack of three-point range for someone who projects as an NBA four. Part of it could be his lack of success as a pick and roll man. Part of it is the fact he played for such a poor Memphis team that missed the NCAA tournament. This next season at Virginia will be big for the underrated forward.

There is a real chance the elite forward could improve his draft stock on a good Virginia team. He is going to fit into the system well and has most likely only improved over his time off.

#2 London Perrantes
Cali Swag shot an astonishing .488 from behind the arc on 160 attempts last season.  I don't think the percentage can go anywhere but down, but his shot volume will go way, way up (as we try to replace the 1,027 shot attempts Brogdon, Gill, and Tobey left behind).  If London keeps doing all of the little point guard things London does, continues knocking down over 40% of his threes, looks to attack the basket a bit more, and takes his rightfully well-earned leadership role for this season, we'll be cooking with gas.  Not since Mike Scott has a Virginia team had a real, true *motherfucker* as its lead dog.  In 2016-17, London Perrantes could be that motherfucker... which is why I buy us as a darkhorse Final Four contender.

LP smelling his fingers is pretty much my favorite thing ever.

Let's stop right here for a second.  There are a lot of ways I could go with #3, right?  And whoever it is, goes a long way toward defining what this season will look like.  It's like a choose-your-own-adventure book (remember those?)

"You Are A Shark."  What the fuck?!??!!

Maybe it's a returning starter in Isaiah Wilkins or Devon Hall?  Or maybe it's a guy with the sort of all-everything upside that Marial Shayok possess?  Or perhaps it's a hotshot rookie like Kyle Guy?  Or maybe a from-out-of-nowhere role player like Darius Thompson or Jared Reuter?  It really could be any of those guys.  So I just have to go with my gut on this, and I'm going with...

Marial Shayok
I think this is going to be an ensemble-type offense, where we get scoring from a lot of different sources, where four or five guys end up averaging between 10 and 12 ppg.  Nichols and Perrantes are two of those guys.  With his varied offensive skills, sweet (.436) stroke from the perimeter, and ability to get his own shot and drive to the hoop, Shayok is the third.  And the fourth is...

#4 Kyle Guy
He's a true freshman, and he's skinny (6-3, 165), and he has to learn the Packline, and he really should be working behind backcourt veterans Hall and Thompson, but I just can't shake the feeling that Tony is not going to keep this kind of explosive nitroglycerin scoring out of the regular rotation for very long.  Not for nothin', Kyle Guy is Tony Bennett's highest-rated recruit ever, and his first McDonald's All-American.  He's going to play, and when he plays he's going to score.  A lot.  Oh man, our opponents are really going to hate his guts.

#5 Isaiah Wilkins
I spent the first four spots focused on scoring, so now I need to turn my attention to the quintessential glue guy.  I have a feeling we're in store for a really "Jason Williford-esque" season from Wilkins, meaning good defense and rebounding, lots of hustle plays, some nice grit, and a bunch of things that simply help us win games.

#6 Darius Thompson
He's our best perimeter defender in 2016-17, and someone has to pick up that mantle left behind by Malcolm Brogdon.

#7 De'Andre Hunter
What?  Still no Devon Hall?  I know, I know.  Look, I know!  But I really do think this explosive frosh with the condor-like wingspan is an instant impact sort of player for us this season.

#8 Jarred Reuter
No offense to Hall, but I think the #3 big is more important than the #5/#6 wing.  Reuter's craftiness has earned him some Georges Niang comps... which I think is a reach... but there is absolutely nothing wrong with being able to bring a player like this off of the bench who has a low center of gravity and knows how to use leverage to his advantage.  And yes, I debated Reuter vs. Diakite, and I ultimately think Reuter is the more important player this season.

#9 Mamadi Diakite
But it's close!  In fact, I think matchups will dictate who plays more in any given game -- the strong and crafty but short Reuter or the uber-athletic raw upside of Diakite.

#10 Devon Hall
Sorry, but I'm just not a very big fan of his game.  There are too many redundancies in better players with more long-term upside.  I can see the inherent value in a veteran guard, but to me, Hall is merely an "okay" defender and he doesn't seem to really believe in his shot.  If his confidence level were higher, I'd probably rank him somewhere around #6 on this list, but alas.

#11 Jay Huff
He's tall, skinny, and can shoot the 3 and block shots.  An intriguing lump of clay for our staff to work with, no doubt.  I just don't see that many minutes available for him this season.

#12 Ty Jerome
I love - LOVE - his old man's game.  But with LP, Guy, Thompson, and Hall ahead of him in the pecking order, only scraps of playing time are available.  Plus, Jerome seems to be our most likely redshirt candidate.

#13 Jack Salt
He's officially a career back-up, but a good enough player should we see some injuries hit the frontcourt.

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