NBA Bound? Why Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis Should Declare for the Draft

Domantas Sabonis was key to the Zags’ success in March and should be a NBA first round pick this upcoming draft.

If you want to understand how the Zags were a minute away from going to the Elite Eight, look no further than the triumvirate of guard Eric McCllelan, forward Kyle Wiltjer and center Domantas Sabonis. In the six games the Zags played in March (in which they went 5-1), the three players all took Ken Pom MVP awards in the games they played, with McCllelan earning three (Utah, St. Mary’s and Portland), Sabonis earning two (Seton Hall and Syracuse) and Wiltjer one (BYU). The combination of McCllelan’s streaky scoring and tough defense, Wiltjer’s offensive versatility and Sabonis’ post scoring and rebounding presence made these Zags tough to beat in March, and after Syracuse’s upset win over Virginia to earn a spot in the Final Four, it definitely makes you wonder what could have been possible had the Zags took better care of the ball in the closing minutes in Chicago.

While there is no questioning the three’s impact in the past month, one of these players will be the sole focus of Gonzaga fans’ attention and that is Sabonis. McCllelan and Wiltjer have exhausted their eligibility and will now be transitioning to professional careers in some kind of capacity this summer (Wiltjer could be a second round pick; McCllelan most likely will be looking D-League or overseas). Sabonis on the other hand has just completed his sophomore year, and still has two years left to wear a Gonzaga uniform.

That is if he wants it. Because to be perfectly frank, not only is he a much more sought after NBA prospect than either of the graduating seniors, he also is one of the Zags’ best pro prospects in a long time, and has a chance to be the Zags’ first First Round pick since Kelly Olynyk in 2013.

Now, make no mistake, Sabonis is not really a bonafide lottery pick by any means and this is a pretty loaded draft (unlike Olynyk’s where there wasn’t really a consensus no. 1). There is top “one and done talent” in Ben Simmons from LSU (the consensus No. 1), Brandon Ingram from Duke, and Jalen Brown and Ivan Rabb from California. Polished college scorers like Buddy Hield from Oklahoma and Kris Dunn from Providence. And high-upside European prospects like Dragan Bender from Maccabi Tel Aviv and Timothe Luwawu from Mega Leks of the Adriatic League. Without elite height or wingspan, and average to slightly below athleticism, there is no question that Sabonis’ pales at first glance in comparison to many of the eligible prospects who are expected to enter this summer’s NBA Draft.

Many college coaches would not encourage Sabonis to declare considering his circumstances. To most college coaches, if you’re not a lottery pick, the risk is too high and the reward is too great. Famously, Tyler Ennis declared for the NBA Draft though he was guaranteed to be a first round pick, but not a lottery one, much to the chagrin of his head coach Jim Boeheim. Boeheim argued that Ennis would go into a tough situation without much financial security if he was drafted outside the lottery. And, as much as I dislike the whiny Boehiem, he has proven to be right. Ennis has been flip flopped around the league and has probably spent as much time on a D-League floor than a NBA one.

But, Sabonis is a special player, and while his natural gifts and athleticism may not be “first round” worthy, other aspects of his game make him a great value that will not only be seen and recognize by a NBA team, but perhaps even utilized in some kind of playing role as early as next year. Sabonis is not a project by any means, and that alone will give him a lot of value to teams that are looking to build immediately competitive teams through the draft.

So, why should Sabonis leave and not stay for perhaps another “March Run”? Here are two reasons why Sabonis should stay not just for the benefit of himself but to the benefit of the Gonzaga basketball program as well.


Reason No.1: Sabonis’ stock is probably as high as it ever will be and there really isn’t anything he can truly work on in 2017 to make him a better prospect

I’m not going to pretend to be a “draft” expert by any means. I watch a lot of basketball, college and NBA included (I subscribe to NBA League pass). I will let other, more qualified writers (like here and here) determine Sabonis’ exact stock in comparison to other eligible prospects for this draft. But the fact of the matter is this: nobody in college basketball has raised their stock more in the past month than Sabonis.

First off, look at the numbers: Sabonis averaged 17.3 ppg and 11.5 rpg on 61.3 percent shooting from the floor and posted a 76.9 percent free throw percentage in 33 games this year. If you go into the advanced numbers, the Lithuanian looks even better: he posted a 120.0 adjusted offensive rating according to Ken Pom, with a 115.0 adjusted offensive rating against Tier A competition, much better marks than McCllelan (110) and Wiltjer (105). His 28.2 defensive rebounding rate was 14th best in the nation, and his 65.1 true shooting percentage ranked him 21st in the nation. And to wrap it all up, according to Ken Pom’s national player of the year ranking, Sabonis ranks eighth, putting him in the same class with other more heralded players such as Perry Ellis (who ranks 5th), Georges Niang (who ranks 6th) and Virginia’s Anthony Gill (who actually is behind him at 10th). In a game and professional league that is becoming more and more reliant on analytics and advanced numbers, Sabonis satisfies the requirements as a legitimate first round pick and possible sleeper lottery pick.

But if you’re one of those guys who doesn’t buy into all the stats (i.e. Seth Davis), then look at what Sabonis has done on the floor. His footwork is impeccable for a post player, and his bevy of fakes and pivot moves makes up for his lack of length and athleticism. Furthermore, his motor is non-stop and without a doubt, Sabonis carried the Zags numerous times this year emotionally, especially in big games such as the WCC Championship and in the NCAA Tournament. But the biggest crowning achievement? His defensive shutdown of lottery pick Jakob Poeltel of Utah in the second round. Poeltel came into the game as one of the best offensive post players in the country, as evidenced by his 17.3 ppg and 8.9 rpg in 34 games and 124.1
adjusted offensive rating for the year. But against Sabonis? The Austrian center was limited to 5 points on 2 of 5 shooting and only nabbed 4 rebounds, good for an offensive rating of 77, his second lowest rating of the year (his lowest was 66 in a contest against Colorado on January 8th). Despite giving up a couple of inches and some considerable weight to Sabonis, the Lithuanian pushed Poeltel off the block on constant occasion and made him a non-factor whenever he was on the floor. If critics needed confirmation that Sabonis could handle himself against NBA bigs, then they were given a rude awakening after his sterling performance against Utah (he also scored 19 points, nabbed 10 rebounds and sported an offensive rating of 134).

And that’s the issue with Sabonis coming back. Unless he leads Gonzaga to the Final Four next year, I can’t imagine his stock getting any higher. He really has done all he could do to prove that he can play at the NBA level. Furthermore, there is nothing major that he needs to work on that another year of college would help him with. He has played well against good competition in high-pressure moments (the WCC and NCAA Tournament). He has put up good numbers. He has diversified his game, adding a sneaky good mid-range shot. Yes, Sabonis is left-hand dominant, and the athleticism isn’t there, but I can’t imagine Sabonis really getting considerably better in those categories with another year of college. For some players, coming back made sense. Olynyk needed to get stronger and he could put time in the weight room to do so. Sabonis is already pretty strong and has a NBA frame, and that will get more refined with more round-the-clock training at the professional level. Team-wise, yes, the Zags would be a heck of a lot better with Sabonis. But individually? There really is no incentive for Sabonis to come back, and I think he will realize that and enter the draft with his stock so high already (and could even go up more due to his father being Arvydas Sabonis).

Reason #2: The Zags will be garnering a lot of talent next year, and Sabonis returning could clog things up and result in potential transfers.

While we still do not know Przemek Karnowski’s off-season intentions (he probably has more to gain by staying after missing the year due to back injury but you never know), there will be an influx of talent this off-season that will lessen the loss of Sabonis. Center Ryan Edwards, though limited offensively, is a big body that will thrive with more minutes. And furthermore, the Zags will also add Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams, a stretch 4 type who could play small or power forward who has already been practicing with the team (along with Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss who could compete with Josh Perkins for the starting point guard spot). But the incoming freshman class will include McDonald’s All-American Zach Collins, a 6-11 center from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas that is the 37th ranked player according to ESPN, and European prospects Killian Tillie, a 6-8 forward from France and Jacob Larsen, a 6-10 F/C from Denmark. Considering the Zags’ success with European prospects, it would not be surprising if Tillie and/or Larsen are better than their initial recruiting rankings.

Add all that with Karnowski probably back and somebody’s feelings will get hurt on the bench and that could mean a potential transfer at the end of next season. As solid as Mark Few is, he definitely has his issues spreading minutes out, and that has definitely had an impact when it comes to players leaving the program (though for the most part, this hasn’t hurt the Zags with the exception of Ryan Spangler, who to be fair transferred more to be closer to home than any beef he had with Gonzaga). Yes, there is considerable risk going with more unproven commodities to fill in Sabonis’ spot, but if Karnowski is back it should soften the blow and allow the young guys to grow. Even if Karnwoski is back, the experience returning at guard in Perkins and Melson will also help the post players as they grow accustomed to the college game (though if Karnowski is not back, expect some early losses in the non-conference slate).

Yes, Sabonis would make the Zags a potential Final Four candidate and he would be a Naismith-watch player at the start of the season. But, in this day and age of constant transfers, the Zags would probably be best served if Sabonis declared, and that way, they could determine roles in the post positions this off-season during workouts.

Final thoughts on Sabonis

As a Gonzaga fan, I have to think that Sabonis probably was one of the best frontcourt players in Gonzaga history, up there with Olynyk, Robert Sacre and JP Batista. In fact, I would go out on a limb and say he may be the best post player in Gonzaga history as no other player flashed his combo of efficiency and intensity on a night in and night out basis. Sabonis was fun to watch, especially as he yelled after And 1’s and got after refs when he felt he was called. He was a guilty pleasure to watch as a Gonzaga fan, and it is a shame I wasn’t able to watch Gonzaga as much as I wanted to this year. If I had followed Gonzaga as closely as I did in years past, I probably would have a poster of Sabonis in my classroom.

But, I love and know the NBA game, and Sabonis is ready and would be a fool to stay. And to be honest, that’s okay not just for him, but for the Zags. Sometimes you need to move on, and by moving on, Gonzaga can go into this off-season forming their identity without him with the collection of young, though unproven, talent on the horizon.

As a Gonzaga fan, I know that is scary. After all, this year the Zags were so close to snapping their long-time NCAA Tournament streak, and without Sabonis’ the Zags might have been in the NIT losing to Valpo rather than Syracuse. But all good things come to an end, and even though Sabonis leaving would be bittersweet, it is best for both parties involved not just for next year, but the next few as well.

Good luck Domas. I know I’ll be enjoying seeing you get after NBA refs on League Pass next year.

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Jayhawk Jump? Can Kelly Oubre Follow Andrew Wiggins’ Lead in the NBA?

Kelly Oubre (left) maybe didn’t capture Jayhawk fans in 2014-2015 like expected, but it was the right decision for him to leave after 1 year.

Being in Kansas City, Kansas Jayhawk basketball dominates college (and just general) basketball talk. People either love or loathe KU hoops, and their opinions of certain players can be quite intense. No two players have been as polarizing the last couple of years than Andrew Wiggins, the former No. 1 recruit out of high school, No. 1 draft pick and reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, and Kelly Oubre, a top-10 prospect out of high school who followed Wiggins’ lead and declared for the draft out of high school.

For starters, if you understand the KU landscape, the easiest explanation of why these two players generate so much discussion is they have been the antithesis of what KU fans “expect” from their players. Jayhawk players stay for multiple years. Jayhawk player develop in Bill Self’s system and get better by year 2 or 3. Jayhawk players win Big 12 titles and go to Final Fours. Jayhawk players represent the name on the front and not on the back.

I know…it’s hard not to laugh at this crap, especially considering all the issues going on with the NCAA and College Basketball in general. But in all reality, this is how 90 percent of KU fans view their players and teams on a year-to-year basis. They really believe all those characteristics are associated with the Jayhawks like “The Cardinal Way” is with St. Louis Cardinals fans. And in the minds of Jayhawk fans, Wiggins and Oubre represented the opposite of that. They didn’t stay for more than 1 year. They didn’t “fit” in Self’s system offensively. They both exited in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. And they were “perceived” as players who cared more about their individual goals rather than team goals (i.e. they declared for the draft even though they didn’t achieve much success in the postseason).

First off, Wiggins was a projected No. 1 pick and Oubre was expected to go in the top-20. It’s hard to say “no” when those are your circumstances, especially as draft classes and stocks change quickly on an annual basis. Before he played a college game, Cliff Alexander, another fellow KU recruit who was actually rated higher than Oubre coming out of high school, was perceived as a Top-5 to Top-10 pick. Less than a year later? He’s undrafted and fighting for a roster spot, his future most likely destined for a D-League or International team next year. You can’t blame Wiggins, Oubre or any other NBA player for going while their stock is high (though Wiggins of course had the much higher stock).

In response to point number two, wings have always traditionally struggled in Self’s system at Kansas. Self runs primarily a 3-out, 2-in motion that looks to get touches and points in the paint through their big-men, and it’s obvious by the numbers that Self prefers scoring in the paint than beyond the arc (i.e. traditionalist basketball coach). Case in point, in the past four seasons, 58.3 percent of KU buckets have been assisted. A pretty good percentage and sign for a team, displaying there is more of an emphasis on passing and ball movement in Self’s system. However, in the past four seasons, only 28.9 percent of their field goal attempts have been from beyond the arc, and they haven’t rated higher than 247th in the nation in 3-point attempt percentage the past four seasons as well. What does that mean? It shows that all that ball movement and passing is going primarily to 2-point shots and 2-point shots typically are the forte of post players since they tend to be closer to the basket for closer 2’s (nobody game plans for mid-range jumpers, unless you’re Byron Scott). That is not necessarily something that corresponds with the trend in play going on in the NBA right now and what is wanted from wings at the college level (i.e. shooting from beyond the arc).

So what can you take away from Self’s system? It means that you have to take big-man production with a grain of salt and give a little more understanding to wing players who may struggle initially. So, the Thomas Robinson’s and Perry Ellis’ of the world are going to look good playing for Self while Wiggins and Oubre may leave some to be desired. But it’s not necessarily the latter wing players fault, as it seems to be more of a by-product of Self’s “post player preference” offense (common in 3-2 motion offenses).

Despite an offensive system that doesn’t typically play to wing players’ successes, Wiggins and Oubre still succeeded and improved over the course of their career, even if it was one season. At the end of the year, against Tier A competition (Top-50 opponents), according to Ken Pomeroy, Wiggins posted an adjusted offensive rating of 101.4, a True Shooting percentage of 53.6 percent and usage rate of 27.8 percent. Despite an offense geared toward posts, and against elite competition (in 2013-2014, KU had the toughest overall schedule in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy), Wiggins became effectively “the Man” for KU and carried the Jayhawks offensively. To compare to No. 2 pick, Jabari Parker of Duke, though Parker edged him slightly in the same category (Tier A opponents) in adjusted offensive rating (101.7), he did have a higher usage rate (31.8) but a lower true shooting percentage (51.5 percent). So Wiggins did improve in his career, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that Wiggins ended up having the Rookie of the Year season that he did. He flourished as much as he could have in Self’s system, and he got out while his stock was high.

As for Oubre, he didn’t have quite the same success that Wiggins had, but he wasn’t necessarily the same prospect either (Oubre was always a Top-10 guy, not a Top-2 player like Wiggins). His offensive rating over the year was a lot lower than Wiggins (108.7 to Wiggins’ 112.3) and he wasn’t as featured in the offense as Wiggins either (22.1 usage rate to Wiggins’ 25.5 rate). But Oubre, started the year horrifically (he only played double digit minutes in 2 of the first 7 games) and then really came into his own in Big 12 play. In conference play alone, his offensive rating stood at 110.0 with a true shooting percentage of 53.6 and a defensive rebounding rate of 19.3, which was actually the fifth best mark in that category in the Big 12. And much like Wiggins, Oubre proved to be a menace defensively, with Wiggins being better at blocking shots (3.1 to 2.5) and Oubre better at swiping the ball from opponents (3.6 to 2.3). Oubre still has to develop his outside shot, as he only shot 32.1 percent from the arc in Big 12 play and 32.7 percent against Tier A competition (compared to Wiggins, who shot 36.8 percent in Big 12 play; though he did only shoot 30 percent from beyond the arc against Tier A competition). But Oubre offers the same kind of athletic, offensive and defensive flexibility that made Wiggins such a success at Kansas and in Minnesota his first year in the League.

One of the main arguments though against Oubre by traditional Jayhawks fans though was that Oubre needed another year to develop. Unlike big men, who have gotten better with more years at Kansas (i.e. Robinson, who blossomed as junior, and Ellis), that hasn’t necessarily been the sure-fire case with perimeter players. Yes guys like Frank Mason got better last year (his offensive rating jumped from 105.8 to 111.5 his sophomore season), but Wayne Selden saw his offensive rating drop from 104.9 his freshman season to 98.0 his sophomore season, last year. Sure, Oubre could have seen an increase in efficiency and production his second season at Kansas, but it could also have gone south, like Selden, a late first-round to second round pick projection at the end of his freshman season who looks like a NBA longshot at this point. Oubre has a NBA game, and while his skills need some refinement, he still did enough his first year at Kansas to merit a NBA team using a first round pick on him.

As far as the last comment from Jayhawk fans about neither Wiggins nor Oubre winning anything as collegiate players? I think that is vastly overrated when it comes to evaluating college players and whether or not they’ll be successful at the NBA level. First off, neither Wiggins or Oubre had complete teams when they entered the Tournament. Wiggins’ squad had lost Joel Embiid, who was playing like one of the best big men in the country, while Oubre’s team struggled all year along with a go-to guy, that amplified even more when Alexander was ruled ineligible for the remainder of the season after 28 games. Furthermore, in college, it is hard for one player to transcend a team over the top, especially in the one-and-done style of the Tournament. In the NBA Playoffs, the best teams usually wins because it’s a 7-game series. In a single-elimination tournament, it’s a crap shoot that is fun to see because of the upsets, but usually results in Final Four matchups that usually underwhelm because the best teams aren’t in the championship (i.e. Butler and UConn circa 2011 and UConn-Kentucky circa 2014…yes, I do not like watching UConn).

And remember these facts: Kevin Durant lost in the 2nd round his freshman year at Texas; Parker lost in the first round with Duke; Chris Paul lost in the 2nd round of the tournament his sophomore year at Wake Forest; and Carmelo Anthony wouldn’t have won a championship if not for Gerry McNamara going insane or Hakim Warrick blocking that shot against Kansas down the stretch. Throw a packing zone defense or have one player hit an insane amount of threes for a half and even a slightly-above average or even average can knock off a college team with LeBron James. You cannot blame Wiggins and Oubre for not winning it all in the college landscape. In the NBA? You have an argument, but not college where the rules (longer shot clock, no zone defense limits) and circumstances (single-elimination postseason) make it far too difficult for one player to carry their team to a championship.

So, despite what many “Jayhawk Purists” think (i.e. fans who still hang onto players becoming the next Jacque Vaughn, Kirk Heinrichs, Nick Collison, Scott Pollard, Greg Ostertag, etc.), Wiggins had a successful year at Kansas and it transitioned to the NBA, and Oubre had a successful season at Kansas, even if many Jayhawk fans might not admit it (do not point to the 9.3 ppg…per game numbers can be deceiving due to pace and the offense a coach employs, and neither really helped Oubre all that much last year, especially with the offense lacking direction and definition immensely at times beyond Oubre’s control). Will that transition to a successful season for Oubre his rookie year though? Can Oubre prove to the KU naysayers much like Wiggins did with Minnesota?

As of two Summer League games, Oubre is trying to make his case. He leads the Wizards in minutes at 29.5 per game, he is scoring 19 points per game and 9.0 rebounds per game, and showing flashes of brilliance on the defensive end, averaging 1.5 steals per game along with some highlight reel blocks. However, Oubre is only shooting 35.1 percent from the field and a ghastly 1 of 12 from beyond the arc. His shaky 3-point shot has been a critique from scouts of Oubre as well as his shot selection and that seems to be evident in the limited 2 game sample in Summer League. That being said, Oubre is showing the strong rebounding ability and offensive and defensive versatility that made him a weapon at Kansas and persuaded the Wizards to trade for him at 15 in last year’s draft (the Hawks had the original pick).

It will be tough though for Oubre to match the heights of Wiggins’ Rookie Campaign in Washington. First off, unlike Wiggins, Oubre is coming to a playoff team with a strong (but still young) veteran presence. With John Wall and Bradley Beal leading the way, and Otto Porter coming off a strong second year, minutes will be tough to come by for Oubre in the Wizards rotation. I would not be surprised at all to see the same growing pains for Oubre that Porter had his rookie year, where he only played 37 games and struggled to find minutes. The Wizards are looking to compete for a Eastern Conference title with Cleveland, and Randy Wittman has displayed a short leash with his rookies in the past.

But, Oubre has potential, and he could be a sleeper from this 2015 draft class. Though he certainly was a polarizing figure at Kansas (like Wiggins) and while some Jayhawk fans felt he was a disappointment, Oubre was a lot better than people thought last season and he left to be a professional at a good time, considering the circumstances (offense, Self’s history with producing NBA wings) back in Lawrence. Maybe Oubre and Wiggins could have benefited from another year at KU. It certainly would have been fun to see Wiggins or Oubre as sophomores. But considering the situations they both faced, it was obvious that the benefits would have helped the Jayhawks more than them as individuals in the long-term and that is a risk that certainly wouldn’t have been worth it for either of their professional futures.

I know that’s something Kansas fans don’t want to hear (i.e. a player cares more about his individual future than the team’s). But I know most Kansas fans (and myself) and even would be thinking about their own livelihoods too if they had a chance to accumulate millions of dollars immediately too, degree acquired or not.

Transfer Tape: Desmond Simmons, 6-7, 225 pounds, St. Mary’s (via Washington)

As with most teams in the college basketball universe, many teams in the WCC will be experiencing a plethora of incoming transfers this upcoming year. Thanks to the “senior rule” (where transfers do not have to sit out a year if they already have their degree), it is becoming more enticing for squads to get that “free agent” for a year to help boost their team’s chances for a NCAA Tournament berth for the upcoming season. The big squads that will be reliant on some big-time transfers are the usual suspects like Gonzaga (who will be depending on Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and USC transfer Byron Wesley) and San Francisco (who will be relying on a plethora of transfers that are too many to count), but St. Mary’s is a surprising squad that will be more transfer-heavy than usual. One of the more interesting players they bring to campus this fall is Desmond Simmons, a local Bay Area kid from Vallejo, California (a city that produced talent like DeMarcus Nelson and MLB great CC Sabathia) who went to Salesian High School, but ended up playing for a talent-stacked Washington Husky squad for three seasons. Now a senior, Simmons has returned to the Bay Area to play for Randy Bennett, hoping to not only help the Gaels return to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season, but also to experience his first NCAA Tournament game as well (the Huskies never went to the Tournament in his time there despite playing with such highly-touted players like CJ Wilcox, Terrence Ross, Tony Wroten, and Abdul Gaddy).

If you watched the video above from Simmons’ time with Drew Gooden’s Soliders AAU team based out of the Bay Area, its obvious that Simmons brings athleticism to this Gaels squad. While the Gaels have had their fair share of athletic forwards in Bennett’s time there (Diamon Simpson being the most prime example), Simmons may be one of the most athletic players to make his way to Moraga. At 6-7, 225 pounds, Simmons has the potential to play in both the post and the wing, and his combo ability should help out post centerpiece Brad Waldow, who while a talented offensive player, has struggled on the defensive end against more athletic and talented post players. While Beau Levesque, the player Simmons most likely will be replacing in the rotation, was extremely talented as a shooter and defensive rebounder, Levesque also struggled physically against bigger power forwards, as his offensive rebounding rate was meager at 7.7 percent. Look at the three year numbers for Simmons in his time at Washington, playing in a more talent-heavy roster, and in a more competitive conference (Pac-12).

Via KenPom.com

Though his offensive rebounding rates went down in his last year there, his offensive rebounding rate average is 11.1 percent, which is a significant upgrade over Levesque. Add that with already good offensive rebounders on the squad like Garrett Jackson (16.7 in 21 percent minutes played), Matt Hodgson (13.1 in 25 percent minutes played) and Waldow (13.7 percent last year) and Simmons should make stronger an already good offensive rebounding Gael squad from a year ago (35.8 percent offensive rebounding rate, 54th in the nation).

Another area which could be key to Simmons’ contributing to the Gaels squad will be his effectiveness on defense, which has not been a strength of the Gaels in Bennett’s time there. While Bennett has succeeded with strong-shooting, very good offensive-oriented squads, defensively, they have left a little to be desired. After ranking 46th in the nation in eFG percentage allowed in the 2009-2010 season, the Gaels have only cracked the Top-150 in eFG percentage allowed once since (2012-2013). Their main struggles as a team centers around giving up high 3-point percentages (165th, 296th, 274th and 300th in opposing 3P % the past four season), which is alarming considering they usually rank low when it comes to opposing 3-point shots allowed (they’ve been in the top-10 in fewest 3-pointers allowed 5 out of the past 6 years). One of the main issues is that they haven’t had the kind of athleticism in the perimeter or post to defend against that shot. Teams can hurt the Gaels with both on-ball and off-ball screens to free shooters on the perimeter, because the Gaels defenders aren’t strong or quick enough to go through or play around the screens quick enough to properly defend the shot. Add that with Bennett’s penchant for playing a shallow rotation, and the fatigue that sets in also has had an effect in terms of perimeter players losing their man (they are mostly a man-to-man based squad under Bennett) and giving up easy three point shots.

Simmons however could buck that trend. He’s long enough to contest three-point shots, and he has the speed to play adequate defense on the perimeter and the strength to go through screens and not allow space for the three pointer. Furthermore, Simmons comes from a defensive system where they excelled in defending against the the three point shot. Last season, the Huskies ranked 52nd in the nation in 3 point percentage allowed and two years ago when they won the Pac-12 regular season title, they ranked 94th in the nation. While Simmons wasn’t the sole culprit (Lorenzo Romar is known for recruiting athletic wings), the fact that he is been in that kind of defensive system and had the ability to play in it should be a huge boost to a Gaels program that has traditionally struggled in such an area.

The biggest question though is how Simmons’ offensive game will transition to minutes in Bennett’s rotation. As written in a post earlier in January, Bennett is not known for utilizing his bench much, and though this Gaels team will be deeper athletically in years past thanks to the slew of transfers, it is obvious that Bennett prefers a shallow rotation in comparison to most coaches in the WCC. It is also seen that Bennett prefers to have at least one post player who is able to step back and shoot the 3 pointer, and it is yet to be seen that Simmons has the shooting ability to fit into what the Gaels want to do offensively. Waldow is primarily a post player (only 1 3-point shot last season), and Simmons resembles the same kind of profile, as he only took 9 three point shots a year ago, a career low (he took 27 his freshman year). To make matters worse, Simmons overall shooting is pretty mediocre as well, as he sported an eFG percentage of 44.7, which was a career high. Considering Levesque had an eFG percentage of 49.2 percent last year, it doesn’t bode well that Simmons is exactly the type of 4 player that Bennett has typically played or wanted for his offensive system (which is primarily a 4-out style of offense).

But, even though he is not strong as a shooter, Simmons has gone a long way to develop his offensive game. His offensive rating of 104.4 was better than Hodgson (93.4) or Jackson (98.2) a year ago and against better competition (4th best conference in comparison to 9th best conference according to KenPom). And, Simmons is not a player who needs the ball in his hands to succeed offensively either, as his usage rate of 15.1 percent last year makes him more a complimentary piece on the offensive end, which is what the Gaels really need considering their main scoring option will again be Waldow next season. So, even though Simmons may not fit the mold characteristic of 4-position players that have come through Bennett’s system in years past, he is not a ball-killer kind of player (i.e. he doesn’t hog it and need a lot of possessions to be effectively offensively), and if he can put up similar offensive efficiency to what he did in Washington, that might be good enough for Bennett to keep Simmons in the rotation, especially considering the upside he can bring to St. Mary’s defensively.

It will be interesting to see how Simmons fits in the Gaels rotation, a team that initially looked to be in rebuilding mode until they landed high profile transfers such as Simmons and Stanford guard Aaron Bright. While Simmons may not be as high profile as some incoming WCC transfers (such as Wiltjer or Wesley for Gonzaga), he could be a complimentary piece that could help the Gaels bounce back after such a disappointing finish last season. Furthermore, it will be interesting to see how Simmons affects Bennett’s recruiting in the future, as Simmons is very atypical of what Bennett has traditionally brought to Moraga in terms of profile and athleticism. If Simmons succeeds with the Gaels, and helps St. Mary’s to another tournament berth, it could result in the addition of more higher-profile and athletic wing players to the Gaels program, not only as transfers, but perhaps as incoming freshmen as well.

Recruit Report: Domantas Sabonis, PF, 6-11, 200 pounds, Gonzaga Commit

Though it’s been almost a couple of months since he has signed, no player has been more fascinating this recruiting class than Domantas Sabonis, a power forward prospect from Lithuania. Sabonis comes with all kinds of fanfare already, as he is long, lanky athletic power forward who arrives to Gonzaga with an impressive basketball pedigree. Let’s take a look at why Sabonis should be highly anticipated by Zag and WCC fans this upcoming season.

Solid International Experience

Sabonis has been a long-time product of the Lithuanian national basketball program, a major power in the FIBA universe. Remember, this is a country that has recently produced NBA players like Linas Kleiza, Donatas Montiejunas and Jonas Valanciunas. Additionally, as a national program, the Lithuanian team earned the silver medal in the 2013 FIBA EuroBasket tournament, and the bronze medal in the 2010 FIBA World Cup in Turkey. The fact that Sabonis is involved in such a international powerhouse program means that he has had the proper development in his younger years, especially in comparison to other national basketball programs, where coaching and development is a little more uneven.

As for his actual playing experience at the international level, Sabonis has excelled representing Lithuania on the court. He averaged 14.1 points per game 14.4 rebounds per game and 2.6 assists per game for Lithuania in the 2012 U-16 FIBA World Championship (the team finished 11th), and 14 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game for Lithuania in the 2013 U-18 FIBA World Championship (his rebounding mark was a high for any player in the tournament). In terms of international competition, not only has Sabonis faced some of the world’s best young talent, he has displayed he can excel against the top international talent at his age level as well.

But, the international experience doesn’t stop there, as like many international talent who end up playing in college in the United States, Sabonis played with a competitive international club last season (you can play for a club as long as you do not sign a professional contract; this is touchy since some try to test how much compensation they can receive, as was the case with Kentucky recruit Enes Kanter, who didn’t sign a professional contract, but earned more money playing than allowable by the NCAA and lost his amateur status and didn’t play a minute for the Wildcats). Last year, Sabonis played for Unicaja Malaga, one of the top Spanish teams in the ACB league (a league Ricky Rubio also played for before coming to the NBA) that also qualified for the Euroleague (basketball’s answer to the Champions League in Soccer). While Sabonis did not play much (he played 10.5 minutes per game in ACB league action and 9.3 minutes in Euroleague play), he was one of the youngest players in the league in general (playing mostly as a 17-year-old) and earned rave reviews from coaches and players for his work ethic and development in his time with Unicaja Malaga. Watch the video below to see some interesting interviews with coaches and players about Sabonis (many interviews are in Spanish, but there are some English ones too).

Furthermore, one of the more endearing traits of international coaching and play is their willingness to “experiment” with young players in terms of positions. Unlike in the United States, where players are primarily placed at a position early on depending on their size and athleticism, Europe is known for having players play at multiple positions regardless of height or size. This has led to taller players displaying skills that is more expected of perimeter players (such as Dirk Nowitzki for example). It sounds like the coaching staff for Unicaja Malaga was willing to try Sabonis out in different positions to improve his development as an overall player, according to this report by Eurohopes, a Euroleague scouting site. Here is a quote from the writer of the report:

“After dominating European Championship U16 as a clear-cut up-front player, Unicaja’s coaching staff has decided to transfer him into tweener, so not surprisingly that in Rome Sabonis is seeing his playing time mostly at SF spot in Unicaja’s packed with sized lineup.”

For Gonzaga, this bodes well considering that small forward may be a position of need for the Zags, and they should be in good shape in the post with center Przemek Karnowski returning, and Kentucky transfer power forward Kyle Wiltjer being eligible right away. It is certainly in the realm of possibility that Few could throw out a huge front line with Sabonis at the 3, Wiltjer at 4 and Karnowski at 5. Now, whether or not Few would employ such a lineup on a regular basis is to be determined, but from the report listed above, it seems like Sabonis has worked on playing at the small forward position in his time in Europe, and this should give him a chance to earn minutes and be an impact player immediately for the Zags.

Impressive Basketball Lineage and Skills

Another aspect that should entice Northwest WCC basketball fans is the fact that Sabonis is the son of Arvydas, the legendary Lithuanian player who dominated in his time with the Soviet Union basketball squad and carved out an impressive career with the Portland Trailblazers. While his son Domantas doesn’t have the size of Arvydas (Sabonis was a bear literally speaking at 7-3 and 279 pounds) and it is to be determined if he has the overall skill prowess of his father (Arvydas would constantly dazzle fans with his soft shooting touch and excellent passing skills), he does come to the United States at a much younger age (Arvydas was 31 when he came to the NBA).

While some may not agree, basketball pedigree is an important trait that bodes well for player success. Having a father who played at a high level usually results in some of those skills and “instincts” being passed down to the younger generation. The Zags saw this with David Stockton, who while not physically gifted, inherited the excellent passing skills from his father and hall of famer John. Furthermore, the WCC has seen many talented players who came from NBA families carve out good careers at the college level including Luke Sikma of Portland (son of Jack who played for the Sonics), Austin Daye of Gonzaga (son of Darren who played for the Celtics) and Mychel Thompson of Pepperdine (son of Mychal Thompson who played for the Blazers and Lakers). While Sabonis will obviously have the help of the coaching staff to aid his development at Gonzaga in preparation for the next level, having his father’s input most likely will also be key in terms of adjusting to life and basketball play in the United States.

But, while having a NBA father has some intrinsic value, it also is a good sign physically as well, as players usually inherit many of the physical gifts of their fathers. That seems to be the case with Sabonis, as he is a tall athletic player and has the same excellent footwork, rebounding skills and tenacity that was characteristic of his father. If you watch the video below, Sabonis finishes especially well at the rim, and is able to display a flurry of post moves and drives that constantly results in easy points. Furthermore, he is able to get rebounds at a good rate, and isn’t pushed out easily by opposing players. If there was one quality that was endearing about Arvydas, it was his toughness, strength and tenacity in the paint that complemented his dazzling passing and ballhandling skills. While the strength isn’t totally there yet, it seems like Domantas has the motor and the toughness to handle himself at the college level. As he continues to develop muscle strength and fill into his body, it is possible that he could garner the strength down the road as a player that could resemble similarly to his father. Check out the video below and see how Domantas as a 16-year-old held his own and then some in International competition for Lithuania.

What CCH Overall Thinks of Sabonis

There have been a lot of ballyhooed recruits that I have gotten excited about at Gonzaga. Daye came in with an impressive high school pedigree and lofty recruiting rankings. Karnowski was known for his international experience as well as his participation in the Nike Hoop Summit, which in my opinion, is the best high school showcase currently (I think its more competitive than the McDonald’s All American Classic or Jordan Brand Classic). Kevin Pangos got on the map for holding his own against future Top-3 pick Andrew Wiggins in Canada. But Sabonis could possibly top all of them in my anticipation of him simply based on his physical skills, international experience and basketball pedigree. I can’t remember a player from Gonzaga who had this much development at such a young age, and faced so much elite competition as well before they even set foot in Spokane. Yes, he hasn’t gotten the hype that Daye or even current Top-50 recruit Josh Perkins received in the Recruiting media, but Sabonis probably went under the radar because I’m sure many didn’t think he was going to college initially. I’m sure many felt that Sabonis would play for Unicaja Malaga for a couple of more years and then make the jump to the NBA like most international players. Instead, Gonzaga gets an interesting player who could potentially have an impact on an even more loaded squad next season.

And I’m not alone in this feeling. Here is what Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports said in a piece that mentioned that Domantas Sabonis will have an impact for the Zags next season:

“One person that watched Sabonis in the past said he would have been a McDonald’s All-American had he played in the United States. Sabonis is only 17, but will be relied upon right off the bat for Mark Few and the Bulldogs.”

As stated before, it will be interesting to see how Mark Few will utilize Sabonis considering that Karnowski and Wiltjer are more experienced at the college level and will be more established with Few’s philosophy in comparison (Karnowski will be in his third year at Gonzaga and Wiltjer had a year in the program after sitting out due to transfer rules). But that being said, Sabonis has tremendous upside and potential, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him making a strong impact and making a name for himself in the college game in his first season with the Zags despite how loaded this Gonzaga team already is.

Recruit Report: Evan Fitzner, 6-10, 215 pounds, St. Mary’s Commit

The first post player on the recruit report belongs to Evan Fitzner, a 6-10 forward from Francis Parker High School in San Diego. Fitzner signed with Randy Bennett’s Gaels on October, 8th and he should bring an interesting profile and skill set to the Gaels in 2014-2015. He is long, athletic and has very good touch from outside the arc, the perfect kind of player to fit Bennett’s “shooter-heavy” system.

Fitzner was mostly looking at schools on the West Coast, as he also received offers from Arizona State, California, Hawaii, Loyola Marymount, New Mexico, Northern Arizona, Oregon State, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, USC and Washington. Just judging by the four other WCC School offers, there was a high possibility that Fitzner was going to be playing in the WCC somewhere next season. That being said, it appears that his visit and the program in general convinced Fitzner to take his talents up north from San Diego to Moraga.

Let’s take a look at some things about Fitzner.

What they Are Saying About Fitzner

From ESPN.com (71 rating, 3 star recruit)

Fitzner possesses a long and rangy frame with very long arms. He is a good athlete that runs well and his quickness and bounce have improved around the paint area. He has a remarkable touch that extends out to 22-feet and his ball skills are impressive.”

From Full Court Press.net (45th best player in SoCal area)

Skilled forward needs strength and bulk as well as toughness to be a factor in WCC.” 

From West Coast Convo

This is a big time commitment for the Gaels as next season they will lose 6’11 center Matt Hodgeson to graduation and had already lost power forward Chris Reyes this year who transferred out earlier this season. Fitzner is known more for his shooting ability at the stretch-4 position rather than interior play, but none-the-less should get good minutes next season in his first year as a Gael.”

Catholic Coast Hoops Quick Analysis

When you watch video of Fitzner, there is a lot to like. He has a good looking shot, and his form and touch has improved greatly from his sophomore season. In fact, as an outside player, he seems very dangerous, as he can find his shot easily thanks to his ability to move around well for a big man, in addition to his height. In many ways, he seems to be a combo of former Gael Daniel Kickert (who was a big man with a strong propensity to shoot from the outside) and Gonzaga forward Austin Daye (who was a good shooter from the outside for a 6-10 player). I am not sure if he has Daye’s defensive ability (Daye was a very good shot blocker at Gonzaga), but he definitely shares the former first round draft pick’s combo skill set of shooting and size.

Much like Daye though, Fitzner needs to add strength, and it’ll be interesting to see if he’ll be able to get inside to score points or get to the line if his shot is not falling. The Gaels will return Brad Waldow next year, but Fitzner could be a player to take the ease off him in the post, which could not only benefits Fitzner’s game, but Waldow’s as well. That being said, there are going to be some good big men next year in the WCC in Przemek Karnowski at Gonzaga (who’ll be a junior) and Thomas van der Mars from Portland (who’ll be a senior), so it’ll be interesting to see how Fitzner adjusts to the nightly competition after playing at a small school in San Diego (though to be fair he has played against good AAU and tournament competition).  I don’t see Fitzner making an immediate splash, but I think his shooting skill set and height will make him a decent, if not solid contributor for the Gaels in his freshman season next year, which will be sorely needed as the Gaels routinely struggle with depth on their squad.

Recruit Report: Kyron Cartwright, 5-11, 155 pounds, LMU Commit

It’s been a while, but I decided to add another Recruit Report to the list. Keeping with the guard-heavy theme as of late, I am going to profile Compton guard Kyron Cartwright, a 5-11 guard out of Compton High who played AAU ball with the prestigious Compton Magic program. Cartwright is an athletic, lefty-guard who has a strong knack to attack the hoop and score at will. Before committing to LMU in November, the senior guard also received offers from Cal State Fullerton, New Mexico and San Diego.

Cartwright is currently rated as the 18th best player in the State of California according to ESPN.com, and Full Court Press.net rated him as the 30th best player in the SoCal region. Along with forward commit Elijah Stewart, Cartwright should be able to have an immediate impact on Max Good’s LMU squad next season (especially since long-time guard Anthony Ireland will be gone as well).

What they Are Saying About Cartwright

From ESPN.com (72 rating, 3-star recruit)

Cartwright is a slick left-handed point guard who is tough to stop in transition. He has an excellent pull-up jumper and he gets tremendous lift on it. He has a high-level burst as well and can toss in the occasional runner as well.”

From Scout.com (2-star rating)

Kyron Cartwright, 5-10 JR PG Compton (Calif.) High, is one of the top point guards in the west for 2014. A quick lefty with range to the stripe, excellent vision and very good ball skills overall, Cartwright is perhaps the most under-recruited prospect in the West Coast junior class.” 

From FullCourtPress.net (ranked 30th best player in Southern California)

Speedy PG has no problem evading defensive pressure.  Will be a pleasant addition to Max Good’s Lions next Fall.”

Catholic Coast Hoops Quick Analysis

It has been a bit of a rough conference season for head coach Max Good. After starting 2-0 with a big win over BYU to start conference play, the Lions have slumped, losing six straight WCC games. The Lions main struggles have been on the offensive end, as they rank last in offensive efficiency in the WCC, and last in categories such as free throw rate and 3-point percentage. Already, it seems like Lions fans are already looking toward next year, a shame since the WCC season started with so much promise for Good and the Lions.

That being said, next year’s recruiting class has some enticing players, and Cartwright leads the pack. Check out the video above (it’s a scouting video courtesy of Full Court Press.net’s scouting service), and you can get more details about Cartwright’s profile as a recruit. He is very quick off the dribble and he has good touch around the rim as well. His smaller frame is a bit of a concern, but his speed may already be “starter-worthy” as he regularly torched defenders from what I have seen on tape. Furthermore, he is also a left-handed player, and if Manu Ginobili has taught us anything, lefties who are quick off the dribble can be extremely dangerous and difficult players to defend. I think Cartwright has that kind of speed that will make him a tough outing for opposing WCC guards on a nightly basis.

The main issue with Cartwright is he is almost TOO left-hand dominant (as that was noted in the video), as you rarely see him drive with the right in the video above. And, while his pull up jumper looks good, you do not get a lot of looks at it, and I am curious about his range, as it did not have a lot of shots of him shooting from beyond the arc. From the reports I have seen, I don’t think Cartwright is a long-range specialist by any means, but if he can have a decent shot from outside, that will only make his offensive game more dangerous since he is so strong dribbling past defenders and getting to the hoop. He doesn’t need to be Kevin Pangos from beyond the arc, but if he can be simply average, it will help his ability to make an impact on this Lions squad in 2014-2015.

Overall, Cartwright looks to be a solid addition to this Lions squad, and with Ireland gone (as noted above), Cartwright will get a shot to earn major minutes in the backcourt as a freshman next year at LMU along with Evan Payne, who’ll be a sophomore. I am not sure if Cartwright will be as good a shooter as Ireland, but his ability to drive and create fares pretty similarly to the four-year player, so this definitely is a nice pickup by Good. While his on-court success has been inconsistent this year and in the past few years as well, Good has made inroads in his recruiting and really hit the Los Angeles/Southern California area hard this year, as he also got a commitment from Stewart, a Westchester High School product. It’ll be interesting to see if the Lions will turn things around and help Good keep his position at LMU. If he does stick and survive this season, he and the Lions could be very dangerous next year with Cartwright and a solid recruiting class coming to campus next Fall and a more experienced group returning as well (they only lose 3 seniors).

Recruit Report: Josh Perkins, 6-3, 185 pounds, Gonzaga commit

One of the highest profile recruits coming into the WCC next year is Gonzaga commit Josh Perkins out of Huntington Prep High School in Huntington, West Va. If the name of the school sounds familiar it should be, as former high profile recruits Andrew Wiggins and OJ Mayo played high school ball there during their senior seasons (Huntington has effectively become the next Oak Hill Academy, which was famous for getting senior transfers from all over the nation; the list include Carmelo Anthony, Josh Smith and DeSagna Diop to name a few). Originally from the Denver, Colorado-area, Perkins looks to be the kind of player that could continue Gonzaga’s great tradition of producing effective guards.

ESPN currently rates Perkins as the 38th best recruit in the nation according to their Top-100, and also considered UCLA and Minnesota before signing with the Zags. Even though Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell are most likely going to return for the senior seasons, Perkins looks like he could be a good sixth man off the bench next year for the Zags as a guard, especially with longtime and popular point guard David Stockton graduating this year.

What they are saying about Perkins

From Rivals.com (graded him a four-star recruit and 46th best in the nation)

“A very flashy playmaker from Colorado who sees open teammates pretty much anywhere on the floor. Whips passes with either hand and makes plays in transition. On offense he favors pull-up jumpers and sometimes settles. Opponents who can really move laterally can bother him.”

From Scout.com (graded him a four-star recruit and the fifth-best point guard in the nation)

“More than anything, Perkins is a sensational passer. He makes the difficult ones look easy and can make the easy ones difficult, but his abilities in this regard are indisputable. Perkins also is a talented scorer. He doesn’t draw as much praise for that for that ability and understandably so, but he knocks down three-pointers on the high side of screens and shoots well setting himself up off the dribble.” 

From Slipper Still Fits (Gonzaga SB Nation Blog)

“Perkins is undoubtedly one of the highest rated recruits to ever commit to Gonzaga.  He had offers from outstanding programs across the country, most notably UCLA, Minnesota, Connecticut, Arizona, and Stanford.  He received significant interest from Kentucky, Syracuse, and Kansas as well.  He is currently a top-30 prospect on both Scout and Rivals which is similar to where Austin Daye was rated and slightly higher than where Matt Bouldin checked in at when he arrived at Gonzaga.”

Catholic Coast Hoops Quick Analysis

When you watch Perkins on tape, he is just a phenomenal passer. He simply has an uncanny ability to find the open man with extraordinary quickness and accuracy. If anything, he reminds me a lot of a taller Sebastian Telfair with his ability to handle the ball, drive and find his teammates with ease (and I do NOT use that comparison frugally; I watched Jonathan Hock’s “Through the Fire” like a dozen times). While I do not have stats on his current shooting stats, scouts rate him as a solid shooter, and his form looks good on tape, as he is able to pull up and shoot the jumper quickly when his team is in transition. Scout.com also raved about his 3-point shooting, rating it as one of his strengths as a player along with his passing and court vision.

The Slipper Still Fits, which has been following him in person for a good while (one of the main writers of the blog lived in Denver and used to see him when he was still going to high school in Denver), remarked he was one of the highest profile recruits since Austin Daye (Daye was one of the first truly “High Profile National Recruits” the Zags signed, though some argue Jeremy Pargo holds that honor since he was a pretty highly rated recruit of Chicago). I sort of agree with the assessment, though I think Kevin Pangos and Przemek Karnowski would have been rated higher had they been “American” recruits (both guys played for the international squad in the Nike Hoops Summit their senior years, which is just slightly below the McDonald’s All American Classic in terms of prestige). Nonetheless, Perkins is a legitimate recruit, and much like Daye back in 2007, I believe Perkins will be making plenty of buzz when he arrives on campus next Fall (or technically Summer, since most basketball recruits come to take classes in the summer to get a head start). Because of Pangos and Bell’s presence next year, I don’t think Perkins will break out as a star or have the kind of immediate impact those two had when they arrived. That being said, I think he’ll be a key factor in the Zags’ rotation his rookie campaign and earn a sizable chunk of playing time that will develop him to have his true breakout in his sophomore season.