With the start of the 2017-18 season just a few weeks away, the TU men’s and women’s basketball teams took the floor on Saturday for twenty minute intersquad scrimmages, giving the public its first real look at what to expect from the Golden Hurricane this year. I was only able to catch the very end of the women’s game so I won’t have much in terms of analysis until their season starts. For the men on the other hand, it’s clear that things are looking up.
Coming off a disappointing ’16-’17 season, the men’s team will seek to improve from continuity if nothing else; they will return four starters and eight total letterwinners. They look to be much deeper this year as well, adding four new players who all appear talented enough to secure spots in the rotation.
Freshman Elijah Joiner was particularly impressive. The 18-year-old out of Curie Metropolitan High School in Chicago played with a poise and herky-jerky technicality well beyond his years. Though he lists Derrick Rose as his favorite player (no surprise given his hometown), Joiner’s style is far more reminiscent of Paul Pierce or Andre Miller.
He appeared at all times to be one of the least athletic players on the floor and lacks impressive handles for someone so ball-dominant, but Joiner still managed to get to his spots with ease. He has a beautiful jumper and was lights out from beyond the arc, shooting 4-7 on his way to a game-high 15 points. Still, one has to wonder whether his limited foot speed will be exposed against D1 opponents. He was able to more than hold his own against Sterling Taplin, but on that count Taplin may be more to blame.
Taplin, the Golden Hurricane’s starting point guard and the lone returning member from TU’s First Four appearance two years ago, seems to fancy himself a young Kyrie Irving. He loves to bring the ball up slowly then pound the living hell out of it, daring defenders with every high dribble to reach so he can blow by them with a quick crossover. Taplin operates with all the contemptuous braggadocio of a floor general who knows he’s totally in command of the court. Unfortunately, the rest of his play doesn’t back that up.
Though I hesitate to make a criticism based on one scrimmage, Taplin once again displayed his most frustrating tendency from seasons past: a refusal to drive to the basket. A player with his handle, athleticism and now bulk (he looks to have added at least ten pounds of muscle) should be able to get into the paint at will and create all sorts of mismatches on defense.
The smoothest TU’s offense looked all day was when Taplin rocketed past the switch on a pick and roll and found freshman Darien Jackson lurking on the baseline, who then fed the rock to a rim-running Martins Igbanu for an uncontested lay-in. It was gorgeous, snappy basketball, and this team needs more of that after the clogged toilet scheme that they ran last year.
Coach Frank Haith has praised his roster’s unselfishness and willingness to share the ball, but a motion-based, everyone-touches-the-ball offense only gets you so far with a group that has a limited number of playmakers. Keep things simple: hand over the keys to Taplin, run pick-and-rolls until you get the switch you want and let him go to work.
This shouldn’t be a difficult decision to make, not when you have an ideal power forward to work with him on this kind of two-man game. Junior Etou was named to the preseason American Conference second team after leading the Golden Hurricane in scoring, rebounding and three-point shooting. Etou is a big body and a fine athlete, but it’s his ability to hit from deep that makes him special.
The threat of a pick and pop should prevent defenses from trying to trap Taplin on every possession. Incidentally, Etou didn’t look great at the scrimmage but he’s a guy you can’t be too worried about; the whole college basketball world knows he got game. My one concern for Junior was that he would be pressured to play inside-out after the unexpected loss of Will Magnay left a gaping hole at center. Thankfully, that space looks like it will be filled just fine by Martins Igbanu.
The sophomore from Lagos, Nigeria is only 6’8”, but the dude is built like a tank and won’t be pushed around easily by opposing bigs. He’s also clearly spent time working on his post game over the summer, showing off a silky turnaround jumper on his way to 13 points on 6-8 shooting. Igbanu impressed in limited minutes last year, with more exposure he could develop into one of the best big men in the conference. Expect a spot in the starting lineup and regular double-doubles in 2017-18.
Some other assorted thoughts from the game: junior transfer DaQuan Jeffries is an absolutely freakish athlete. Though he often looked as if he was floating in space on both ends of the floor, the 6’5” Jeffries showed off a dynamic playmaking streak reminiscent of Shaq Harrison. He scored 12 points and delivered the highlight of the game when he jumped a passing lane and delivered a monster slam that saw his head reach the rim.
Another stud: fellow transfer Curran Scott. The former top-150 high school prospect from Edmond returned to Oklahoma after a short tenure in Charlotte and looked every bit as good as advertised. He operated mostly from the midrange in the scrimmage but showed off a smooth three-point stroke during warmups. He’ll fill the sixth man void left by Pat Birt and hopefully take all of Lawson Korita’s minutes.
I have nothing against Lawson personally and never like to speak ill of my fellow students, but I just can’t figure this man out. His only discernible skill on the court appears to be shooting, and that “skill” amounted to 26 percent from deep on a nearly seven shot per 40 minute pace. Nothing looks different this year. No thank you.
In the same vein, I feel like I’m missing something with Jaleel Wheeler. Guy played heavy minutes with Etou, Taplin and Birt last year and ranked second on the team in points, rebounds and assists so he’s obviously got the favor of coach Haith. Even so, he just doesn’t look all that talented to me. Jumper is broken, he’s not a very creative passer, doesn’t seem to have a natural position. I suppose Wheeler’s not a bad defender, but even then he’s a bit undersized for a two guard.
Speaking of size, that could end up being the Golden Hurricane’s kryptonite this year. I’ve already sung Igbanu’s praises but he will still be playing out of position and TU’s rotation looks dicy behind him. Rail-thin Geno Artison and undersized Jeriah Horne will compete for those minutes and neither looks to offer much on the offensive end.