The Cougs are poised for a fun season if the scoring can take a leap.
The Washington State basketball season is almost upon us and Kyle Smith has built the most exciting team we have had in the Palouse in some time. Despite the loss of leading scorer Isaac Bonton, this year has all the making to be the best one in almost a decade.
The team made its bones on defense last year and the offense lagged significantly behind. A lot of the offense ended up being tough shots by Bonton, simple pin-downs for Noah Williams, or Dishon Jackson post-ups. This year, however, there is a bit more continuity and offensive talent present and it will allow Smith to do a lot more interesting things on that end.
The Cougs were a really inefficient offense last season. They were a very turnover-heavy team and ranked in the 16th percentile in overall offensive efficiency (per Synergy). There were few areas on the court where the Cougs were an above-average offense.
A lot of the issues with the team on offense came from the relative youth on the roster and sub-par passing at every position. The youth begins to be fixed with an extra year of experience for most major players and a lot of continuity between rosters. The passing will be much improved with the additions of transfers Tyrell Roberts and Michael Flowers, and a healthy Jefferson Koulibaly could really contribute to the passing depth as well.
There were a few places that the Cougs excelled on offense last year: In the post and off of spot-ups. Spot-ups are situations where a player catches the ball on the perimeter and either shoots it or drives it without the aid of a screen. As a team, the Cougs were only in the 48th percentile on spot-ups, but there were individual players that really stood out. Williams was an elite spot-up player last year and he will likely only improve in that area this year. Flowers was one of the top spot-up players in the nation last year, and Roberts is also a smart close-out attacker. If players such as TJ Bamba, Andrej Jakimovski, and DJ Rodman continue to improve in these areas, then there will be quite a few great spot-up players on the roster.
The post-ups were efficient mostly due to the leg work of one man — Dishon Jackson ranked in the 51st percentile on post-up situations, but the numbers are even better if you eliminate non-conference games. There is a real chance that Jackson develops into an elite offensive hub in the post. Williams was also a great post-up player when playing the point guard role, ranking in the 96th percentile (on an admittedly small sample) when bullying smaller players.
As for where the issues come on offense, it was just about everything else. The team was surprisingly really bad in transition efficiency, which is odd for a team that forced as many turnovers as Wazzu did. A team with this athleticism and knack for forcing turnovers is bound to see positive regression in this area.
The pick-and-roll efficiency is what really hurt the offense. The Cougs ran a ball-screen heavy offense but ranked in the 10th percentile in pick and rolls. These issues extended to isolation plays as well. A big, big reason for this was Bonton; he was fine in pick and rolls where he was the one shooting (41st percentile), but his passes out of pick and roll were rough and it’s where the majority of his turnovers came from. Replacing him with Flowers, Roberts, and Koulibaly could really go a long way towards creating a steadier offense.
The final place the Cougs could take a massive leap is on the offensive glass. Jackson is a great offensive rebounder and showed it last year, but Rodman and Efe Abogidi were a bit slow to adapt to the Pac-12 physicality last year. Towards the end of the season, they improved on the boards and I expect that to translate early this year (especially considering Abogidi already tore up non-conference opponents on the glass).
Breaking down the rotations can be a hard thing to do with limited intel, but Kyle Smith will have some interesting options on his hands. The starting lineup is going to have a lot of shooting. Noah turned himself into one of the better movement shooters in the country last season, and both Roberts and Flowers can really shoot. Rodman and Jakimovski are both good spot-up shooters, and Abogidi has consistently grown as a shooter.
The guard rotation is going to be interesting. The early prediction was that Flowers would be starting next to Williams in the backcourt, but there’s a chance it is Roberts who gets those minutes. Either way, both players are a major change of pace from Bonton.
Neither player has the electric scoring or speed of Bonton, but both are steady decision makers and good shooters off the catch. Flowers is the more proven player and he has a bit more size, but Roberts has slightly better vision in the pick-and-roll. Both are excellent fits next to Noah Williams and will help grease the wheels of the offense.
Whichever player does not start will likely fill the 6th man role for the team off the bench. Next to them, there are a few players that will fight for playing time. Ryan Rapp played a lot of backup minutes last year, but he was inefficient offensively and could really benefit from playing off of another guard.
Koulibaly might be a sneaky player that takes a lot of minutes this year. The staff was very high on him last season but injury forced him to miss time last year. He is a very good ball-handler and passer who consistently improved his shooting throughout high school.
Myles Rice is another interesting name to watch. The freshman might play few minutes this season or even get a redshirt, but there is intrigue with his elite passing and ball-handling. He might run the best pick-and-roll of anyone on the team and he is an interesting name to watch off the bench.
The minutes at the wing will be another interesting story to monitor. Rodman is the presumed starting 3 and his skillset on both ends matches perfectly with the talent around him. However, sorting through the bench will be an entirely separate task.
Bamba and Jakimovski are returning sophomores who played real minutes for the Cougs last year. Both had good and bad stretches and both bring an interesting dynamic to the floor. Jakimovski is a very solid shooter and there is untapped potential with his passing. Bamba is an athletic slasher who can really get to the rim. He improved his shot throughout the year and has real upside to develop as an all-around scorer.
Mouhamed Gueye is one of the highest-ranked recruits in WSU history and he could factor into the rotation as both a wing and big. His size at 6’11 screams big, but his mobility and perimeter game gives him a real shot to play at the wing. He can really shoot and he is mobile enough to guard out on the perimeter.
Carlos Rosario is also a guy that could factor in with his length, but he will really need to shoot to make a spot for himself on this roster. He played little minutes last year but he was a highly touted recruit.
Gueye is going to play real minutes for this team but behind him, there is a bit more competition. I expect Jakimovski to be a 6th man type on this team but Bamba could absolutely be gunning for that time on the floor.
The bigs are the most predictable rotation of the group. Jackson is probably the second-best offensive player on the team and they will need him to play huge minutes this season. Abogidi is mostly known for his defense, but he provides spacing and could be an elite roll-man if paired with an effective guard. At least one of these two players will be playing at pretty much all times.
When they are both not on the floor, Gueye is the most likely to be on the floor. If Gueye is a bit more raw and unready than expected, Rosario and Jakimovski are both big enough to play the four next to one of these bigs.
What It Will Look Like
The offense this year might look a little different than it did last season. The passing and shooting on this team are really solid all-around though there is still a lack of real playmaking and elite paint breakers.
The team ran a good amount of ball-screens last year but ended up taking an inside-out approach towards the end of the season. There will still be plenty of that inverted offense run through Jackson and Abogidi, but there could also be a lot of movement principles implemented to take advantage of the passing, shooting, and posts on this roster.
A lot of the scoring load will fall on the shoulders of Williams, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to be the offensive focal point of every possession. Many of the actions run for Williams start with him off-ball trying to get him moving and taking advantage of the jumper. The game against Stanford last season was a good preview of what Williams’s usage can look like this season, with lots of passing, cutting, and making teams choose between guarding his jumper or a dive to the rim from Abogidi or Jackson.
Flowers and Roberts are steady hands to take some of the on-ball reps from Williams. Roberts is a very solid offensive guard who defers as a passer really well and could fit perfectly next to the bigs on this roster. Flowers runs a very good pick-and-roll and he leverages his shot really well. He is most likely to be a combo-guard next to Williams and not a true point guard who runs everything. That versatility for both members of the starting backcourt to play on- and off-ball is huge. At Southern Alabama, Flowers had moments where he looked like he could be one of the best shooters in the Pac-12.
Koulibaly remains the wildcard to play real minutes this season and he would bring a really interesting and different dynamic to the team. His craft and passing are what really stand out, but he has moments as a shooter and athlete as well. Koulibaly could also fill the role of on- and off-ball player next to Williams or any of the other guards on the roster.
Utilizing the bigs effectively will be the most crucial aspect of maximizing this offense. Abogidi could be a truly elite vertical spacer if paired with a guard who can get him the ball in the right spots. He can sky for dunks but he also gets into position well using his speed. His play against the UW zone was a good look at what he can look like when maximized.
The consistent improvement as a passer from Williams and the addition of Roberts could go a long way towards putting Abogidi in the right spot to succeed offensively. There are also the inklings of a jumper with Efe, and if that really hits too, then Abogidi could develop into the ideal play-finisher and pick and roll player in this offense.
Jackson might be forced to take another step forward as a post-hub. The offense will still have moments where it is very ugly and not a lot gets going, so the possession will come down to Jackson taking a big one-on-one in the post. His strength and touch are both really impressive and he has proven dominant down there. Watching him dominate down-low against Evan Mobley and USC last season was a huge eye-opener for his upside in the next couple years.
The wings will likely fill into the background of the offense, tasked to space the floor for the guards, attack closeouts, and make good decisions. They each have an interesting extra-skill they could bring to the table.
Rodman really came on as a shooter towards the end of last year and has turned himself into a really valuable off-ball player. His secondary skill is offensive rebounding, which is valuable when paired with the other starters on this roster. Jackson is an excellent box-out big and Abogidi draws attention from defenders, often opening up lanes for Rodman to board.
Bamba brings athletic slashing that the other wing options don’t necessarily bring. His handle is really solid when combined with his burst and he loves to get up around the rim. His skillset is one that this team really lacks, but his inconsistent shooting and poor decision-making could make him a drag to the offense at times. Bamba is definitely a candidate to be the sparkplug off the bench if the offense has nothing going.
Jakimovski is a very solid shooter with some real on-ball chops. He could play the Rodman role as a simple spot-up shooter, but he could also play as a big guard up top while Noah runs his off-ball actions. We didn’t see it a lot last year, but back in his FIBA play, he showed off this versatile skillset on a more consistent basis.
Gueye is the final offensive wild-card. He will fill in the Abogidi role quite a bit when the sophomore is on the bench, but his other minutes will be a little different. Similar to Bamba, he has a unique skillset as a sparkplug scorer. He can really slash to the basket with his athleticism and size. He is also comfortable shooting off the bounce, specifically with negative momentum. If the jump-shot is as elite as it can look at times, then he could even fill the Williams role as an off-ball mover.
Overall, the offensive scheme is going to be heavily reliant on shooting and post-scorers to get everything going. The team will play with a high pace, especially off forced turnovers, and try and get shooters open with movement. Expect Jackson and Williams to be forced into a lot of tough shots when the offense bogs down, but the spacing is really solid and it will allow for a much smoother offense.
This year’s offense should take a solid step-up from last season. The added experience will be huge for the team and adding two solid point guards is huge for making an offense run smoothly. There will still be issues because there is no elite advantage creation on this roster, but the general shooting and decision-making slightly make up for that.
Smith is not necessarily known as an offensive coach, but he is known for finding ways to maximize his talent. He has a lot of shooters and an interesting rotation to be built. There are multiple ways this offense can be successful depending on how Smith wants to structure the rotations. Expect a lot of jumpers, a lot of post-ups, and hopefully a lot more dunks than we’ve seen in the Palouse in a long time.
The offense has a ceiling of about 4th or 5th in the conference, certainly behind juggernauts like Arizona and UCLA, but there are other teams with clearer schemes and more talent offensively that will likely finish above the Cougs as well. The floor is in the bottom 3 teams in the conference, but that would mean basically none of the upside swings on this roster hit. The most likely outcome is somewhere in the middle of the conference, from 6-8. That is a pretty solid offensive outcome for a team that is going to have the defense the Cougs will deploy.