I’ll start with the guy all Aztec fans are thinking of, and that’s Dwayne Polee. His collapse was terrifying. Above all else, I certainly hope he remains stable and healthy. There is so much more to life than basketball. Naturally, we wonder when he will return because his presence absolutely lifts the ceiling of this team. So let’s think a bit about what we’ve seen from him over the last few games.
You could say this is totally subjective, but Polee played just fine against Long Beach State and at Cincinnati (his first game coming off the bench). The 0-7 from deep really stands out from the Cincinnati box score, but only two of those were forced shots. For whatever reason, he was all out of sorts against Ball State. I’m going to ignore that until it happens against a tough opponent.
What bugs me about Polee is the obvious perception problem, which also applies to Winston Shepard a bit. Fans and (mainly) TV pundits are already in peak form. The Aztecs get praised for their defense, knocked down five notches for their inability to score, and then the talking finally stops after names such as DJ Gay, Xavier Thames, Jamaal Franklin, and Kawhi Leonard get rattled off.
Nobody on this team is ready to be a high usage pick and roll player like Thames or Gay. The “next guy up” talk is foolish at this point. Last year’s reliance on high ball screens should be long gone. Trey Kell played very well in Maui, but he’d be best playing off the ball. No knock to Kell, but this team has too many options to rely heavily on the pick and roll. This team is better offensively than last year’s version – something Steve Fisher has said multiple times in press conferences this season.
Back to Polee: His success last year can be attributed to two things. First, he found himself open as can be spotting up around a Thames pick and roll. Second, and more importantly, he had the guts to take and make big shots at a consistent clip. He’s a good catch and shoot player – very, very good. Polee is also very good at attacking close outs with one or two dribbles and either pulling up or winding his way to the basket.
But beyond those two skills, we don’t know yet. This team has other options and Polee’s strengths can still be put to good use if the ball keeps moving – same for Kell. Ball and player movement will kill this team more than shot making ability. The team’s commitment has wavered throughout this season to constantly moving as a part of some motion offense.
A crutch set to create movement puts Skylar Spencer at the top of the key, slinging the ball from one side to the other as players set down screens for one another. Any team can snuff that out easily. The team’s newest focus has been going inside out with J.J. O’Brien as the center of it all.
For as much as people lament O’Brien for perceived struggles to finish inside, he is very good operating with his back to the basket. He doesn’t get stripped and he doesn’t turn the ball over. He’s going to be quicker than a true big guy and stronger than any wing that would guard him. One or two simple dribbles in the general direction of the basket were enough to suck Matt Shrigley’s man toward O’Brien, leaving him wide open twice against UC Riverside (example 1 here, with O’Brien driving from the high post).
But where does that really leave us? O’Brien is almost unselfish to a fault, and this entire team is aware of its offensive potential; lots of guys have legitimate offensive skill sets. Even take Dakarai Allen – assumed by many fans to be a total stiff because we haven’t seen him take many jumpers in a game – who can take one or two very hard dribbles toward the basket and finish strong near the rim. That’s a skill. It doesn’t keep happening by luck. But the ball needs to keep moving.
Maybe my favorite sequence of the season came against Ball State with 7:51 to play in the first half. D’Erryl Williams dribbled from half court to the left wing area and J.J. O’Brien ran down the middle of the floor to post up on that same side. All signs point to another O’Brien post up. Skylar Spencer had been on that left block, but swapped spots with O’Brien, shifting to the top of the key. Winston Shepard began the possession at the left wing, but cut down and up to the top of the key.
Williams swung the ball to Shepard at the top. Shepard attacked right thanks to a nice screen from Spencer and had time and space to attack the basket. However, Aqeel Quinn had been in that right corner as all of this was going on. Quinn’s man stunted quickly toward Shepard. Winston made the right read and hit Quinn for an open 3, even though his man was quickly running back to him. Watch it unfold here, beginning at the 0:51 mark, or check out my terrible diagramming skills below:
I’ve been harping on ball movement as the key for this team, but some misdirection like that play above would only make things easier. This team has to battle spacing issues. Even if O’Brien keeps dropping in 3s, this team will have two non-shooters on the floor. Players and the ball must keep moving to make life harder for the defense.
For the short term: Keep posting O’Brien and Shepard. It should almost be a rule. One of those two guys must get a post touch with some space to work each time down the floor. They’re both too good from there. O’Brien has a great feel for the floor and Shepard is excellent when he sticks to his short-corner-post-up-bully-ball-type stuff with short jumpers mixed in for balance’s sake.
Long term: This is just me thinking out loud, but I say ween Kell and Quinn of their ball handling duties for good. Put the ball in the hands of Shepard and O’Brien. Why not let them bring it up? Both of those guys know that their shots don’t come by attacking from the top. Let Quinn and Kell stretch defenses as spot up threats at all times (along with Polee and Shrigley).
And let’s continue to free the Sheldon boys. Dakarai Allen and D’Erryl Williams are good basketball players. If you have inside info (Allen hitting a pick and pop jumper from the foul line) that these guys can’t shoot (here’s Williams hitting a 3), that’s great. First, they still help this team a ton anyways without shooting jumpers. Second, show me that they can’t with a legitimate sample size coming from real games.
Let’s move past the perceptions and rumors that ultimately came from nothing. The battle between Zabo and Williams for any leftover guard minutes is absolutely a real thing. Quinn seems to have nabbed the title of best perimeter defender, but it’s really one of six guys on any given night and Williams and Allen are a part of that six.
I like where the Aztecs are at, even with that painful loss at Washington. Pile that loss at Cincinnati on top, too. That one was harder to swallow to me after seeing how strong they started the second half. Those losses will only make this team hungrier. They also create more natural learning opportunities for the coaching staff to take advantage of. I can’t wait to see what this team will develop into over the MWC season. I hope and pray they can all be healthy when that conference season gets going against Air Force.