In the final edition of CJ's Corner for this season, I'll look ahead at the key questions and issues that the team faces in the off-season and into next preseason.
1. Will he stay or will he go?
Josh Childress' decision on whether to make himself eligible for the NBA draft will not only have a huge impact on the team's success next season, but will also have a big impact on how the staff and players prepare for the 2004-05 season.
I won't beat around the bush on the subject of what Childress' return means for next season. I see the Cardinal as a Top 10 team next season if Childress dons the Cardinal and White again. A starting lineup including Chris Hernandez, Childress, Matt Haryasz and Rob Little will be excellent. The biggest questions will be the starting assignment and rotation at the shooting guard and whether the Card will have sufficient outside shooting and post depth to approach the regular season success it had this past season. If Childress leaves early for the NBA, I see Stanford being roughly a bubble team, one that will struggle to finish in the top 4 in the Pac-10. How can one player mean that much? That's easy. Childress is good enough to compete for national player of the year honors next season. He is the one player on Stanford's roster who can create his own offense and cause mismatches, he's arguably Stanford's best rebounder, and he'd be the only player on the roster other than Hernandez who can shoot the three consistently. Stanford will be shorthanded next year even if Childress returns. His absence would leave Stanford's bench thinner and greener than it has been in many years.
2. The Off Guard Position.
Clear starters are apparent at four of the five positions next season. Hernandez will man the point, Childress (or if he leaves early, Nick Robinson) will play the three, Haryasz will start at the four and Little will anchor the center spot. Here's how I see the leading candidates for the starting off-guard position:
- Nick Robinson: If Childress returns for his senior season, it will be tempting to start "Pops" alongside him at the other wing position. A number of factors make Robinson an attractive option. First, he is the most seasoned of the candidates and faces a minimal learning curve, even though he has spent considerable time in previous seasons playing at the power forward position (which is much different from the two) and at the small forward position (which is similar to the two). Robinson is an excellent defender, and his athleticism and length can frustrate opposing wings. He is equally capable of playing man-to-man defense or the 1-1-3. One drawback with Robinson's game is that he is a reluctant shooter from deep, whose confidence in his shot appears not to have caught up with his actual results, which are not bad (especially compared to the other candidates for the starting off-guard spot). Perhaps the bigger obstacle to Robinson playing at off guard is that he may be needed even more elsewhere.
- Fred Washington: Fred has the potential to be one of the best wing defenders Stanford has ever had. His ability to stick with defenders through screens was excellent for a freshman, and he has a knack for playing the passing lanes and generating turnovers. Washington does, however, need to strike the right balance between cheating into passing lanes and playing sound positional defense. The guess here is that Washington continues to improve in this area and, if given the opportunity to start or at least play significant minutes, will be excellent in both the man-to-man and 1-1-3 defenses. On the offensive end, Washington brings a developing ability to break down a defense and create. If Washington's outside shot continues to improve, he will be hard to keep out of the starting lineup.
- Tim Morris: Morris is a wildcard here. He has outstanding athleticism (similar to Washington) and an ability to break down defenders. He can handle the ball (and play some point guard). Morris is also an excellent defender. The problematic part of Morris' game is his jumper. To be blunt, I think Morris needs major work on his shot, and not just a lot of reps. If the staff is unable to diagnose the problem, Morris needs to work with a good shooting coach in the off-season. If he gets his shot in order, Morris could challenge for the starting spot and be a rising star. If his shot continues to be a liability, defenders are likely to cheat off him so much that his strengths (his ability to break down defenders and slash) will be negated.
- Dan Grunfeld: Grunfeld showed well in preseason practices this past Fall, but never put it all together in game situations. Grunfeld appeared to lose confidence in his shot, and he seemingly had as many airballs as makes from beyond the arc. Regaining his confidence will be key, because despite trying at times, Grunfeld has proven unable to put the ball on the floor effectively against decent opponents, picking up turnovers and having his shot blocked far too frequently on forays to the paint. On the defensive end, Grunfeld's lack of quickness has made him vulnerable to being beaten off the dribble. Some Booties have argued that Grunfeld has experienced some of the same struggles that such predecessors as Matt Lottich, David Moseley and others experienced in their first two seasons on The Farm. While it is fair to point out that others have shown considerable improvement into their Junior and Senior campaigns, I do not see the upside in Grunfeld that I did in the other shooting guards that others cite. I see Dan as a very valuable reserve who can and should regain his shooting touch and provide a deep threat off the bench.
3. Outside Shooting
If Childress returns, he and Hernandez should provide just enough outside shooting to give the Cardinal a perimeter attack and keep defenses somewhat honest. That's a best case scenario. Stanford's other wings have not yet demonstrated that they can shoot consistently from beyond the arc, and if Childress leaves, the Card will be left without a proven shooter at either wing spot. Robinson was barely north of 30% from deep on the season, and he seemed to grow increasingly reluctant to shoot as the season wore on, despite having a decent stroke. Grunfeld's shooting percentage was in the twenties, and he may have trouble getting his shot off consistently because defenders do not fear his ability to put the ball on the floor and can get up into him. Washington and Morris may have better opportunities to shoot because defenders will have to respect their slashing abilities. If one or two out of this group can emerge as a shooter, it will take considerable pressure off the offense. If not, Stanford is going to struggle to score, because a lack of outside shooting allows defenses to take pack it in, double the post, and limit slashing opportunities.
4. Post Depth
It is possible that Robinson could see significant minutes at the four if Childress returns, thereby alleviating some of the problems with depth in the post. On the other hand, if Pops is needed at small forward, Stanford will have very little experience and depth at the four and five spots next season. Freshman Peter Prowitt has the size and bulk to contribute minutes from the outset, although he obviously faces a steep learning curve. Fellow frosh Taj Finger faces that same learning curve, but he is less developed physically than is Prowitt. Finger is expected to work out during the off-season using a program designed by John Murray, and his ability to add weight and strength will be key to how much he can contribute, particularly on the defensive end. Nevertheless, Finger brings significant skills to the offensive end. Evan Moore may be relied on to provide significant minutes off the bench at the four, and he showed real promise in very limited minutes this past season.
5. Okay, so what the heck will Robinson's role be, anyway?
Beats me. Seriously; about the only thing that's clear now is that if Childress leaves early, Robinson will start at the small forward position. If Stanford's All-American comes back, you could make a case for Robinson to start at the two alongside Childress or even at the four (if Montgomery would prefer to have Haryasz backup both the four and five spots, creating a three man rotation in the post). On the other hand, Robinson could come off the bench as a backup at the wings and/or the four. On a team that will be short two to three scholarship players, Robinson may become even more valuable next year than he was this year.
6. How will the offense change?
If Childress is back, I would not expect radical changes to the offense. Montgomery may emphasize the high-low game more, to take advantage of Haryasz' exceptional shooting ability and even his ability to put the ball on the floor from the high post. Without Lottich at the two, you can expect fewer plays designed to spring our off guards for spot up jumpers from deep. Montgomery may continue the trend away from set plays and further emphasize the motion offense. Nevertheless, I would be surprised if the changes to the offense are anything but subtle. If Childress departs, the extreme dearth of shooting may force a more radical approach on offense.
Stanford has the maximum five scholarships available to offer to the class of 2005. The staff was off to an excellent start in recruiting prior to the NCAA tournament, with interest from an unprecedented number of top 100 recruits. It remains to be seen how severely the Card's early departure from the tournament will impact its recruiting momentum. On the one hand, the program was the focus of tremendous positive publicity over the course of the entire winter, and many of Stanford's rivals in the this year's recruiting battles, most notably UCLA and Arizona, had down years. Stanford is on the track of several prized recruits from the Midwest, and such programs of interest as Indiana, Marquette and Notre Dame failed even to make the dance. On the other hand, a third consecutive early departure from the tournament may have hurt Stanford's image. Recruiting will heat up in the coming weeks, and we won't have to wait long for answers.
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