I don’t know about you all, but basketball has really snuck up on me, and amidst all the euphoria that has come with having a top five football team made me forget how excited I am for this hoop squad. It’s fair to say there are a few question marks, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I believe the Huskies have the pieces needed to answer some of those question marks with exclamation points.
Without further ado, here are some of the storylines I’ll be keeping an eye on as the season unfolds.
1. Who will emerge as the leader (both emotionally and in terms of production)?
The Huskies enjoyed the luxury last year of having a player who assumed both of the aforementioned roles in Andrew Andrews. The lone senior on the roster, the team undoubtedly was his and he was often the go-to-guy when the Dawgs needed a bucket or the younger guys couldn’t find a rhythm. His impact was so enormous that his departure leaves two roles to be filled. Fortunately, I see two pretty obvious answers.
Senior captain Malik Dime is the slam-dunk selection to be the emotional leader. Where Andrew Andrews was more of a cool customer, Dime brings passion, excitement and energy to the table. For a team as young as the Washington Huskies, having an experienced player like Dime who can get the crowd on its feet with a big block or alley-oop dunk will be invaluable for inspiring impassioned play from his teammates.
And, as a surprise to nobody, freshman phenom Markelle Fultz should pick up where Andrews left off as a scoring option. I remember hearing Fultz compared to Brandon Roy, as both are “chameleon” scorers who adapt to the environment. Play off them and they’ll knock down a shot; play up tight and they’ll blow by you. Regardless of the defense you toss their way, they’ll find a way to put the ball in the hoop. If Fultz is indeed as capable a scorer as he’s hyped up to be, that alone should give Husky fans a reason to watch.
2. What will be this team’s natural tempo?
Dejounte 'Baby Boy' Murray and Marquese Chriss factored into Washington’s high tempo offense in an incredible way. The Huskies finished 2015-2016 as the second fastest offense in college basketball, averaging over 80 possessions a game. But with the departure of Murray, Chriss, and Andrews as well as the addition of big bodies like Sam Timmins and Matthew Atewe, it’s unrealistic to think their possessions per game stat will duplicate last year’s numbers. The question is: how big will the difference be?
On one hand, you can imagine a starting group of David Crisp, Markelle Fultz, Matisse Thybulle, Noah Dickerson, and Malik Dime. The front court features two proficient ball handlers that can push tempo. Thybulle is a phenomenal athlete that leaps out of the gym. Down low, Malik Dime stands out as a factor in transition who can finish at the rim with authority.
On the other, there’s a lineup that has Fultz and Thybulle as the guards, Dominic Green on the wing, and any combination of the bigs down low. This lineup is bigger, and even though Fultz and Thybulle stand out as players that can make an impact in transition, the size and play style of the forwards doesn't seem to match.
When you start to rotate in other bigs like Atawe and Timmins, you have even bigger bodies who may not be well suited for an offense that pushes tempo. It makes you wonder if the possessions per game number will even be in the same ball park as last years ludicrous pace.
I think the Dawgs will pick and choose when to play fast. Given an easy fast break opportunity, say on a steal, expect them to take what’s given to them. However, I don’t see them attempting to play at the same speed as they did last year.
3. Who will fill the rest of the scoring gap?
The addition of Markelle Fultz will be a huge shot in the arm of an offense that lost over 50 points per game of production this offseason, however he obviously can’t shoulder that load all on his own. That begs the question: which of the returners can pick up some of the slack?
Also, it should be noted that with an offense expected to play at a slower tempo, I doubt the Huskies will be scoring 80+ points per game like they did last season. However, that doesn’t dismiss the fact that a few of the returners need to step up.
Dominic Green is one of the many names that comes to mind. He struggled to find his footing as a freshman playing against PAC-12 competition. The potential sharpshooter shot less than 30 percent from the floor and only 27.7 percent from deep. But during PAC-12 Media Day Lorenzo Romar mentioned him as a guy who made huge strides during the offseason. Romar insisted that Green is not just a stationary shooter and that he’s learned to score in a variety of ways, including putting the ball on the floor and getting to the foul line. With more weapons in his arsenal and more comfort and confidence, we’ll see if Green can translate his improvements this offseason to increased production during the season.
Noah Dickerson sounds like a reasonable answer as well. He had an up-and-down season last year, with a stretch of scoring 10-plus in five of six contests before going on to score 10 or more just once for the rest of the season. He was banged up last year, dealing with a few nagging injuries, and with a rested body the hope is he can return to his early season form from last year and maybe even take it to the next level. Romar has praised his ability to score with his back to the basket, and with a team that might not play as up tempo as last year he could find more opportunities to score that way in the half court.
David Crisp is another option. He also had a hot start to the season, scoring double digits in nine of the first 14 games before slowing down to only break the 10 point barrier just once the rest of the season. I remember seeing him play a few times in high school and loved the way he shot the ball. Crisp is obviously more than just a shooter, but as the season progressed last year he just looked like a guy lacking confidence in his jumper. With an offseason to rebuild trust, his shot should start to fall more and the rest will follow.
How about Matisse Thybulle? He fit the role of ‘three and D’ perfectly last year but showed flashes on the offensive end that indicated that more could be coming soon. He scored 10 or more points eight times, which isn’t bad for a true freshman known for playing defense. Five of those eight came in the 13 games leading up to the NIT. However, only two of his double-digit scoring efforts were games in which less than half of his scoring came from the three ball. We’ve already seen that he can shoot pretty well from deep, hitting 36.6 percent of his shots beyond the arc. If Thybulle has made strides as a scorer in any other facet, whether it be in the mid-range game, driving to the rim, or anything else, the Huskies’ defensive stud may have just become a weapon on offense.
Last in mind, but certainly not least, is Malik Dime. His 6.9 points per game last year were highlighted by two hot streaks - the final two games before conference play and the first six games of PAC-12 ball where he scored 10.1 points per game in an eight-game stretch. He also caught fire towards the end of the season, scoring 10-plus points in four of six games leading up to the NIT, including three double-digit efforts in a row. Aside from those snippets, Dime wasn’t a particularly potent offensive player. He could finish hard on alley-oops and put back dunks, but wasn’t very consistent scoring with his back to the basket.
Coming into this season, Romar has alluded to Dime being a more versatile scorer. Dime backed this claim in an interview with Kim Grinolds by confirming he’s worked a lot on his offense. He even hinted that he’s worked on his mid-range game a bit. As an athletic big who has worked a lot on offense during the off-season, he could benefit from a transition to slower, methodical play. He can still capitalize when given opportunities to run in transition, but his added skill around the basket and in the half court will should also yield more scoring.
With five players to help Fultz revitalize the offense, the Dawgs have plenty of opportunities to remain an offensively potent team. I imagine one of the aforementioned players will emerge as a consistent secondary scorer to Fultz. Filling that role will give the Huskies a guy they can rely on to chip in around 14 or 15 points any given night and pick up the slack when Fultz plays like a human being.
As for the rest of these guys, they can sort of ham-and-egg their way to success on the scoreboard. Washington has a rotation of scorers that can hang a big number on opponents. If you can bank on Fultz and another guy throwing up around 35 points per game, all you would need is nine points each from the other four guys I talked about to reach over 70 points per game. Assuming this rotation is more than six deep, that’s not a bad number from your starting five and the sixth man coming off the bench.
And nine points isn’t a ridiculous jump by any means. Other than Dominic Green, none of the players have to increase their average output by more than 2.8 points per game to reach that number. That seems pretty reasonable.
4. Figuring out the back-end of the rotation
The Huskies have a solid six guys Fultz, Crisp, Thybulle, Green, Dickerson, and Dime. You’d be hard pressed to argue that any of those guys wouldn’t be part of a rotation that sees heavy minutes. What Romar and his staff will have to figure out in the early part of the season is who else will earn playing time.
The Huskies have three big bodies outside of the six guys listed above that could push for time. Matthew Atewe was with the team last year but sat out due to transfer rules. He’s a big-bodied post with some experience that can prove valuable down low with his physicality.
Sam Timmins is another guy who was with the team last year because he enrolled early. He’s an absolutely massive man that looks the part of a big time center. It will be interesting to see how he has adjusted to the United States style of play after an offseason to play with his teammates.
The last is Devenir Duruisseau. He had a few opportunities to play last year, averaging about eight minutes a game in 16 total games played. His experience with the team could play a factor in the decision of who to use in the rotation, but I think the prospect of Timmins and the physicality of Atawe will demand more playing time.
The Huskies also would most likely want to find another guard to give Crisp, Fultz, and Thybulle some rest. The two choices are two freshmen: Harold Baruti (Bitumba) and Carlos Johnson. Both are big, athletic guys who will most likely compete for the same spot in the rotation. From what I’ve seen Johnson looks a little more polished offensively and probably offers more as an extra ball handler than Baruti. However, Bitumba’s size, athleticism, and strength may bring more defensive versatility to the table. It will be interesting to see which of the two ends up getting some time.
I think the rotation could end up being Fultz, Thybulle, Green, Dickerson, and Dime as the starters, with Crisp coming off the bench first. Following that, I could see Timmins or Atawe coming in down low to spell one of the big men. Whichever of those two doesn’t come in will most likely be used as the game progresses, especially when playing a bigger team or if one of the other bigs gets in foul trouble.
I also anticipate Johnson or Baruti getting some time, but not both. I think whichever of those two wins out will be used relatively sparingly, mopping up some minutes when the other guards need a rest or if someone is in foul trouble, but with Crisp, Fultz, and Thybulle all ahead of them in the rotation and Green capable of shifting down to play as the two-guard I don’t see a lot of playing time for an extra guard.
With all that said, I could be entirely wrong on every account. That’s the fun of college hoops. We won’t find out until the season is underway, and again, that’s a lot closer than it feels like it should be. The first game that counts is November 13th against Yale.
Better yet, Thursday is our first chance to see Markelle Fultz play in Hec Ed. That sounds fun, doesn’t it?