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Ace Thakore & Pras Murthy
Team practices don’t start for a while, but small group workouts are under way. And as always, the players on the team informally gather for pickup games in order to stay sharp, develop chemistry, and ultimately have fun playing the game they love.
The main thing, which every fan knows, is that without Derrick Williams the overall talent level takes a major hit. That’s no disrespect to the current roster, as this team is the deepest Arizona has had in quite some time. But Arizona no longer has a top five college player, and fans saw last year just how far you can go with a super star.
Instead, this year’s team will have to get it done with balance. Similar to how Sean Miller won at Xavier, this roster is primed to have five or six players scoring double digits on any one night. There are some players that can get hot, but in general there isn’t anyone you would expect to go off for 25 points.
What that means is that team success will come down to sharing the ball, executing the offense, and each player giving it their best effort night in and night out. Derrick Williams could erase a lot of mistakes by himself. This team needs to eliminate them together. And it goes without saying team defense is going to be a group effort.
That said, Arizona has some pieces they haven’t had in a long time. And while the freshmen haven’t stepped on the court yet, they are farther along than any class Arizona has seen in quite some time. The same can be said about the entire roster, as we are finally starting to see the cumulative effects of having a real system in place.
Last year, Arizona had ten players that played in every game. The same can be expected this year, but the second five is so much more explosive. And that’s regardless of who the second five ends up being. With the quality depth Miller has (and lack of star power), we can expect to see lots of different lineups and combinations. That should lead to the run and gun style of transition basketball that Arizona fans love.
The senior leader will be Kyle Fogg, who is embracing the role. Fogg is being vocal, strong, and confident. He seems to understand this is his last go around as a Wildcat, and he’s ready for the past few years of work to come together. Fogg has looked good defensively, but what has changed the most is his size and shooting. Fogg is trying to improve his declining shooting percentage, and he worked about as hard as he could shooting the ball this off season. He will also have to create for himself this year, and he has been working on driving and pulling up. At the very least, having the freshmen see how hard the senior is working will pay dividends in the future. At the very best, Fogg could be an All Pac 12 talent like four year starters have done in the past.
Joining Fogg as a senior is Jesse Perry, although he is only entering his second season as a Wildcat. Perry has added muscle to his frame, and should now have the size to handle opposing power forwards. Perry is poised to start at the 4 position, and there doesn’t appear to be anyone that can steal that job at this time. The competition at power forward will largely be to back up Perry. The hope is that with Perry’s added size, he can still remain as quick and take players off the dribble. This team needs players to be able to attack the basket, and Perry will look to do more of that than he did when Derrick Williams was in the post.
The story on Brendon Lavender is the same one we’ve heard for years. Lavender has been tremendous in workouts, often appearing unconscious behind the arc. Lavender’s ability has never been in question (by those who see him practice), but the frustration has always been his play in games. Going 29-77 from deep last year didn’t inspire confidence in his shot, but he did show glimpses of being able to get hot. Lavender will need to prove himself on the floor. With Fogg starting, Lavender and Nick Johnson will be competing for the backup spot. Given that Johnson can contribute in a number of ways, Lavender needs to play well when he’s on the floor. Not just shooting, but Lavender needs to avoid the mental mistakes that have plagued him in the past. If Lavender can put it together, Arizona will have a lights out shooter that can help break games open. If not, they’ll have another senior who couldn’t quite live up to their potential.
Alex Jacobson should provide exactly what fans expect. Around 5 minutes a game or so of backing up the center position. Jacobson’s back has hindered him his whole career, and the hope is that he can make it through the season healthy. In spurts, Jacobson can provide a solid defensive presence, a consistent jump shot, and five fouls to help slow down opposing centers. Jacobson isn’t going to be asked to do a lot, but there will be games where his play will be important.
The five man class two years ago is down to just three players, but they will have a major role on this year’s team. Solomon Hill has been working hard to build off the end of last year. Hill is going to need to be a much more consistent scorer this year, and that starts with his jump shot. Hill has been working hard on his three pointer, as that dragged down his overall shooting percentage last year. He has also tried to improve his release, because he needs to be able to shoot quicker. Hill has always been able create for others with the pass or attack the basket. If he can shoot consistently, all the aspects of his game that we have already seen will become that much stronger. Hill’s ability to contribute all over the floor, from rebounding to penetrating, is why Hill started every game last year. He built an early lead in practice points and never gave it up. This year, Parrom will be with him every step of the way. It’s too early to know who will start, but it’s unbelievable depth for the Wildcats to have at the forward position. When Hill isn’t playing small forward, look for him to back up Perry and be a point forward.
Kevin Parrom continues to do everything that makes him such an intriguing prospect. He’s so versatile, that often times his shot is overlooked. But Parrom shot over 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from deep last year. While his overall percentage may not go up (due to increased shot attempts), Parrom has been fearless shooting the ball and looks extremely confident. Parrom had no problem launching three pointers last year, and it looks like that attitude will extend all over the court. Parrom has bulked up and is much closer to filling out his frame than he has been in the past. He was already strong on the glass, but the increased strength should lead to more rebounds, and hopefully more trips to the free throw line. With his ability to contribute in multiple ways, Parrom will see plenty of playing time. And with this ability to grab a rebound and get down the court faster than opponents, we’re hoping to see him leading a number of fast breaks that end in easy buckets.
As we told you earlier this summer, Kyryl Natyazhko is still overweight. He is improving daily, but he still has a lot of work to do. Having a larger Kreal isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but he needs to be able to get up and down the court to keep up with the style of play. Kreal has continued to display the face up skills we have seen in the past. This season, he should be playing with increased confidence, and the hope is that confidence translates to points around the basket. Kreal has always put the ball up too quickly, and his short range shots often miss wildly. With better patience and positioning, Kreal can really contribute on this team. The center position is his for the taking, and as long as his body is ready by the season, Kreal will be a starter.
The lone sophomore is Jordin Mayes who, due to injury and surgery, hasn’t gone full speed in a while. Mayes has done what you would want from a player who hasn’t been on the court. He has gotten considerably bigger and stronger, and his shot still looks good. Mayes will get plenty of time backing up Josiah Turner, and as long as he can quickly readjust to the speed of the game, the point guard position will finally be a strength for Arizona.
The four man freshmen class comes in with as much hype as any in recent memory. And with that hype comes expectations. For now, the freshmen appear up to the challenge, as they are working as hard as any newcomers we have seen. It’s a product of better recruiting, but the freshmen are coming in physically ready to play. It’s impossible to know what will happen when they hit the court, but this class seems poised to make a real impact right away.
It all starts with Josiah Turner, who should command a starting spot. Fans already know about his handles, ability to get in the lane, and pass. The question mark has always been his shooting. While he likely won’t have to shoot much, that is an area he is trying to improve. Turner has an awkward release, and the slight delay could allow defenders to disrupt his shot. But Turner is skilled at finishing drives with floaters and layups. His main priority will be creating easy shots for his teammates. No one has been able to stay in front of Turner, and that should be a theme all season. If he can regularly beat his man, defenses will have to recover. If Arizona players cut hard to the basket, we expect to see a number of alley oops.
Turner has improved his body as well, gaining weight and strength in the little time since school started. That will allow Turner to post up smaller guards, and should also help him rebound the ball. If Turner can grab long rebounds and start fast breaks, Arizona can dominate games in transition. The idea of Turner or Parrom pulling down a rebound and sending an outlet pass to the other has Arizona fans envisioning a Nick Johnson dunk at the other end. As we mentioned earlier this summer, Turner is ahead of schedule, and if he keeps up his rate of improvement, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be in college longer than required. Arizona fans are hoping the NBA can resolve their labor dispute quickly and implement a two year rule before the college season ends.
Nick Johnson has been an absolute workhorse so far. Bunnies spent so much time on campus this summer that coaches were worried he would burn out. The results speak for themselves. Johnson is in great shape physically for a freshmen, and may not be too far from his ideal playing weight and build. Johnson’s shot has always been a strength, but at the high school level he was usually able to get to the basket. This year, we expect him to carve out a role as a shooter, especially with his midrange shot. Given his athleticism, Johnson can elevate over just about anyone to get a clean look. If Johnson can come around screens and knock down jumpers, he’s going to see a lot of playing time. That requires a quick release, and so far Johnson has shown just that.
And that doesn’t even mention his ability to throw it down. If Johnson can get into the lane on his own, we expect a number of highlight finishes. But more likely is that Johnson will finish on fast breaks and put backs. There will be a lot of pressure on Johnson (mainly from himself) to come in and dominate on the floor. But the truth is he just needs to excel in a few components of his game. If Johnson can bring energy off the bench, he will be contributing exactly what the team needs. With Fogg, Johnson, and Lavender, the shooting guard position should be a real strength for Arizona.
Being an early commitment from the east coast, Sidiki Johnson didn’t get nearly as much hype as the guards. Add to that his injury last year, and it was hard to know what to expect from the big man. But he is surpassing everyone’s expectations and is in a real battle with Kreal for the center position. Johnson has added a ton of weight and strength since arriving in Tucson, and for a freshmen his size is great. As with any big man, there are number of skills he needs to develop still. But already having the body to bang in the paint will help greatly with that transition. He likely won’t be putting up a ton of points, but if he can play hard, rebound, and hold his own defensively, Johnson can provide the depth at center that Arizona has sorely lacked. There is still a lot of work to be done, but it’s hard to argue with where Johnson is so early in his career.
Angelo Chol has the kind of game that excels in pickup situations. We’re not so sure how much that will translate to games right away, particularly because of Chol’s size. He needs to add a lot of strength before he will be able to deal with college level big men, but Chol has shown a number of skills that could make him a dominant force. Chol has a shooting touch, and his shot blocking ability is well documented. With all the hype of next year’s recruiting class, Chol could emerge as the best post player if his skills continue to develop with his body. This season, Chol’s offensive impact will likely come from stretching the floor with his shot. But we don’t think he’s ready for time at the center position. If Chol doesn’t see much playing time, that’s not a comment on his potential. It just means that, like most freshmen, he has some developing to do physically.
As of today, we expect the starting lineup when the season begins to be Turner, Fogg, Hill, Perry, and Natyazhko. That would leave a second unit (who would see plenty of minutes) of Mayes, Bunnies, Parrom, Chol, and Johnson. Lavender and Jacobson would see minutes as game situations dictate.
There’s obviously a ways to go, and practices haven’t even started yet. Anyone can look good in pickup games, and we’ll learn a lot more when these players start competing against each other defensively. PointGuardU.com will have coverage throughout the off season as every Wildcat fan counts down the days until the Red-Blue game (42).