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Arizona Brings Balance, Experience, NBA Prospects At Every Position

Most of the preseason chatter in college basketball has focused on Kentucky, where another loaded recruiting class has them once again being compared to NBA teams. John Calipari has his usual absurd collection of talent in Lexington, but as last season proved, there’s no guarantee it instantly coalesces into a dominant team. If you are looking for a front-runner, your best bet is Arizona, a balanced and experienced squad with an NBA prospect at every position.

You could make the argument that Arizona was the best team in the country last season, at least before Brandon Ashley broke his foot. Sean Miller’s team was 21-0 with Ashley in the line-up, including road wins at Michigan and San Diego State and a “neutral floor” win over Duke in New York City. They went 13-5 without him, but they never found a replacement for his combination of size, speed and floor spacing ability, losing to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight.

While they lost their two best players - Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon - to the NBA, they return everyone else and they are bringing in one of the best recruiting classes in the country. If Miller can get everyone to buy into a team concept, Arizona has all the pieces to make a run at a national title. They not only have elite talent, they have experienced talent, as they are starting a senior, two juniors and a sophomore with legitimate shots to play at the next level.

Stanley Johnson is widely projected to follow in Gordon’s footsteps as a one-and-done player, but they won’t need him to be a star as a freshman, only a role player. Johnson will likely be the fifth wheel to start the season, behind Ashley, Rondae-Hollis Jefferson, Kaleb Tarczewski and TJ McConnell. DraftExpress has Johnson at No. 9 in their Top 100, RHJ at No. 15, Tarczewski at No. 79 and Ashley at No. 88, while McConnell is ranked among the Top 50 seniors.

It isn’t quite the collection of talent at Kentucky, but it is far more evenly distributed. Instead of having all their best players sharing time at PF and C, Arizona has an NBA prospect at PG, SG, SF, PF and C, with three guys - Johnson, RHJ and Ashley - who can swing between multiple positions on both sides of the ball. Along with designated shooter Gabe York, Miller can align his top six players in an almost any combination, going small or big with a drop of the hat. 

The key is Ashley, whose ability to spread the floor from multiple positions upfront will open things up for everyone else. At 6’8 230 with a 7’2 wingspan, he’s not an elite athlete, but he’s a smooth player who can shoot 3’s, put the ball on the floor and finish at the rim. While he averaged only 11 points and 6 rebound a game as a sophomore, his ability to shoot - 52% from the field, 38% from 3 - and defend at multiple positions was sorely missed after he went down.

Without Ashley, Miller was forced to choose between big line-ups that could not shoot and shooting line-ups without a lot of size. Ashley was the glue that held everything else together - he allowed Arizona to spread the floor while still playing non-shooters in Gordon and Tarczewski. There are no counters at the college level for a team that goes 6’8, 6’9 and 6’11 upfront while still being able to defend 25+ feet from the basket and shoot over the top of a zone.

That’s what they will able to do this season, with RHJ filling in for Gordon. RHJ was overshadowed by his high-profile classmate, but he was one of the most impressive freshmen in the country in his own right last season. At 6’7 220 with a 7’0 wingspan, he is an elite athlete who can defend four positions at the college level and create shots off the dribble not just for himself, but for his teammates. That’s where the Andre Iguodala comparisons come from.

With so much talent on the perimeter, not many people are talking about Tarczewski, whose been a good but not great player in his first two seasons in Tucson. He will never be the most graceful athlete on the floor, but his combination of size - 6’11 250 - and scoring ability means he will have a 10-year career in the NBA and very few college big men will have a chance of matching up with him. If they need to slow the game down, they can always throw it inside

At the college level, all the talent in the world doesn’t matter if you don’t have a PG who can take care of the ball, run the offense and keep everyone involved. That’s where Arizona has the edge over most of the other teams at the top of the polls - they have a 22-year old senior PG whose already played in over 100 college games in his career. TJ McConnell averaged 5.3 assists on 1.8 turnovers a game last season and he functions as another coach on the floor.

If you look back at the recent history of NCAA champions, almost all of them had a senior PG. There was Shabazz Napier in 2014, Peyton Siva in 2013, Kemba Walker (a junior) in 2011, Jon Scheyer in 2010, Ty Lawson (a junior) in 2009, Mario Chalmers in 2008, Taurean Greene in 2007. The one outlier was Kentucky in 2012, who had freshman Marquis Teague at point, but they are a textbook example of the exception that proves the rule.

Maybe Karl Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and the Harrison Twins will fit together as seamlessly as Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but there are no guarantees. Even if they do, they wouldn’t necessarily be favored over an Arizona team that is almost as big, just as fast and far more balanced. Five of the top six players in Arizona’s rotation have experience, so they won’t have nearly as big a learning curve as the other top-ranked Wildcats.

Like most Pac-12 teams, they don’t get a ton of national attention because so many of their games happen while the rest of the country is sleeping. Nevertheless, Sean Miller has the program back to where it was at the peak of the Lute Olson era, when they were a perennial Final Four contender that churned out NBA players - from Sean Elliott to Damon Stoudemire, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Gilbert Arenas, Andre Iguodala, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye.

Olson turned the school into UCLA’s main rival for being the premier destination for talent on the West Coast. There are always a ton of California players on Arizona’s roster and they are usually in the running for every elite prospect west of the Mississippi. Miller, with his roots in the Midwest, has taken their brand national, luring Northeastern guys like Tarczewski (New Hampshire), RHJ and McConnell (Pennsylvania) to the sun and sand of Arizona.

Nor is he just a recruiter, as his teams typically play stifling half-court defense and share the ball extremely well on offense. Miller is a sharp customer - Arizona plays on a string on both sides of the ball and they don’t tend to make a lot of unforced errors. He has also shown the ability to adjust on the fly and move his teams deep into the NCAA Tournament on an annual basis. In five seasons at Arizona, he has made one Sweet Sixteen and two Elite Eights.

Before Ashley was injured, they were playing as well as any college team in recent memory. Even without Gordon and Johnson, this year is unfinished business for the Wildcats, who still have more than enough star-power from the trio of Ashley, RHJ and Johnson. They can do everything - they can play big, they can play small, they can play fast and they can play slow. If I have to pick a team in November to cut down the nets in March, I’m going with Arizona.

Looking To The 2015 NBA Draft: Small Forwards

Our position-by-position look at the top NBA prospects coming back to school next season continues with the small forward position, a position which has become increasingly difficult in recent years. With floor spacing the name of the game in the NBA, it’s very hard to hide a small forward who can’t shoot 3’s. The problem is there just aren’t many 6’7+ players with the length and athleticism to match up with NBA small forwards who also have the skill-set to drain 25+ foot shots.

A small forward who can’t shoot 3’s has to have the game to be a primary offensive option at the next level, since the ball will naturally wind up in their hands. As a result, it’s become a bit of an all-or-nothing position - there’s no such thing as a role playing SF who can’t stretch the floor at the next level. Going into next season, there aren’t many players coming back to the college game who can play the SF position in the NBA, but there are even fewer who can shoot 3’s.

If there’s a role model for these guys, it’s Kawhi Leonard, who went from a 29% three-point shooter at San Diego State to 38% with the San Antonio Spurs. You just don’t see a player make that transition too often. For every Leonard or Lance Stephenson who become better shooters, there are a dozen D-League wing players who are a three-point shot from making millions of dollars in the NBA. If there is another Chip Engelland out there, he could be a very rich man.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona - RHJ started to come on strong towards the end of last season, moving into the starting line-up when Brandon Ashley went down with a foot injury. Arizona had some floor spacing issues playing him with Aaron Gordon together, so he should have a much bigger role as a sophomore, with Gordon off to the NBA. From a physical standpoint, RHJ is as talented a player as any in the country - a 6’7 215 ball of fast twitch muscles with a long wingspan.

The most intriguing thing about his game is his passing ability, which he didn’t always get to showcase as a freshman, when he was more of a secondary option. However, he’s an excellent ball-handler with a great feel for the game, who had 6 assists against UNLV and 5 against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament. If he can develop a three-point shot over the summer, he could be a Top 5 pick. Even without one, RHJ could have a long career as an Andre Iguodala type player.

Sam Dekker, Wisconsin - Dekker, like most of Bo Ryan’s players at Wisconsin, passed up a chance to be a first-round pick to come back to school as an upperclassmen. As a junior, he will be expected to team with Frank Kaminsky and lead the Badgers to a Big Ten title. NBA scouts have little patience for older players who stay in school and plateau - to remain in the first-round pick conversation, Dekker will need to have a Big Ten POY caliber season next year.

At 6’7 220, he is a solid all-around player with surprising athleticism, who averaged 12 points and 6 rebounds a game on 47% shooting as a sophomore. While he doesn’t have ideal size for an NBA SF, he should have a long career at the next level as a versatile player who can swing between both wing positions. After playing off the ball in his first two seasons, Dekker should be given the opportunity to create more shots for himself and others as a junior.

Alex Poythress, Kentucky - At 6’8 240, Poythress projects as more of a PF, but there won’t be many minutes for him at the position at Kentucky, where he will have to fight for playing time with Karl Towns, Trey Lyles and Marcus Lee. Poythress has the athleticism and shooting stroke to play on the perimeter, but he has the tendency to float and not impact the game when he’s playing too far from the basket. He’s still only a junior, which makes him an old man in Lexington.

Branden Dawsen, Michigan State - At 6’6 225, Dawsen is a freak athlete who plays much bigger than his size. If the NBA doesn’t work out for him, he might want to think about the NFL. The question for him is simple - he doesn’t have the size to play in the post in the NBA, like he does in college as an undersized 4, and he doesn’t have the skill-set to score on the perimeter. If Dawsen could shoot 3’s, he would be a first-round pick. Without a jumper, though, it will be difficult.

LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State - After being seen as a possible one-and-done player coming out of high school, Nash has turned in a solid college career at OSU. With Marcus Smart and Markel Brown gone, Nash will have to carry a huge offensive load as a senior. At 6’7 215, he has an elite first step that makes him a very difficult cover as a stretch 4 in college. However, to play in the NBA, Nash will need to develop a three-point shot in his final season in Stillwater.

Other names to watch: Troy Williams (Indiana)

The Worst Game Of Aaron Gordonís Life

Five minutes after the game was over, and I’m still shaking. The game between Wisconsin and Arizona was insanely intense. For whatever reason, I decided to watch this game by scouting every play Arizona’s Aaron Gordon made. Since Gordon’s reputation is that he makes a bunch of plays that don’t show up in the box score, I decided I would track him from the opening tip to the closing horn of the Elite Eight match-up. Here are my notes:

The biggest thing I noticed in this game is that Gordon loves playing defense much more than he loves playing offense. When you look at his body language, he just lives for the defensive end of the floor. On offense, he set screens, he moved to the open areas of the floor, and he had a couple of crisp passes to get his teammates inside baskets. But his heart was not into playing methodical half-court offense. Conversely he just floats on defense. He makes every defensive movement with a constant spring in his step.

Gordon’s biggest contribution early in the game was pushing the ball in transition. Arizona’s game plan was to try to attack before Wisconsin was set. And that meant not waiting to get the ball to a guard to take the ball passed half court. When Gordon got the offensive rebound or picked the ball up off a deflection, he dribbled and attacked.

Obviously, most people are going to look at his stat line offensively and say he had a terrible day shooting the ball. But that isn’t really fair. I only noted four particularly egregious offensive efforts. First, early in the first half, he went around a weak screen and settled for a three at the 45 degree angle. It wasn’t a good shot because Arizona could have run the offense and got a better look.

Second, near the end of the first half, he grabbed an offensive rebound near the three point line and put up a somewhat crazy underhand scoop shot. Third, at some point in the second half, Gordon tried to play Nigel Hayes face-up out at the three point line. But Gordon swung the ball out wide as if looking for a cross-over. And Hayes simply reached out and took the ball away for a clean steal. Finally, there was a possession at 6:18 of the second half, where Gordon looked exhausted as he jumped short on a finger-roll attempt.

But other than that, most of Gordon’s looks were strong. At 12:44 of the second half he put up one of the softest floaters you will ever see, but it bounced around the rim for three seconds before rolling off. It was that kind of night for Gordon.

The real reason Gordon will want to burn the game tape is what happened on the defensive end of the floor. First, I want to talk about what happened in three straight situations starting near the 8:30 mark of the first half. If you are an Arizona fan, what you are going to say happened was that Nigel Hayes used three straight chicken wing elbows to get around Gordon, and the refs allowed it. For the second of the three incidents, clearly that would be correct. Hayes put his elbow into Gordon’s back, Gordon fell over, and Gordon was called for the foul.

But on the other two possessions, Gordon was just beat. The first was baffling. Gordon had perfect position, but Hayes somehow swung into a face-up, and beat Gordon along the baseline leading to points. There was a slight elbow when Hayes went up for the lay-up, but I have no idea how Hayes beat Gordon initially along the baseline. That was a truly spectacular play. The third incident was just a classic post move by a skilled big man, beating Gordon into the lane.

Now, given that Gordon was struggling to guard Hayes, you wondered perhaps if he would have better luck on one of Wisconsin’s other big men. And Gordon was put on Frank Kaminsky in the second half. At this point the commentators went into apologist mode. When Kaminsky straight up beat Gordon, starting from 12 feet out and backing him in for a lay-up, Marv Albert said that “Gordon was trying to avoid a second foul.” That was ludicrous.  A few possessions later, Gordon contributed his patented help defense to stop a drive, but that meant he left Kaminsky wide open for a three which Kaminsky nailed. Moments later, Kaminsky caught a simple post-pass and put it in over Gordon’s head. Gordon simply could not defend Kaminsky in this game.

And when Gordon switched to Sam Dekker, it was no better. Near the 5:07 mark of the second half, Gordon tried to stay with Dekker, but got lost on a screen, and Dekker got a lay-up.

There were two good possessions of defense that are worth mentioning. Near the 9:45 mark of the second half, Gordon had a fabulous second effort recovery to block a Nigel Hayes shot. And near the 6:30 mark of the second half, he played Kaminsky straight up in the post, and by holding his ground, he allowed Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to come over and block the Kaminsky shot.

But even without watching Hollis-Jefferson intently, I could tell Hollis-Jefferson was having a far better day than Gordon. For 37 minutes, Aaron Gordon was having the worst day of basketball in his entire life. He couldn’t make a shot. And he couldn’t guard anyone.

And then something happened. Despite everything that had gone wrong, Gordon didn’t give up. He kept fighting. And he started making plays. Near the 2:30 mark, he caught the ball in front of Kaminsky, and made a beautiful move along the baseline for a lay-up.

Then with time running down in regulation, he switched onto Traevon Jackson. Jackson has won a ton of games for the Badgers over the last two years by beating his man and getting clean looks. But Gordon forced Jackson into a very tough shot that rimmed off.

On the first defensive play of OT, Gordon was a step behind Kaminsky, but made an amazing play to dive in and steal the post feed. And with 3:34 left in OT, Gordon caught a pass on the perimeter, and buried a wide open three to tie the game. Then at the 2:58 mark in OT, Gordon caught an offensive rebound, and skied for an emphatic put-back dunk.

Gordon wasn’t perfect in OT. He switched onto Traevon Jackson another time and got beat. But Gordon showed the heart of a winner. Despite one of the worst days of his career, he kept fighting and he kept working. And even as I looked at my notes from what was an absolutely horrible afternoon, I didn’t feel like Gordon was exposed. He played a phenomenal offensive team. He played a player in Frank Kaminsky who might have just worked his way into the NBA lottery. And while Gordon will surely be criticized for this performance, if I was an NBA GM and saw a player with as much passion and energy as he has on the defensive end, I would still draft him in a heartbeat.

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