Observations from Opening Week

Observations from Opening Week
Nov 14, 2007, 02:40 am
To celebrate the return of college basketball, we bring some observations from the many games we already scouted this past week, as well as some methodology regarding how to digest what we’re currently seeing.

November Scouting…

November is definitely an awkward time to begin scouting and re-scouting the landscape of college basketball. On one hand, it’s hard not to get excited about the prospect of NCAA hoops returning after a 6 month hiatus, but on the other, we do need to remind ourselves constantly that ‘it’s only November’ and that really this period doesn’t end up being more than just a blip on the radar screen when it comes to the total evaluation that NBA teams do.

The sheer amount of televised games every single night—often a dozen or more thanks to channels like ESPN Full Court, the various Fox channels (Atlantic, Pacific, etc), and others—gives us a chance to watch everyone these days, especially players we are less familiar with like, like the incoming freshman class and the more under the radar non-BCS conference prospects.

How worked up should you get about this player or another tearing apart a random Big Sky team to the tune of 30 points? Not very if history is any indication, unless that player is doing it consistently in an efficient manner against stronger opponents as well. The real value of this period is to check certain aspects of a player’s game that we had question marks about previously, to look for improvement, or see how a prospect is adapting to a new position or situation that helps shed new light on their strengths and weaknesses. There’s an awful lot of “box-score scouting” going on these days in the national media. We try to stay away from that, unless we saw the game ourselves.

Things are going to get very interesting once the big non-conference tournaments start pitting the heavyweights against each other, but as our good friend David Thorpe likes to remind us "no one gets drafted based off how they play in November."

Fabulous Freshman

We’ll be back next week with a special all-freshman edition of our top weekly performers series, which will go into great depth regarding some of the potential one and done prospects, but it’s hard not to come away incredibly impressed by the way this freshman class has sunk it’s teeth into the NCAA so far.

Last year’s freshman class was by all accounts one of the deepest and most talented ever from top to bottom, but even they took some time to hit their stride and really dominate the college ranks. Greg Oden was injured for the first few months, Kevin Durant was excellent but really didn’t start putting up superstar type numbers consistently until the Big 12 slate, Mike Conley Jr. was effective in a quiet kind of way until his buddy Oden returned, Thaddeus Young took time to adjust, as did teammate Javaris Crittenton, Spencer Hawes was good but not great in early going, etc, etc. Brandan Wright was really the only freshman besides possibly Durant to catch the national spotlight in the first few weeks of the season, which should puts things in perspective regarding how impressive this year’s freshman class has been early on. Let’s see now if they can keep it up…

Random Observations from Week One

-Bill Walker is back…or is he?

While it was Michael Beasley that prompted us to review the tape of the Kansas State-Pittsburgh State matchup from this past weekend, it was Bill Walker’s presence that really made things interesting. Having missed the season opener with a thumb injury, Walker played just 16 minutes in the second game due to cramps that kept him out of the entire 2nd half. He did make the most of his time on the court, though, showing us on a number of occasions that his athleticism is back, and then some following the ACL injury he suffered last year.

Walker looks to be in very good shape relative to the last time we saw him at the Treviso Eurocamp. He exploded off the ground on a few occasions for alley-oop attempts, offensive rebounds or loose balls, being extremely active getting in the passing lanes with a bundle of frenetic energy that really set the tempo for Kansas State in his time on the floor. His first step looked pretty explosive—even if his ball-handling skills still aren’t very fluid—and Walker was very aggressive bodying up his matchup on both ends of the court.

This was just a small taste against an obviously inferior opponent, but it did leave plenty to look forward to regarding the rest of the season. A lot of teams are already circling November 29th on their calendar. That’s the day Oregon is coming to Manhattan to play Kansas State.

-Josh Heytvelt’s stress fracture hurts…literally

We have to be honest…after reevaluating Josh Heytvelt’s game tape from last season, Gonzaga’s entire non-conference slate essentially, it really wasn’t going to take much to convince us that he has a serious chance of landing in the first round of this year’s draft. Let’s remember that he had a 27 point, 22 rebound game against Pepperdine just one week before he was arrested. All he needed to do really keep his nose clean for the entire year and show the type of natural progression you expect from players going from their sophomore to junior years.

Alas, things got a little more complicated now, as Heytvelt was diagnosed with a stress fracture, meaning he’ll miss 4-6 weeks after having surgery this past week. That means he’ll miss almost all of Gonzaga’s big out of conference games before they enter the much softer portion of their schedule in the WAC. Those include games against Courtney Lee’s Western Kentucky, St. Joe’s, Connecticut and Washington State. He could still play in their very game against Tennessee on December 29th, but it’s not exactly clear what kind of shape he’ll be in at that point.

That puts a lot of pressure on Heytvelt to have a big game against Memphis at the end of January, as well as put up a strong NCAA tournament performance, should the Zags get there as expected. NBA Teams will scout him playing in the WAC, but considering the lack of legit big men competition he’ll be facing, it won’t be an ideal setting to evaluate him. Thankfully for Gonzaga, freshman Austin Daye has been stepping up wonderfully in his absence so far.

Another unfortunately setback early on occurred when Kansas’ Sherron Collins went down with a stress fracture himself. He’ll also be out around 6 weeks, meaning he’ll miss KU’s games against Arizona and Southern Cal. The Jayhawks will be looking to Rodrick Stewart primarily to step up in his absence, although freshman Tyrel Reed could see minutes as well.

-Alex Harris Missed a Chance?

One of the favorite players NCAA bloggers like to cite as someone deserving consideration for national media attention is Santa Barbara swingman Alex Harris. It’s not hard to figure out why—his stats last year were extremely impressive across the board. 21 points per game, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 48% shooting from the field, 46% from behind the arc, 7 free throw attempts per contest…he looks like one of the best swingmen in the country on paper actually. That’s why we went out of our way this summer to acquire two game tapes of his—both against fellow Big West “powerhouse” Cal-State Fullerton, where we could see him against one of our favorite mid-major prospects from last year in Bobby Brown. In addition, Harris played a game this weekend at Stanford, giving us yet another opportunity to watch him and decide for ourselves.

Harris definitely has some really nice things going for him. For starters, he’s a legit 6-6 shooting guard, blessed with outstanding shooting mechanics. He can knock down shots spotting up from the wing or more importantly pulling smoothly off the dribble, even from behind the 3-point line. He also has a really nice feel for the game, looking unselfish getting his teammates involved, showing nice court-vision, and solid shot-selection for a mid-major go-to guy. There is no question that he’s going to get plenty of looks from NBA teams, in the form of workouts and very likely an invite to Portsmouth and possibly the NBA pre-draft camp once the season is over. We do wonder whether he has what it takes to eventually get himself over the top, though.

For one, Harris is not a great athlete by any means, noticeably lacking a great first step or the explosiveness needed to finish strong in traffic. He has a tough time getting by his man to create slashing opportunities for himself, making you wonder how much versatility he’ll be able to translate over to his game at the next level. His team likes to get him touches in the paint to post up his man, if only to allow him more scoring opportunities than he’d be able to get stranded by himself out on the perimeter.

Harris had 18 points on 7-18 shooting from the field against Stanford in a 20-point loss on Sunday. It’s only one game, but it seemed like he was a bit overmatched against the fairly average guards the Cardinal threw at him. He’ll have another big chance to impress on a big stage in an almost impossible matchup on December 22nd, when his team visits North Carolina.

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