Weekly NCAA Performers, 1/17/07, Part One

Weekly NCAA Performers, 1/17/07, Part One
Jan 17, 2007, 11:20 am
Greg Oden explodes for 24 points and 15 rebounds in a narrow win over Tennessee. Dominic James emerges from a slump against West Virginia. Jeff Pendergraph gives scouts a good reason to visit Arizona State with the impressive numbers he's putting up as of late. And Jason Smith has a typical performance against San Diego State.

Greg Oden, 7’0, Freshman, Center, Ohio State
24 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 9-13 FG, 6-6 FT


Rodger Bohn

Greg Oden wrote yet another chapter in what will surely go down as a memorable freshman season, putting on an absolutely marvelous performance in the Buckeyes’ narrow win over Tennessee this past Saturday. His performance gave draft fans and scouts alike plenty to get excited about, as the gentle giant was finally able to gain some use of his right hand on the offensive end, which not coincidentally resulted in his career high in points.

Against the Volunteers, Oden was downright dominant from the tip, gaining incredible post position down on the low blocks that allowed him to simply turn and dunk the ball. His ability to gain such position in the paint is unmatched at the college level, and is comparable to that of maybe only Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming in the NBA. He used his abnormal lower body strength to muscle helpless defenders under the rim, resulting in a plethora of easy finishes. When forced farther out on the blocks, Greg showed off a quick jump hook with his right hand for the first time this season, which prior to this game had been non-existent due to his still recovering wrist not being up to par. He attempted unsuccessfully to make a few moves going towards his left hand, but it was pleasing to see a player with such brute force at least attempt to use his opposite hand. The Indianapolis native was still relegated to shooting free throws with his left however, as his right wrist has not gained enough strength at the moment to handle the follow through motion on free throws.

Also noteworthy was the passing ability that Oden showed out of the post. He routinely had no problem finding cutters out of the post, resulting in his 4 assists for the game. More importantly however was the big man’s ability to identify a double team coming, and make the proper pass before being trapped. NBA teams surely must have salivated when he constantly made the proper skip passes to his wide open Buckeye teammates on the perimeter, as it showed how he will react to the double teams that he will face regularly in the not-so-distant future.

Defensively, the freshman dominated the game, just has he has every single time he has taken the floor this season. He did an excellent job boxing out and controlling the glass, often allowing teammates to corral his missed rebounds by boxing out two opposing offensive rebounders. Oden did a great job not giving up position down low, and as usual, completely changed the game with his shot blocking prowess. While only blocking 3 shots, he altered dozens more and more impressively was able to remain out of foul trouble throughout.

While Oden’s upside is certainly something to marvel at, he is still far from a finished product. His post moves surely could use some refinement, as he is getting by almost solely on power and athleticism at the moment. Greg also disappeared a bit on the offensive end against Tennessee as the game went on, going scoreless for the game’s final 9 minutes, although that was partially due to his lack of touches on the offensive end.

The glimpses of dominance that we saw on Saturday are a small fraction of how incredible Oden has the potential to become. As the season goes on and his right wrist continues to heal, performances like this will be a norm, erasing doubts of Kevin Durant possibly overthrowing him for the top pick in the draft. Greg’s combination of size, skill, character, and strength have made him the obvious pick for top pick in the draft for years now, and his memorable performance vs. the Vols did nothing but solidify that even more.

Dominic James, 5-11, Sophomore, Point Guard, Marquette
21 points, 6 assists, 4 turnovers, 5 rebounds, 5 steals, 8-17 FG, 3-5 3P, 2-4 FT


Jonathan Givony

Last time we wrote about Dominic James, he was shredding apart Duke’s backcourt on the way to an impressive 25 point, 7 assist, 1 turnover performance in a monumental victory at Madison Square Garden. Since then, he has struggled badly with his perimeter shooting and costly turnovers, which saw Marquette drop four of their last 11 games. Both James’ and Marquette’s stock seemed to be on the decline, but a big home win over a ranked West Virginia team seems to indicate that they still have every intention of making a run to the NCAA Tournament.

James was about as good as we’ve seen him in the first half against the Mountaineers. He hit two very good looking spot up 3-pointers, and then continued to knock down a contested pull-up jumper from NBA range in the 2nd half. He made very solid decisions in transition, looking for his shot and using his outstanding combination of quickness, shiftiness and ball-handling skills to get by his man and either finish or unselfishly find the open man. He made some spectacular passes showing off his excellent instincts and terrific court vision, and finally looked comfortable making decisions as Marquette’s primary ball-handler. Tom Crean decided to move James off the ball more these past few games in favor of the extremely talented but also extremely erratic Jerel McNeal, but it was James who handled more responsibilities in breaking down West Virginia’s pesky half-court defense.

On the other end of the floor, James may have been the decisive factor in Marquette’s comfortable win. He did a fantastic job of disrupting West Virginia’s guards all game long at the point of his team’s press, getting in the passing lanes, sticking his nose in all kinds of places he had no business being, and moving his feet with the type of quickness the Mountaineers haven’t seen all year long. He came away with 5 steals on the day, all in the first half, and surely had at least another couple of deflections.

All in all, this is exactly the type of player it’s not hard envisioning Dominic James becoming in the NBA. Stuck alongside two combo guards at the collegiate who also are considered inconsistent perimeter shooters, teams don’t have issues locking into a tight zone and forcing the Golden Eagles to win the game from outside the arc, a strategy that often works. If inserted into a system where he’s able to push the tempo of the game constantly and break defenders down off the dribble, with capable shooters spotting up on the wing and a decent big man to set screens and roll off the ball, he will certainly thrive. He has the makings of a player who is much better suited for the up-tempo NBA style of play rather than the NCAA’s, even if he certainly is on the small side.

Jeff Pendergraph, 6-10, Sophomore, PF/C, Arizona State
Last 3 games: 18.33 points, 9 rebounds, 23/30 FG, 9/11 FT


Jonathan Givony

Somewhat lost on the national radar screen amongst the sea of outstanding talent that the Pac-10 conference boasts has been the emergence of a highly intriguing sophomore big man prospect, Jeff Pendergraph of Arizona State. With numbers like 18 and 8 against Washington, 18 and 9 against Oregon and 19 and 10 against Oregon State, Pendergraph is producing at an extremely high rate against legit competition while showing some extremely intriguing tools for the next level.

Standing 6-10 with a decent frame, outstanding length and very solid athletic ability, Pendergraph passes the initial test to put himself in a very rare class of NCAA big men. He has very good hands, a high basketball IQ and is fundamentally sound on top of that, which further separates him from this very exclusive pack of NBA caliber collegiate big men.

Pendergraph runs the floor exceptionally well and is extremely active on both ends of the court. He plays solid position defense in the man to man setting as Spencer Hawes would probably attest (he held him to 9 points on 4-12 shooting last week), keeping his hands high in the air at all times and moving his feet extremely well. He uses his length well here to bother opponents into difficult shots, and will get the occasional steal by anticipating and being in the right place at the right time. Thanks to his excellent size, wingspan, hands and smarts, he’s also a terrific rebounder who boxes out extremely well and goes after loose balls with tenacity.

Not one to gamble or risk his position for rebounds, nor a freakish jumping jack-type, Pendergraph isn’t much of a shot-blocker at this point in his career. Generally speaking, he has a very calm, mature demeanor on the floor, and he doesn’t seem to get caught up in the emotions of the game like many players his age. Being a pretty skinny guy who clearly has plenty of room for improvement in the strength department, he will get outmuscled on occasion in the post when trying to box out or hold his spot on the block. He could also stand to improve his team defense, such as hedging screens on the perimeter or knowing when to rotate and how to challenge a slashing guard in the paint, but these are things that should come with added experience.

Offensively, Pendergraph has shown considerable improvement from last season, but still has plenty of work to do. He sets excellent screens and is super intelligent moving off the ball, meaning he’ll regularly score off pick and roll plays or other cuts off set plays. Arizona State tries to get him the ball as much as they can, but their guards don’t seem to be very good at making post-entry passes. When he does get the ball in the paint, he doesn’t have a very wide arsenal of moves he can rely on, but he does do a good job keeping the ball up high and shows a pretty nice touch from close range. Once again, his lack of strength can be an issue here at times when trying to finish strong at the basket, and it’s not rare to see him get pushed around by his defender.

To counter this problem Pendergraph is developing a raw, but promising turnaround jump-shot he can go to, and is generally beginning to expand his game outside the post. Over the past three games he’s stepped outside more and more to knock down mid-range jumpers, usually from 14-16 feet out around the baseline. He doesn’t enjoy the prettiest mechanics in the world, but it’s nothing that can’t be cleaned up with solid repetition. He does shoot 72% from the free throw line, so the potential is obviously there. Something that’s encouraging is seeing the way Pendergraph passes out of the high post, regularly feeding backdoor cutters with some very intelligent bounce passes.

Playing for possibly the worst team in the Pac-10, NBA decision makers don’t have the luxury of waiting until March to go out and see the progress Pendergraph is making in his sophomore season. Like his high school teammate Darren Collison of UCLA, Pendergraph is scheduled to graduate in three years. This makes him leaving after this season highly unlikely—he’s not ready anyway—but it does mean that he’ll be in prime position to test his stock in 2008. He doesn’t seem to have superstar potential by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly has the makings of the type of player every NBA coach would like to have in his rotation. He not only looks like PJ Brown, but he also carries himself similarly on the court and seems to have many of the same strengths and weaknesses.

Jason Smith, 7-0, Junior, PF/C, Colorado
At San Diego State: 19 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 assists, 8-13 FG, 3-6


Jonathan Watters

Skilled Colorado State 7-footer Jason Smith is a hard prospect to catch, so games like last weekend’s against San Diego State are a special treat. It has been a while since this writer has taken in Smith, and it appears that his game hasn’t changed all that much in recent months, for better or worse.

Against the Sun Devils, Smith displayed most of everything that has kept scouts in the gym at Colorado State games over the past two seasons. His turnaround jumper would be an impressive weapon for any post player, let alone a 7-footer with the impressive touch and frame of Smith. He can create his own shot from virtually anywhere inside the 3-point arc, and looks great doing it. Smith has an impressive feel for the game once he gets into his move, utilizing good body control and timing to finish plays around the basket. While he isn’t an overly impressive athlete at this stage, Smith does an adequate job on the boards and alters his fair share of shots.

Unfortunately, several of the areas we had hoped to see development in remain issues. First of all, while Smith has a phenomenal frame for a skill-oriented 7-footer, he really needs add strength. He runs the court decently well, but struggles to get moving and doesn’t appear to handle physical defense very well. Smith has the potential to develop his body to the point where he is an above-average athlete in the NBA, but it would be nice to see a bit more improvement over the past two offseasons.
Furthermore, while Smith puts up excellent all-around numbers, he probably doesn’t impact the game as much as he could. Part of this is the sub-par team he plays for, but Smith generally scores his points in short spurts. He rarely makes the blue-collar play, and routinely gets himself into foul trouble.

This makes it hard to shed any light on Jason Smith’s status as a 2007 draft prospect at the moment. The 7-footer still has quite a bit of developing to do, so it is easy to see him sticking around another year considering how many big men could make the jump this spring. At the same time, how much more can Smith do to improve his stock playing for Colorado State? At some point, either Smith as an individual or the Rams as a team must get to that next level, and it should be interesting to see what he can do to push his stock to the point where testing the waters would be a worthwhile venture.

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