Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tubby Ball Year In Review: The Final Chapter

PJS Note: This is the final chapter in a five-part series looking back at the first season of Tubby Ball at the University of Minnesota. Previously, we looked at the play of the three seniors, offense and defense under Tubby and player progression. Today, we give out grades to each of the non-seniors for their 2007-08 campaigns.

Part V: Grading the Players and Projecting to 2008-09

If I were a teacher, my fictional students probably wouldn't like me much. I'm probably overly critical and have never been good at giving compliments just so someone feels good. So, keep that in mind as you go through my year-end grades for the Gophers men's basketball team. Yes, I know it is about nine months since the season ended, but my procrastination on this can be summed up by stating that there is no sports season I enjoy more than college hoops. Ending this series, for me, ends my coverage of the 2007-08 Gophers. ***Tears***

Now, on to each non-senior, their grades, and a projection for the year(s) to come.

Jonathan Williams: Like almost all of the Minnesota big men, Williams, a St. Cloud native, struggled with Tubby Smith's demands to play more aggressive basketball. Reports came out that Williams played a dominating brand of basketball in practice. But once the ball was tipped in meaningful games, Williams oftentimes played a soft brand of basketball Dan Coleman would endorse. Statistically, you could argue he regressed. He started eight games as a sophomore, and only three as a senior. His minutes declined by about two minutes on average. His scoring dropped a point and he corralled one fewer rebound per game. Defensively, however, Williams was usually up to the task. He did well manning up DJ White in the Big Ten Tournament when Spencer Tollackson was out with an injury. And he showed flashes of being able to produce offensively, but he also showed many more signs of being slightly overwhelmed by the competition. At 6'9, 285, Williams should be a bruiser on the interior. He seldom was, and has never been able to establish a low post offensive game.

Grade: C-
2008-09: Look for Williams' minutes to increase slightly as a senior and he might even see a starting role while the incoming players progress. Don't expect him to turn into anything resembling an offensive threat. However, if all he is asked to do is play solid defense, the Gophers could do worse.

Jamal Abu-Shamala: Speaking of statistical regression, this junior from Shakopee went from 23.7 minutes per game to just over 13. He shot 43 percent (44-102) from three under Monson/Molinari in 2006-07 but that production fell dramatically to 34 percent (21-61) in 07-08. Abu-Shamala's game didn't change. He was a three point specialist who couldn't create his shot under Monson and he was the same thing under Tubby Smith. A couple things changed, however. The Gophers didn't want to settle for the perimeter shot as often under Tubby Smith. And Tubby Smith seemed to covet multi-dimensional players who could take the ball to the basket. Abu-Shamala couldn't do that. But his minutes also declined because of the arrival of Blake Hoffarber, a similar player with slightly greater athletic ability. Abu-Shamala seemed to be the biggest Gophers cheerleader even when he rode the pine. Because of that we have tremendous respect for the senior-to-be, even if we cringe when he touches the ball in the open floor.
Grade: D
2008-09: Expect his minutes to decline even more, though he'll surely come in against Northwestern and light up the Wildcats.

Travis Busch: Some will disagree, but I will continue to argue that the Cal Poly transfer and Mounds View native doesn't have the talent to compete in the Big Ten. If intensity and toughness were quantifiable, however, Busch would certainly have what it takes. Tubby Smith often turned to Busch when he needed just that. It's kind of starting that at 6'4, 220, Busch was Minnesota's most physical player when he was on the floor. He manned up Indiana's mammoth center. He sacrificed his body for loose balls and battled for rebounds. Early in the season I cringed when Busch came on the floor, but he soon earned his playing time. Simply put, Busch did what he was asked to do, and that wasn't to score, block shots, make great passes or dominate the boards. He was asked to provide occasional energy and toughness. On that score he delivered.
Grade: B
2008-09: Expect his minutes to be exceedingly minimal but for him to do everything he can do get the job done once he is on the floor.

Damian Johnson: No Minnesota player as large a step forward as did Monson recruit Damian Johnson. An afterthought in 2006-07, Johnson became Minnesota's best shot-blocker, defensive player and arguably its best rebounder. A tweener type, Johnson took minutes at both small forward and power forward. He showed a surprising ability to play on the inside against the Big Ten's big men and on the perimeter against slashing forwards. In my mind, Johnson was this team's MVP. He ran the floor, showed signs of developing an outside shot and a back-to-the-basket game. He needs to firm up his outside shot and his free throw shooting--55 percent won't get it done--but if he can take a similar step forward this upcoming season as he did under the first year of Tubby Smith, the sky is the limit.
Grade: A
2008-09: I expect Johnson to be a leader on the new Gophers team and to have solidified either his perimeter shot or his interior game. If he can add both, he will be the closest thing the Gophers have had in awhile to an all-around player. He will likely start, and he's earned it.

Kevin Payton: The would-be junior from Camden, NJ regressed more than any player in Tubby Smith's first year on the sidelines. And maybe it's not that he regressed, but that he was identified as a liability on the court. After playing in all 31 games, and starting 14, as a freshman, Payton received the dreaded DNP-Coaches Decision in seven Big Ten games. Payton was tentative all season. He had no confidence in his shot and shot a disastrous 15 percent from three point land. He couldn't seem to handle high-intensity pressure in the back court, failed to get the Gophers into the offense and really, provided nothing, other than an occasional spurt of solid defensive play. To his credit, Payton kept a smile on his face at least publicly. That said, he was highly over matched and Tubby Smith knew it.
Grade: F
2008-09: If Payton wants more minutes he'll need to dramatically improve his ball-handling, decision making, outside shot and just about every other facet of his game.

Lawrence Westbrook: For a player who was stung with the reputation as a prep player as being selfish and a ball-hog, Westbrook certainly hasn't lived up to that hype. Good, right? Kinda, I suppose. It's never good to have a me-first player on your team, but the Gophers could benefit from Westbrook taking the team on his shoulders an providing the scoring lift he's capable of more often. Westbrook started all 34 games as a sophomore. He shot 42 percent from the floor, 39 percent from three and averaged 8.5 points per game. He also proved to be a very solid defender, a trait that probably earned him the playing time that Tubby Smith gave him. Perhaps it is because he was a sophomore, or because Coleman and McKenzie were the first two scoring options, but Westbrook was a tad streaky. However, the Hoffarber Miracle doesn't happen if Westbrook doesn't put the Gophers on his back after for a career-high 17 points in the Big Ten tourney opener against Northwestern.
Grade: B+
2008-09: If Westbrook can look for his own shot more often, and take the ball to the basket more often and have success at it, he could be the Gophers' leading scorer this upcoming season.

Al Nolen: Defensively, Al Nolen played like a savvy fifth-year senior. Offensively, Nolen played like a raw high school kid. He led the Gophers with 64 steals. He also missed the rim quite a bit and shot 29 percent from three. Coupled with the poor perimeter shooting, Nolen also never displayed a knack for penetrating defenses either to score or to draw defenders and dish. Thrust into a role as Minnesota's only true point guard, Nolen did as well as anyone could have predicted. He kept his composure and ran Minnesota's offense, if he didn't propel it with his own scoring. And he sparked Minnesota's full-court defense. Overall, Nolen was a pleasant surprise in 2007-08, even if it is clear he has plenty to work on.
Grade: B
2008-09: Because Tubby Smith was unable to land a point guard in the incoming class, look for Nolen to start and perhaps split time at the position with incoming combo-guard Devoe Joseph. If Nolen can improve his outside shot, look for his game to explode. A decent outside shot should open up lanes to penetrate, drive and kick. If he's not shooting 1,000 shots per day, he should be.

Blake Hoffarber: The Hopkins grad is what he is: A spot up shooter with a deadly outside touch and a flare for the dramatic. We will never forget the Hoffarber Miracle against Indiana. And his 42.7 percent (70-164) set a freshman record at the U. On many nights, Hoffarber was the first player off the bench, giving the Gophers some much-needed instant offense. When he was able to get free off of screens and in transition he provided that punch. When defenders didn't give him an inch, Hoffarber was typically unable to create his own shot by running off of screens, penetrating or creating space any other way. Defensively, Hoffarber wasn't exactly a liability, but he wasn't a game changer either. When applying full-court pressure, Hoffarber was more often than not on the bench.
Grade: B-
2008-09: Unless Hoffarber can dramatically increase his quickness, he will continue to be a lights-out three point shooter when the Gophers can get him space. He'll need to learn how to more efficiently run himself off screens and set up his defenders. However, if all he is is a guy who makes 70 threes a year and can't do much else offensively, I think we'll take that.

Final Analysis: Tubby Smith did more with the talent he had on the roster then even I thought was possible. The Gophers won 20 games, finished in the upper-half of the Big Ten and played more defense in 2007-08 then in the entire Monson/Molinari era. Tubby Smith brought a new attitude to the Gophers, and while the roster still has some dead weight on it, Tubby was able to maximize what he did have. Who would have thought Damian Johnson would mature into a game changer? Certainly not me.


Tubtastic said...

Even though there are a bunch of highly talented freshmen and transfers coming in next year, I'm most interested in Williams. He could become a defensive and rebounding force in the big ten or slide down the bench to next to Payton. Should he slide, we'll have to live with the erradic play of the freshmen centers. Should he excel, the freshmen centers will have more opportunities to play in the forward positions giving the team a much bigger, stronger, look than last year.

Friend Of Tubby said...

Johnson 25+ minutes.
Westbrook 20+ minutes.
Williams 10+ minutes.
Nolen 20+ minutes.
Hoffarber 15+ minutes.
JAS 10+ minutes.
Busch 5+ minutes.
Payton 5+ minutes.

That's 110+ minutes from them. And leaves 90+ minutes from newcomers.

Bostick 25+ minutes.
Sampson 20+ minutes.
Joseph 20+ minutes.
Iverson 15+ minutes.
Carter 10+ minutes.

alex said...

I agree with most of your thoughts PJS, and agree that the MVP of the team was probably Damian Johnson, although I'd give Westbrook some serious thought. He started every game of the season IIRC, and often played a lot bigger than his height and was one of our better rebounders (despite the 6' height, which is probably more like 5'10") for most of the Big 10 season. Add in his tenacious defense and streaky offense, and he was definitely our best guard last year and arguably our best player.

PJS said...

I think you are right FOT about most of the projected minutes. I'm not sure Carter will even see that much. And judging by this past season I'm not sure JAS or Payton see much playing time at all.

Alex, if I had to pick a runner-up to Johnson, it would have been Westbrook. Or perhaps Nolen because if we didn't have even his OK play at point guard, this team would have struggled to win 15 games, IMO.

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