In Case You Missed It...the NCAA's Weekly Performers, 3/1-3/6

In Case You Missed It...the NCAA's Weekly Performers, 3/1-3/6
Mar 07, 2006, 03:17 am
Our last edition of the NCAA’s Top Weekly series concludes with 5 players who have helped, hurt or hedged their stock leading up to the NCAA tournament. Joakim Noah’s terrific 37 point performance leads off the list of players who’ve helped themselves as much as anyone else as of late, while Tyler Hansbrough of North Carolina is right there with him after going into Cameron Indoor stadium, pulling off an incredible upset and outplaying a future lottery pick in Shelden Williams. Point guards Rajon Rondo and Darius Washington have both seen their draft stocks take hits this year for completely different reasons; while Patrick O’Bryant made us scratch our heads and wonder whether we have a future star or slouch on our hands with the way he played at the Missouri Valley conference tournament.

The Good

Joakim Noah, 6-11, sophomore, PF/C, Florida

37 points, 11 rebounds, 9-14 FG, 19-22 FT


Jonathan Givony

In a draft which many are complaining is almost completely devoid of talented big men, a legit lottery prospect appears to be emerging in Gainesville, Florida.

Being the best player on a perennially ranked top 15 team in the country, attention was never going to be hard to come by for a player like Joakim Noah. But add in the fact that he is at least 6-11, has solid athletic ability, plenty of skills, extra long arms and possibly the best motor in college basketball, and the picture gets a bit clearer. Now consider the extremely rare combination of upside and current production that Noah is displaying on a nightly basis, and you understand why many NBA scouts now consider him to be a top-20 pick should he decide to enter this year.

Noah has been playing extremely well for quite some time now, but his performance against Georgia this past week showed that he is capable of taking his game to a completely different level. With 37 points (the most by a Florida player in 26 years) and 19 made free throws (a Florida record), Noah carried his team on his back all night long and helped fight off a pesky Georgia team that just refused to go away. All this with his father, tennis hall of famer and European pop star Yannick Noah, and grandfather in attendance, as they were in Florida’s blowout road win on senior day over Kentucky at Rupp Arena. For the record, Noah was the best player on the court there too, with 15 points (6-8 FG), 11 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 blocks in 30 minutes.

Going from a scrawny sub-200 pound timid freshman who averaged 3 points and 2 rebounds in under 10 minutes per game last year, to a player that DraftExpress wondered whether he might be “Florida’s best pro prospect” in the preseason, Noah has left no doubt in anyone’s mind about that anymore with the way he has been improving from week to week.

The old knock on Noah earlier on the year was that he is not capable of scoring on anything but layups and dunks inside the paint because of his lack of bulk and limited skills. Noah has gone a long way in dispelling that myth lately, showing intriguing ability to put the ball on the floor and get by his man in the Georgia game especially (a big reason he went to the line 22 times), as well as by knocking down the 16 foot jump-shot on a regular basis when he is dared to shoot it. Shooting 72% from the free throw line this year, it doesn’t come as a huge surprise to find that he has nice touch from this part of the floor.

Noah loves to operate in the high post like a true power forward would, and shows good decision making finding the open man with his excellent passing ability. When he decides to take his man off the dribble, he shows excellent touch finishing with the glass, even with contact despite his lack of strength. In this particular game (as he has done at times this season) coach Billy Donovan decided to go big at times with Noah at the 3 spot for a few minutes, and Noah did not look out of his element operating on the perimeter. In his more natural spot on the floor in the post, Noah shows the ability to finish with either hand and has gotten his jump-hook consistent enough to the point that it’s become an excellent go-to move for him. When he has the opportunity, though, there is nothing he would rather do than throw down an emphatic dunk on his opponent followed by a primal scream that can be heard throughout the arena. He wants the ball in his hands constantly and has become Florida’s catalyst offensively and unquestioned go-to guy.

Defensively, Noah does not give his man any space and uses his tremendous reach as well as his sheer tenacity to block a couple of shots every game and alter countless others. He is tough as nails and makes the most of every pound on his skinny frame, diving for loose balls, battling for every rebound that is even remotely in his area, getting his hands on plenty of balls thanks to his terrific hands, and just being extremely active in general and not giving up on any play. He fires up his teammates and the crowd with everything he does, constantly snarling at opponents, pounding his chest and showing tremendous swagger and passion for the game. As mentioned already, you would be hard pressed to find a big man in college basketball that has a better motor than him.

Noah has played well enough this year to make scouts openly wonder whether he is intent on declaring for the draft. Florida’s entire quintet of terrific sophomores (along with Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green), all best friends off the court, has been emphatic in stating that they all plan on staying at Florida for four years. Noah could still stand to add 15-20 pounds on his narrow frame over the offseason, but it is tough to imagine him playing that much better next season with all the weapons that Florida returns. Noah is in a unique situation since his family’s financial situation will likely not be as much of a factor in his decision as it usually is for many basketball prospects. Should he decide to return, he will have a heavy burden on him in terms of continuing to show improvement from game to game despite the added attention he will likely receive from defenses. Right now he looks like the perfect mix between showing an outstanding upside and still producing excellent numbers (14 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, 66% FG in just 22 minutes) for a top team. He has a tough decision ahead of him in late April. How far Florida goes in the NCAA tournament will likely weigh heavily on his decision.

Tyler Hansbrough, 6-9, freshman, PF/C, North Carolina

27 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks, 9-17 FG, 1-1 3P, 8-9 FT


Jonathan Watters

After a stellar high school career in which he was consistently ranked amongst the top 5 players in his class, there was little doubt that Tyler Hansbrough was going to make an immediate impact for the experience and frontcourt deprived North Carolina Tar Heels. However, nobody really could have expected Hansbrough to be this good this early in his career.

Making an immediate, double-double type of impact, Hansbrough had national freshman of the year honors wrapped up by midseason. After a 40 point, 10 rebound outing against Georgia Tech, heads really began to turn. But on Saturday night, Tyler Hansbrough took things to an entire different level. He dominated Shelden Williams to the tune of 27 points and 10 rebounds, leading the Tar Heels to a shocking upset win on Duke's court.

Very soon, the search for next great college basketball player, the successor to Adam Morrison and JJ Redick, will begin. And Saturday night, Tyler Hansbrough made a fairly convincing case for being that guy.

Hansbrough doesn't have spectacular physical tools, but there is very little he can't do at the college level. His fundamental understanding of how to operate in the post is unparalleled for a freshman in college, and he feeds off of physical play like few other big men I have ever seen. Hansbrough is able to brush off contact and finish at an almost unnatural level, and would be plenty productive simply with blue-collar efforts around the basket.

Of course, Hansbrough actually displays quite a bit of skill as well. He will score with his back to the basket with ease when he isn't double-teamed, and showed a nice faceup game on Saturday night. Hansbrough nailed a face up jumper over Josh McRoberts in the first half, drove past Shelden Williams from the perimeter for an easy score, and hit a crucial second half 3-pointer from NBA range with the shot clock winding down.

Hansbrough is now averaging 19 points and 7.6 rebounds on the season, while shooting 58% from the floor. He is the undisputed star of a team that has won seven ACC games in a row and is now in line for a 2 seed, despite having lost its top seven contributors from a season ago. Forget Freshman of the Year. Tyler Hansbrough is a First Team All-American.

So where does all of this college-level dominance leave Hansbrough in regards to his professional future? He isn't ideally sized for the PF position, but he is already as proven as almost any player in the draft. Hansbrough is old for a freshman, and his frame is thick enough where he could compete in the paint at the next level. However, he doesn't have have the type of explosive potential that usually gets a freshman into the top half of the first round. The question is, would scouts prefer to see a player in his mold average 8 points and 4 rebounds per game like the more highly regarded Josh McRoberts, or will they be foolish enough to penalize him for being this good, this early in his career? While it is likely that Hansbrough will stick around for at least one more season, it is hard to see him slipping out of the first round whenever he decides to declare.

The Bad

Rajon Rondo, 6-1, sophomore, point guard, Kentucky

4 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 turnover, 3 steals, 3 fouls, 25 minutes, 2-6 FG, 0-2 FT


Jonathan Givony

One of the most pressing questions asked by hardcore college basketball fans this year has been: “what in the world is going on in Lexington?” The winningest team in college basketball history is having its worst season in quite some time, and most fingers from Big Blue nation are pointed directly towards their legendary head coach, Tubby Smith.

One of the most bizarre storylines in this incredibly frustrating season for Kentucky fans has been the treatment of Smith’s star point guard and future first round draft pick Rajon Rondo. Coach Smith has taken the questionable approach of bringing his best players off the bench, and appears to have lost the confidence of not only his most loyal fans, but also of his most important player. When Rondo does come off the bench, he is often inexplicitly played at the position that is his worse natural fit: shooting guard. Smith has instead preferred to start senior Brandon Stockon, a 5-8 offensively challenged player whose career highlight at Kentucky in four years was scoring 9 points against Ole Miss. Stockton will not make many mistakes, but also wouldn’t start on most respectable mid-major teams.

Smith’s goal with this move--one that admittedly worked for him many times in the past--was to motivate his players to play harder, dribble the ball less, not make any more mistakes from here on out until they leave, and kill any semblance of individual talent that may have plagued Kentucky in the past. What is odd is that Rondo actually looked more than decent in many key stretches coming off the bench and being allowed to play his natural (and only) position over the past 6 games, pushing the tempo of the game nicely, distributing the ball crisply in transition and half-court sets, taking good shots within the context of the offense, and playing his typically excellent off-ball defense. He almost single-handedly delivered what was probably the biggest win Kentucky has had all season just a few weeks ago, going into the Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville for a huge matchup with a top 10 ranked team in Tennessee, and coming out with a massive win that likely saved Kentucky’s season behind a phenomenal second half performance by Rondo. With just a few minutes left in the game, though, the slightest mistake sent Rondo straight back to the bench as if nothing he’d done the entire game prior had ever occurred.

This is just another perfect example in many of what has made this season go south in a hurry for both Rajon Rondo and Kentucky. The problems come once Rondo begins to calculate how to limit his mistakes—and therefore preserve his playing time—rather than play to his strengths. Smith has kept Rondo completely in check by moving him off the ball and restricting him from utilizing his phenomenal first step to take his man off the dribble and slash to the hoop, neutralizing what is obviously his biggest strength as a player and making Kentucky’s offense stagnant and predictable. In return we’ve seen a passive player who is just not capable of living up to his tremendous potential on the court, since he appears to be afraid of the repercussions if he will do so. It’s obvious that Rondo is the type of player who confidence plays a huge role in how much success he will have on the court, and right now he has almost none as you can clearly see in his body language.

I’ve always felt that Tubby Smith is one of the best NCAA coaches in America because of how much he gets out of so little, but you have to wonder if now that the tables are turned and he actually has some talent to work with, is he capable of capitalizing on it? It’s a question we likely won’t have to answer anytime soon considering the type of talent he’s brought in over the past few years beyond his top ranked sophomore class.

The point guard many scouts saw completely dominate amongst a team of NCAA stars with Team USA in the U-21 World Championships last summer in Argentina is still wearing a Kentucky uniform (for now), but it’s doubtful that he will be able to show the same skills until he goes to another coach who is willing to actually utilize him. Everyone who watches the Wildcats play can tell what’s going on right now, but it’s not exactly clear why it’s happening. There is no doubt that Kentucky needs Rondo to stay another year if they have any chance of being anything remotely close to the team they were in the past, but this is certainly not the way to accomplish that. Obviously Smith’s #1 goal and priority is to win basketball games at Kentucky rather than help his players make the NBA, but it appears that Smith will strike out on both counts since the Wildcats aren’t going to be winning many games anytime soon and it’s hard to fathom Rondo being willing to put up with another season like the one he’s going through now, even though Tubby is obviously doing his best to try and force him to stay. Randolph Morris wasn’t last year, even if he made an absolutely terrible decision to leave at all costs.

You probably won’t hear about it before the early-entry list comes out, since there is absolutely benefit in doing otherwise, but most NBA people we’ve talked to fully expect to see his name on the list when April 28th rolls around.

Darius Washington, 6-2, sophomore, point guard, Memphis

Last 3 game averages: 14 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.67 assists, 5 turnovers, 1 steal, 32% FG, 31% 3P, 75% FT


Jonathan Givony

In a draft that is shaping up to be one of the worst in recent memory for point guards, it’s almost fitting that a second point guard is being featured in this spot for his disappointing play this season.

Everything was going extremely well for Darius Washington early on in the season. John Calipari’s offense was purring like a well-oiled machine, Washington was looking like a true pass-first playmaking point guard that makes everyone around him better, and Memphis was rolling through an extremely tough out of conference schedule that appeared to solidify them as a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

A deep thigh bruise that Washington suffered didn’t seem to initially hurt them all that much. Washington was noticeably limited, but looked more than happy to play the role of floor general setting up his teammates. As the year has progressed and Washington’s thigh problems have not, more and more of his weaknesses were exposed as Memphis squeaked through games what appears to be the worst Conference USA of all time.

Despite being an outstanding ball-handler getting his man off-balance and using his terrific combination of strength and quickness to take his man off the dribble going right, Washington’s left hand is noticeably weaker. UAB and other teams have caught onto this and have exploited this weakness, and with Washington’s quickness not being what it used to be before he suffered the injury, Memphis’ offense looked noticeably worse than it did earlier on in the year with their point guard in an obvious funk.

Washington’s minutes are down by 9 per game compared with last year and he’s been unable to stay on the floor for many key stretches when he was needed most. Playing on one leg for the most part, his outside shooting has abandoned him as well, as the former McDonald’s All-American 3-point contest winner has seen his 3-point field goal makes sink compared to last year along with his shooting percentages. Defensively, Washington was never a standout, and lately he’s been exposed badly trying to stay in front of his man. He’s been turning the ball over too much and has been forcing the issue both with his shot selection and decision making in half-court sets. Memphis’ offense will never be one that will be particularly assist friendly considering the multiple ball-handlers they sport in the lineup as well as the way the point guard is asked to give up the ball early in possessions and play off the ball, but racking up only 21 assists in 9 games since February is poor for a point guard regardless of the offense they play in.

Not all is lost for Washington and Memphis, though. His thigh is apparently getting better by the day, and the Conference USA and NCAA tournaments-- packed with NBA scouts coming to see him, Rodney Carney and Shawne Williams—are right around the corner. According to Washington, he does not plan on entering the draft this year unless he can help his team go deep into the NCAA tournament. He has a newborn son he has to take care of now as well, but Washington insists that he has no problem returning to Memphis if the NBA draft option is just not there this year.

The Questionable

Patrick O'Bryant, 7-0, sophomore, center, Bradley

16 points, 4 rebounds, 0 assists, 5 turnovers, 3 blocks, 4 fouls, 31 minutes, 7-10 FG, 2-4 FT


Jonathan Watters

While Patrick O'Bryant's name has become a fixture on mock drafts in recent months, his first nationally televised game came on Sunday in the championship of the MVC Tournament against Southern Illinois. The results were mixed, with O'Bryant showing off a package of size and athleticism unheard of at the mid-major level, but also clearly struggling with the nuances of the game.

O'Bryant began the game on fire, using his size, strength and incredible length to generally have his way in the paint, mostly on lobs and offensive rebounds. Southern Illinois' smaller frontline was unable to keep him from clearing out the lane and dunking at will. He scored 13 points in the first 14 minutes of this game, and appeared to be well on his way to a breakout performance in his first appearance on the national stage.

However, the Salukis are one of the top defensive teams in the country, and as all good defensive teams do, they made the right halftime adjustments. They packed in their defense around O'Bryant, denied him touches, and bodied up him. He got into foul trouble early in the second half, and was a changed player by the time he got back in the game with his team down by double digits. His aggressiveness was gone, his body language was poor, and he was dominated by 6'7 Saluki post man Randal Falker. O'Bryant outrebounded 16 to 4 by a player 5 inches shorter than him, looking highly apathetic at times going after rebounds right in his area that should have easily been his.

This was a disappointing end to what had been a fantastic "Arch Madness" for both Bradley and O'Bryant. The Braves dispatched of both Creighton and Wichita State in earlier rounds, with O'Bryant being the focal point. The regular season champ Shockers made it their gameplan to attack the big man in the middle early and often. O'Bryant met the challenge, altering the shot of standout post man Paul Miller almost every time he got a touch in the paint. By the second half, it was clear that O'Bryant had won the battle. Wichita State started looking away from the paint for their offense, and Bradley came away with a win that might have earned them an NCAA tournament berth. O'Bryant finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 huge blocks in the semifinal game.

In the end, O'Bryant proved why he is getting some significant NBA attention. 7-footers with his incredible length and athleticism are rare, and at the Missouri Valley level, he is going to dominate based on that alone. He runs the floor well, is a dominant physical presence on the glass most of the time, and has excellent timing as a shot blocker.

However, we also got to see first hand why O'Bryant should definitely be considered a 2007 prospect at this point. His offense is very raw, his effort is still spotty at times, his conditioning needs to improve, and he is very clearly still learning how to play the game. One has to like the way that he has improved over the past two seasons, but he still has a lot of work to do. He won't be able to dominate with size alone on the next level.

With Bradley sitting on squarely on the bubble looking in at the moment, it would be interesting to see what O'Bryant could do in the NCAA Tournament setting. Don't expect a breakthrough performance that could send him into this year's draft, but definitely keep an eye on Patrick O'Bryant's progress over the next year or two. He certainly has the potential to hear his name called in the first round as early as 2007.

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