NCAA Weekly Performers-- 3/7/2007, Part One

NCAA Weekly Performers-- 3/7/2007, Part One
Mar 07, 2007, 02:24 am
Trey Johnson, Al Horford, D.J. Strawberry (pictured) and Aleks Maric help us kick off the first edition of our weekly NCAA performers column.

Trey Johnson, 6-5, Shooting Guard, Jackson State
Vs. Alabama State: 26 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 turnovers, 9-17 FG, 3-7 3P, 5-7 FT

Jonathan Givony

We honestly could have picked any given game this season to write about Trey Johnson, and likely came across an impressive performance in the process. That’s just the nature of the beast when you’re talking about the second leading scorer in the NCAA. In hindsight, after breaking down extensive tape of his, we definitely shouldn’t have waited until the last week of the regular season. Hopefully for our sake, as well as the rest of the country, Johnson can extend Jackson State’s season by winning the SWAC conference tournament and claiming a spot in the Big Dance.

Just by looking at his basic stats, 27 points a game on 42% shooting, as well as considering the conference he plays in, you would normally assume that Trey Johnson is a typical mid-major gunner who scores his points by dominating the ball and taking a large quantity of shots. Watching him on film, though, it’s hard not to get the impression that that’s rarely true, and if anything, out of necessity rather than the way he would really prefer to play.

Johnson is an extremely intelligent player, the type of guard who plays the game at his own speed and is rarely flustered by what defenses throw at him. He’s got a very complete offensive game at this point in time, which is almost shocking when you consider that he’s only been playing basketball competitively for three seasons now. Johnson was a baseball player for most of his life, a pitcher, and was even drafted by the Kansas City Royals. An injury forced him to switch to basketball before his sophomore year, and after one season playing at Alcorn State (where he was recruited to play baseball), he transferred back home to Jackson State.

Listed at 6-5, but probably actually closer to 6-4, Johnson doesn’t wow you initially with his physical attributes, although he does have a very strong build. His wingspan appears to be just average, and while he’s a smooth and quick athlete, he won’t be considered terribly explosive by NBA standards. What Johnson can be considered is skilled, and very smart. He makes the extra pass, plays within his team’s offense, and takes what the defense gives him. And he can also obviously score.

Creating his own shot from the triple-threat position, Johnson operates at his own speed, measuring what his options are carefully, and using a devastating jab-step combined with excellent ball-handling skills to keep his matchup guessing as to what he’ll do next. He has terrific timing and the versatility needed to deal with the wide array of gimmick defenses opposing coaches throw at him to keep the ball out of his hands at all costs.

Johnson uses his strength to get his shot off in tough situations, elevating off the floor smoothly and using his excellent body control to balance himself and finish even with multiple hands in his face. His range extends past the 3-point line, but it’s from mid-range that he really shines. Johnson can pull up off the dribble if the situation calls for it, and he’s absolutely terrific coming off curls and getting his shot off in the blink of an eye.

He can also go to the basket and finish, as evidenced by the 305 free throw attempts he’s drawn in 31 games this year. Some of that comes from the work he does with his back to the basket, where he likes to use his body to carve out space and has no problem taking contact as he makes his way up to the hoop. He can also fade away and knock down the turnaround jumper if the opportunity presents itself.

If the defense collapses, as it often does, Johnson keeps his head up and is very much capable of finding the open man, thanks to his excellent court vision. His ball-handling skills, calm demeanor and feel for the game make you wonder whether he might be able to play some backup point guard at the next level, something that we weren’t able to get a great handle on in the games we evaluated.

In the NBA, if he’s to make it, Johnson will likely be the type of player who takes what defenses give him and won’t have to be as aggressive looking for his own shot as he is in college. Not having any choice but to force the issue at times due to his role playing for Jackson State, he’s forced into taking too many difficult shots, which has really hurt his percentages from the field. Johnson seems to prefer going to his right hand more than his left at this point, so improving his versatility in this area could make him an even more dangerous player.

Defensively, it’s clear that he’s being hidden in order to stay out of foul trouble, but in the one on one possessions we did see, this doesn’t look to be a great strength of his. This is one of the things teams will look at when Johnson finishes up his season and starts hitting the pre-draft camp and workout trail. It wouldn’t surprise us one bit if he ended up landing a spot in the 2nd round, and he will have a chance to play his way into the top 30 picks if he’s able to show off his advanced skill-set in these settings.

In the meantime, though, #2 seed Jackson State kicks off their conference tournament schedule today, playing against #7 seed Southern in the SWAC quarterfinals. If they are to advance two rounds, the finals will be played on Saturday, March 10th, on ESPNU.

Al Horford, 6’10, PF/C, Junior, Florida
2 Games Combined: 31 points, 20 rebounds, 4 assists, 7 blocks, 12-17 FG, 7-13 FT

Joseph Treutlein

Al Horford’s had a pretty strong season thus far, consistently showing the tenacity he’s become known for on defense and the boards, but also making some little strides in his offensive game as well, using the mid-range jumper more consistently and showing small signs of progress in his touch around the basket.

Horford had two pretty good showings to close out the SEC regular season, notching double-doubles against both Tennessee and Kentucky this past week. Horford’s biggest contribution in both games was his work on defense and the boards, but he did a good job playing in the post on offense as well, showing a nice array of moves, including a drop step, hook shot, spin move, the ability to use glass, and most importantly a better touch around the rim than he has in the past. Horford also showed good composure while facing double teams and made some nice kick-out passes for open shot opportunities.

Horford’s post game was certainly not flawless, though, as his feel for the game when he has the ball still leaves a lot to be desired, mainly when he has it outside of five feet. Horford doesn’t have much of a face-up game, and if he can’t gain superior position backing his man down, he doesn’t have much success with his post moves outside of his comfort zone, which is within five feet of the basket.

As mentioned above, one area Horford has improved upon this year is his mid-range jumper, and this gives him something he can contribute outside the painted area on the offensive end. In a 23-game sample of his 29 games this season, Horford has taken 40 spot-up jumpers, mostly from around 10-15 feet, and he’s hit 24 of them (60%). While this is not yet a major staple of his game, Horford’s now taking close to two spot-up jumpers per game of the 8.3 field goals he attempts, whereas he sparingly used the jumper last season and wasn’t very effective with it. Horford’s release on his shot isn’t very quick, but he has a high release point and decent form, and with more work in the offseason, he could develop his mid-range jumper into a reliable weapon in his offensive arsenal.

Speaking in terms of the NBA, Horford will likely never be relied upon much on the offensive end; what teams will value him for will be his excellent defensive abilities, both in terms of man-to-man and team defense. While he didn’t get to show it much in these past two games due to the opposition, Horford is an excellent man-to-man defender in the post, possessing great strength, length, and a very strong fundamental base along with the wherewithal to use it effectively. Horford’s defensive prowess also extends to the perimeter, though, where he has the length and lateral quickness to guard many perimeter-oriented big men, which will make him a huge defensive asset at the next level, likely being capable of guarding most power forwards and centers in the league. In the Kentucky game, Horford did an excellent job moving between the post and the perimeter on defense, making switches, and using his length to aggressively stick his man on the perimeter. Horford did have some trouble staying with small forward Bobby Perry on some plays, but he doesn’t project to guard small forwards at the next level, so that’s not too concerning.

Horford’s also an excellent weakside defender, always keeping his eye on the ball and his man, and making quick rotations across the lane when necessary, using his length and timing to block and alter many shot attempts. Horford’s shot-blocking abilities are also evident in his man-to-man defense in the post, where he causes fits when the opposition tries to shoot over him. On the boards, Horford does a very good job boxing his man out, and also has the mobility to chase down many long rebounds.

Horford projects as a mid-lottery pick in the upcoming draft, where he is pretty much a lock to declare. While not as recognizable or highly touted as teammate Joakim Noah, Horford has the chance to be just as good, if not better, a pro, especially if he can continue to make strides with his offensive game, specifically by working to have a more consistent mid-range jumper and improving his touch around the rim and feel for the game in the post. Horford should be able to contribute right away in the NBA with his versatile defensive abilities and tenacity on the boards, while also being able to play a garbage man type role on the offensive end until he puts in more work on the finer aspects of his scoring. If he continues to make more strides on the offensive end, Horford could make an impact similar to that of Emeka Okafor in the NBA, and it shouldn’t take that much time.

D.J. Strawberry, 6-5 Senior, SG, Maryland
Vs. UNC and Duke: 44 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 turnover, 1 steal, 0 blocks, 20-33 FG, 1-1 FT, 3-5 3P

Joey Whelan

After stumbling to a 3-6 start in the ACC, the Maryland Terrapins reeled off 7 straight conference wins to close out the regular season at 10-6 in ACC play. The most impressive part of the streak came last week when Maryland notched back-to-back wins over North Carolina and Duke. Leading the way for the surging Terrapins was their senior leader, D.J. Strawberry.

Strawberry’s full array of talents were on display in the wins over the Tar Heels and Blue Devils. Strawberry, as has been the case for most of his career, did the bulk of his scoring in transition. He is one of the fastest players in the ACC getting up and down the court, and has a fantastic knack for knowing when a teammate is going to come down with a defensive rebound, and then sprinting down court. Strawberry’s ability to leak out of the pack, combined with his great breakaway speed with the basketball made for several breakaway baskets during the two wins. He also picked up several nice assists with his solid court vision on the break, spotting open teammates for easy baskets.

In the half court set, Strawberry mainly relies on his quickness to drive to the basket, rather than advanced ball-handling skills. He has a good first step and has been successful getting to the rim all season long, although at times he is somewhat out of control when he gets into the lane, throwing up wild shots. His aggressiveness with the ball usually leads to a fair number of free throw attempts, interestingly enough though Strawberry only attempted one freebie in the two games combined.

While Strawberry’s perimeter shooting has never been a strong point of his game (he’s shooting 35.9% this season), he had a solid week from beyond the arc. He has seen most of his outside shooting success when on the move. Strawberry is sharp catching and shooting the basketball when coming off of screens. He has the ability at times to pull up on the dribble and fire, but is inconsistent with his mid-range jumper. Generally he is willing to risk a tougher shot driving to the basket than he is to pull up and fire.

Aside from his success with the basketball, Strawberry did a very fine job moving without the ball. He often found himself with point blank looks at the basket thanks to his ability to find open spots in the paint. While he had some nice finishes down low, Strawberry ran into trouble a few times going up against bigger players, especially the tall and athletic Tar Heels. He has struggled at times this year to finish inside when the lane has gotten congested. At 6-5, he isn’t the ideal height for an NBA shooting guard and this could hurt him a little when considered his lack of bulk.

Defensively, Strawberry has been at the top of his game this season. He is one of the ACC’s top on ball defenders, relying on his great lateral quickness to lockdown opposing players. Coupled with this quickness is Strawberry’s above average anticipation for his man’s next move, resulting in plenty of drawn charges on the perimeter; he had two in each game last week. Off the ball, he continues to rely on his quickness, deflecting plenty of passes, and often turning many of those deflections into easy points at the other end of the floor.

Strawberry got into a little trouble this weekend when he was screened on the perimeter. He has had a tendency this season to follow his man through rather than trying to go above or below the screen. Often times he is able to recover thanks to his great speed, but at the next level he will get burned if he doesn’t change that facet of his game. At 200 pounds, Strawberry lacks the bulk or strength to fight his way through screens and will have to improve upon this if he is to remain an effective pick and roll defender in the NBA.

Strawberry has helped his stock a lot down the stretch of the regular season. Already on many radars simply because of his athleticism and in your face defense, he has increased his offensive output in recent weeks and really shown his potential as a fast break scorer. As an undersized two-guard with only an average outside shot, though, Strawberry will have to find other ways to be a helpful role player in the pro ranks. One way he can stand to do this is through his versatility. Strawberry logged plenty of minutes at point guard during this junior season, and while he is by no means an NBA caliber point guard right now, developing those skills could improve his stock. He could stand to help himself even further by attending one of the pre-draft camps this summer. Should he have a solid post season and perform well during the summer, Strawberry stands a good chance of landing a spot in the league as a second round pick.

Aleks Maric, 7-0, Center, Nebraska, Junior
18.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.1 bpg, 57% fg, 68% ft

Mike Schmidt

Maric declared for the NBA draft after his sophomore season in 2006, but was talked into returning to Nebraska for the 2006-2007 season by his new head coach Doc Sadler, who came in from UTEP. It has been a tough season overall for the Huskers, who are in a rebuilding year, and finished 10th overall in the Big 12. Still, Maric took a step forward as a player, and emerged as one of the better post scorers in the conference. Despite his progress, many question marks surround him when it comes to his NBA potential.

Maric’s has a big body and strong frame, which he uses well in the post. He bends his knees well when fighting for position, and this gives him the leverage to get perfect position on the block each time. The bulk of his points come from within 10 feet of the basket. Maric uses a hook shot to score most of his points out of the post. He uses both hands well with this shot, and this can be very hard for defenders to block with the way he keeps them off with his body. In terms of footwork, Maric can spin in either direction, and handles the ball well enough to get all the way to the basket against most Big 12 defenders. His shooting has improved since last season as well, though it still could use some work.

At this point, certain improvements would go a long way for the Aussie’s NBA potential. Maric has good size for the center position, but has severe limitations athletically. He runs the court poorly, and lacks quickness on the low block, particularly with his footwork. Though he creates a lot of looks out of the post inside, Maric could still stand to improve his touch to finish some of these looks. Maric struggles to score from more than 10 feet away from the hoop, and tends to look down when he dribbles the ball. Because of this, he rarely passes the ball out of the post, and when he isn’t in a position to score, often turns the ball over (3 turnovers per game on the season). Against teams like Texas A&M and Kansas this season, Maric has struggled when matched up with big men his size. He’s had some spectacular statistical performances as of late (41 points vs. Kansas State, 31 points, 19 rebounds vs. Missouri and 36 points, 12 rebounds against Iowa State), but these all came against teams that stood no chance at challenging his size due to their extremely weak frontcourts.

Defensively, Maric holds his position well, but struggles to contest shots because of his physical limitations. He has the tendency to get into foul trouble, but plays very well through the foul trouble late in the game.

NBA teams usually covet big men who can score in the low post, but physical limitations will hurt his upside in the eyes of the decision makers on the next level. As a junior this year, Maric is already 22 years old, and has burned his draft card. He would be best served by coming back for his senior season, and spending some time in the weight room improving his body. If he can improve his offensive versatility, Aleks Maric will give himself a much better chance at working his way up the draft board. If things don’t work out for him, he always has a Croatian (and Australian) passport he can fall back on, which could land him a boatload of money overseas.

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