...while the BON Community remains understandably football-focused (except for the Gazelle updates from PHF), the fact that basketball season starts in two months is flying under the radar. Putting this in terms of the football calendar, the basketball season starts the week of the Kansas game.
For me, the most frustrating part of the basketball off-season remains its "Iron Curtain" nature. For football fans, the progress and development of individual players during the off-season can be gauged through the Spring Game, open practices, practice recaps, and the litany of reports trickling in from the summer workouts. On a lesser scale, baseball fans also get the chance to witness player development through Fall Ball, which now contains several games open to the public. Yet, for us Hoops Junkies, we are forced to sit through the off-season daydreaming about the effects of Todd Wright's workouts and over the progress of the team on an individual basis. Rick Barnes' teams have shown the ability to come together collectively over the season, but the offseason remains the primary period of individual improvement.
After the jump, I'm going to spotlight my five key concerns related to the off-season development of individual players...feel free to provide any additional concerns in the comments. Let's do this...
1) Dogus Balbay's sketchy jumper: As discussed in a previous article, I'm concerned Dogus Balbay's reported struggles with outside shooting could have a massive trickle-down effect on our offensive sets. While everyone remembers DJ Augustin's energy, brilliant passing, and ability to effortlessly penetrate the lane, I think the effect of his outside shooting has been drastically underrated. While Balbay doesn't need to become Steve Nash from the outside, opponents are going to feel a lot more comfortable clogging the lanes if he can't shoot.
As PB noted in the comments of the aforementioned article, an unreliable jumper seems to be something curable with enough practice. Unfortunately, we wont know anything about his development as a shooter until the beginning of the season.
2) The Mystery of Matt Hill: On several occasions, Rick Barnes said that--if not for their injuries--Matt Hill and Dogus Balbay would have been "Top 7" players in his rotation. It's even been reported that Matt Hill was slated to become a starter based on his off-season development. Using simple math, it shows that Rick Barnes considered Matt Hill ahead of either Damion James or Connor Atchley and definitely ahead of Gary Johnson, Dexter Pittman, Alexis Wangmene, and Clint Chapman going into last season. Following the monster seasons of Atchley and James, the fact that Hill was ahead of one of them prior to his injury makes his absence seem that much larger.
Assuming this is true, Longhorn fans seem to be sleeping on Matt Hill's potential impact on the upcoming season. Assuming he's back to where he was prior to last season, Rick Barnes is going to have a loaded frontcourt oozing with size, potential, and wildly differing toolsets.
3) The 4th Guard Conundrum: As it doesn't look like J'Covan Brown will be "J'Covan to Texas" anytime soon, the lack of depth at guard suddenly appears problematic. While Barnes heavily utilized three-guard sets the past two seasons without any tangible contributions from back-up guards, this arrangement doesn't appear possible with the current roster. Unless Balbay can replace DJ Augustin's insane 37.3 minutes-per-game, there is going to be a significant amount of minutes up for grabs. AJ Abrams and Justin Mason also collectively averaged nearly 35 minutes-per-game last season, as the teams was very lucky in regards to injuries and foul trouble. The only current options for a back-up guard on the roster are Harrison Smith and Varez Ward, who are respectively the most unloved and unknown players on the roster.
Ultimately, these additional minutes will go towards increased roles for frontcourt players (Johnson, Hill, Pittman), but this will require a significant shift in our offensive schemes and strategies. Unless Ward or Smith can become contributors, which is doubtful, then we will be seeing a variety of experimenting in the early season games as the team tries to establish an offensive identity.
4) Dexter Pittman, Junior?!?!?!: It seems like only yesterday that I watched Dexter Pittman dominate the competition at a High-School All-Star game at the Erwin Center. And I think we all remember our reactions when he unveiled the "Sexy Dex" physique following a summer with Todd Wright. Following his freshmen season of relentless conditioning work at the expense of learning the offense, I think we all expected a better sophomore campaign from Dexter Pittman. To be fair, it wasn't all bad. Dexter appeared to have a breakout game against A&M, scoring 14 points and grabbing 5 rebounds in only 14 minutes. Despite getting lost on certain rotations, Dexter flashed some incredible low-post skills and soft hands, not to mention unleashing the biggest "I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE" dunk in the history of basketball. He also seemed to slowly climb out of Barnes' doghouse. Including our NCAA Tournament run, Dexter played double-digit minutes in four of the last five games of the season.
And yet, despite his incredible potential, Dexter is entering his junior season on campus. The time to unleash this potential is slowly running out. One of my best friends likened the Pittman situation to his thoughts over Sergio Kindle, as both have been teasing fans with their potential for several years. After being unproductive (Pittman) or injured (Kindle) for their first two years, both find themselves with limited time left on campus. It's now or never for Dexter Pittman, and here's hoping he breaks a few backboards during the upcoming season.
5) The Sophomores and the Todd Wright Effect: Last season, DJ Augustin, Justin Mason, and Damion James made significant gains as players following their first off-season with Todd Wright. Buoyed by increased physical strength and quickness, the trio of sophomores combined with their also much-improved junior counterparts (Abrams and Atchley) to form the backbone of an Elite 8 team. Outside of their physical gains, each of these players also improved their basketball skills. I don't think Damion James missed a 15-20 foot jumper the entire season, AJ hit a slew of runners off the dribble, and Mason skied over much taller defenders for key rebounds. In listening to Rick Barnes speak over Todd Wright, it's hard not to get excited over his tailor-made programs for each individual player.
Which brings us to the three sophomores on this year's team--Clint Chapman, Gary Johnson, and Alexis Wangmene. While Chapman had a disappointing freshman season, both Johnson and Wangmene were consistent contributors to the team. After seeing the massive gains accrued by Atchley and James during last off-season, it's hard not to get excited about the progress of each of these sophomores. But, as with everything else on this list, we're going to have to wait and see what happens...
While the focus will remain on football throughout the Fall Semester, the basketball players will continue their off-season work behind the "Iron Curtain." As a fan, it's maddening, but it's also fun to think about the team's unlimited potential for the upcoming season. The football team might be the most popular, but it's hard to argue the basketball team isn't the most well-run program at the Forty Acres.