Texas Basketball Report 3.2 - Non-Con Player Reviews (Part 1)

Texas Longhorns tempo free basketball statistics through 12/27/09. Source: Ken Pomeroy

THE RUNDOWN

Record: 11-0 (0-0)

Poll Rankings:  #2 AP / #2 Coaches

Ken Pomeroy Ratings:  #1 overall, / #14 offense / #1 defense

KP #1 Tracker: 43 consecutive days at #1 (see KP Tracker in right sidebar)

Last week:  Defeated North Carolina 103-90 (BON recap / Box Score), Defeated Michigan State 79-68 (BON Recap / Box Score)

Player of the week: Damion James: 25 points, 15 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, 4 steals versus UNC, and 23 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, 1 steal versus Michigan State

This week: Tuesday vs Gardner-Web (5 p.m., $6 tickets available), Saturday vs A&M-Corpus Christi (3:30 p.m.)

THE WEEKLY REPORT

The Texas Basketball Report made its season debut last week -- just in time for UT's two biggest games of the non-conference season -- in which I talked about why the team's early season romps weren't meaningless, notwithstanding the generally poor level of competition. Indeed they were not: Texas beat both UNC and Michigan State, while Pittsburgh and Southern Cal continued to play strong basketball. A week later and Texas suddenly has 3 wins over Top 40 teams and 6 over the Top 100 (source). The 'Horns are ranked #2 in both the AP and Coaches Polls, #1 in Ken Pomeroy's Ratings, #5 in the RPI, and are on track to receive a #1 seed in the Houston Regional come March. Not a bad first 11 games for Rick Barnes and the 2009-10 Longhorns.

After the jump, this week's report focuses on individual player reviews, with a grade (10 point scale) for each of the top five players in the rotation, followed by my thoughts on their performance thus far and where they need to improve. This week's report tackles the top of the rotation; next week we'll hit the rest.

Damion James

Grade: 9.5

Performance to date:  In TBR 2.2, published almost exactly a year ago, I wrote of Damion James:

As we close the non-con season I'm beginning to understand better (with the aid of this superb article) that James simply isn't a front-and-center guy -- either on or off the court. In terms of athleticism, skill, and importance to the team beating elites in March, he most definitely is a big-time star, but in terms of role, I'm starting to accept why he hasn't been and probably won't be the Main Guy player many of us keep hoping to see.

Those same thoughts were on my mind when in November the excellent college hoops blog Rush The Court emailed me a link to their pre-season story on Damion James as one of the top Impact Players in the Deep South region. I directed RTC to TBR 2.2, noting that while I thought Damion could and would be excellent and highly productive in his role, that role was not as a "go-to" kind of guy.

And then Michigan State happened. Not that James hadn't been stellar before Tuesday night's clash with the Spartans, but Texas hadn't run the offense through James as they did against Michigan State. They did in large part because they had to, with Dexter Pittman benched by terrible officiating and Texas's offense beginning to bog down without a clear sense of what it wanted to do. I never doubted that we could try to run things through Damion, but I very much doubted it was a role in which he would thrive. This team's ceiling is even higher than I imagined because James has taken a step forward this year that I didn't anticipate him making.

After watching James for 3+ years, the "insane" rebounding doesn't shock me, but the huge leap in offensive efficiency does. At this rate, he'll wind up a First Team All-American and will deserve the honor.

Must improve:  James still makes me laugh with his poor dribbling in the open court, but it's not much of a problem to be concerned with. The free throw shooting, however, very much is. James is at 67% on the year, which is not off-the-charts terrible, but as great a job as he's doing getting to the line (6.7 fouls drawn per 40 minutes), he becomes that much more of a dynamic threat if he can push that percentage up near 80%.

Dexter Pittman

Grade: 9.0

Performance to date:  Among players being used on 24% or more of their team's possessions, no player in college basketball has a higher offensive rating than Dexter Pittman's 128.8. As expected, he's been unstoppable in the paint, whether scoring from a feed or collecting misses to put back on his own. His 19.2 offensive rebounding percentage is fifth-best in the nation; his 73.4 effective field goal percentage would be third nationally if he had the minutes to qualify. Defensively, his 10.3 block percentage is equally outrageous; his 7.5 fouls drawn per 40 minutes is just silly.

Cliff's Notes: When he's in the game, Dexter Pittman is absolutely dominating.

Must improve:  There's one and only one thing Dexter Pittman needs to keep working on, and that's staying out on the floor. His 5.3 fouls per 40 minutes isn't terrible, but as we saw against Michigan State, the offense is not the same when he's sideline for extended periods of time with foul trouble. There's not too much he can do when a prima donna crew like Ed Hightower's dings him with cheapies, but there are lessons there for the big guy. Among officials who aren't used to his size and strength, he's got to be smarter than usual and display superior body control. So long as he stays on the floor, he'll be college basketball's most destructive inside weapon.

Avery Bradley

Grade: 8.0

Performance to date:  What we saw in the first half against UNC is a taste of what's to come from the young man. The defense has been superb all year, but his offensive game is just starting to show itself. He gets to the rack with superior strength, control, and purpose, which are reflections of the thing about him that most impresses and excites me -- he's a natural basketball player, through and through.

If that sounds odd, just consider by way of contrast Damion James: In his fourth year as a collegiate starter, James has started to become an exceptionally effective player on the basketball court, but until recently the bulk of his effectiveness has been a result of his being an elite athlete. That is, Damion James is not a naturally elite basketball guy -- he's only become one by putting in the work and gaining the experience to develop his athleticism. Most hoops prospects whose primary value is their elite athleticism fizzle out as just that -- elite athletes who don't cut it at the top-top level of organized basketball.

Avery Bradley, however, was born with it. He's certainly an elite athlete as well, but it's his natural abilities as a basketball player that make him special.

Must improve: Like everyone else, the free throw shooting is a disaster (just 14 of 27 on the year), but the most important area of improvement will continue to be his becoming increasingly assertive offensively. If he develops as much as he's capable of by March, Texas will be as elite offensively as they are defensively.

Dogus Balbay

Grade: 9.0

Performance to date:  This one? I saw coming... No one's been a bigger Balbay fan and supporter from the get-go and I couldn't be more pleased to see him giving Texas what I thought he could. The on-ball defense is just ridiculous, but it's the steady improvement on offense that gives him the more robust value to the team that I thought would make him impossible to play less than 25 minutes a game.

The only real question I have with Balbay is how much improvement he has left in front of him. It wouldn't surprise me if what we see right now is roughly the best of what we can expect to get from him. That said, I think he's got a bit more in him, in particular with turning his elite driving ability into production. He's getting better and better at it by the day, but he's a long way from what a guy with that kind of quickness can produce. I've said it before but it's worth repeating: the only player in the Rick Barnes era who can match Balbay's quickness is T.J. Ford (who, it's worth noting, was a pretty darn raw shooter and scorer early in his career as well).

Must improve:  Broken record -- foul shooting -- but again, the big thing will be turning his driving ability into more points and easy scores for teammates. He can score 10 points and drop 8 dimes a game on that skill alone.

J'Covan Brown

Grade: 8.0

Performance to date:  The decision-making has been a bit sketchy, but it's not something to be held against Brown because it's coming with a pay off. And there's lots, lots more to come. Even more so than Bradley, perhaps, he's a 100% pure natural basketball player; you can tell the kid's been a gym rat since he was in diapers and I've not seen many college freshmen with as much hoops savvy as Brown possesses. As my father -- who played college ball back in the day -- always tried to emphasize: "Be quick, but don't hurry." That's J'Covan, who has the quickness to get the position he needs, but is never out of control.

Must improve:  Brown just needs to be slightly more careful and considered with his decision-making and he'll be almost impossible to take off the floor. He frequently attempts passes that display his excellent vision and hoops savvy, but which aren't smart plays to attempt within the game. Cut the turnovers and play within the offense a bit more and he'll be grading out a 10 by year's end. I love this kid.

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