J'Covan Brown is one of the best pure basketball players ever to play at Texas.
In Part 1 of our preview of the 2011-12 Texas Longhorns basketball season, we took a look at Rick Barnes' four new freshman guards. In Part 2 we introduced you to the two freshman forwards joining the squad. Here in Part 3 we turn our attention to the returning players on the squad, before wrapping things up in Part 4 with a look at how all the pieces on the team fit together.
I'm not sure any current head coach in college basketball has been hit as hard by losing players early to the NBA as has Rick Barnes. Texas isn't the only program sending so many studs on to the Association, but Barnes' has been snakebit with the timing, repeatedly missing out on opportunities to have squads favored to reach the Final Four when a key player or two leaves early. Had TJ Ford returned in 2004, the Longhorns would have been the preseason No. 1 ranked team and favorites to win it all. Aldridge, Gibson, and Tucker left after just missing the Final Four, and would have been preseason favorites the following year with Kevin Durant, DJ Augustin, and Damion James joining the squad. Durant, of course, left after his freshman year, and the team he left behind made the Elite Eight without him -- who knows how great they would have been with him.
Alas, here we are again, as Texas lost Jordan Hamilton, Tristan Thompson, and Cory Joseph to last year's draft. With those three, the Longhorns would be a consensus contender for the Final Four. Without them... well, Texas barely has enough returning players to make a starting five, and that's only if you count two walk ons. You've been introduced to the six freshmen who will hit the hardwood for Texas this season, and now it's time to talk about the returnees.
Although technically he came off the bench last year, J'Covan Brown (6-1, 197 lbs) played more minutes than starting point guard Dogus Balbay, and Brown wound up improving on his freshman season in every regard.
As a sophomore, J'Covan played roughly the same percentage of minutes as his freshman year, but was a more efficient and effective player in virtually every regard. He upped his three point percentage a full ten points, drew more fouls, got to the line more often, and cut into his turnover rate. He also dramatically improved his ability to keep his emotions under control, showing impressive maturity throughout a challenging year in which Barnes was often hard on him and often gave him a short leash.
It was a huge a step forward for Brown, and a lot of fans didn't seem to fully grasp it, seizing on every instance of frustration as indicative of a bad attitude. But those who were watching closely saw a player making impressive strides in both his game and maturity, and JCB was instrumental in the epic win in Lawrence and nearly single-handedly took us to the Sweet 16.
Fast forward another year, and Rick Barnes just got finished heaping lavishing praise on J'Covan at Big 12 Media Days: Brown has matured into a model player and the leader of this young team, setting the tone for this young team with his work ethic and leadership. So throw out whatever remnants of attitude concerns you may have still had -- knowing Brown, his emotions will at times still get the best of him, and he's going to make some dumb plays that he's better than, but these are now the garden variety imperfections of a talented, emotional player.
Turning to his game, I've noted repeatedly since he arrived that J'Covan Brown is one of the best pure basketball players Rick Barnes has ever had. From December of last year:
For my money, he's the best pure basketball player on the team, which is not to say he's the most talented, or the most polished, but he has the purest hoops instincts of any player on our squad. He has struggled to transpose those instincts into the kind of solid, consistent team play you need at the collegiate level -- which is why you see some of those dazzling looks that too often result in turnovers -- but it's those same instincts which enable him to lure a trap from the 1-3-1, then at precisely the right moment make the quarter-court pass to the wide open shooter (Joseph) on the far side. No one taught him that; he just sees it, and feels it. If he can keep his head straight and continue to refine those instincts, he'll be one of our most valuable contributors.
There are a lot more great athletes than great basketball players in the college game these days, but Brown is a natural talent. He has an intuitive feel for spacing, timing, how to use his body, who's open, where the ball should be -- the stuff you can't teach, but which separates great basketball players from great athletes. Brown isn't the fastest or quickest player, but he creates advantages for himself and his teammates in other ways, and at his best he can completely break down a college defense, while making his teammates around him better. He's not exactly a pure point, but those abilities allow him to be an effective primary ballhandler at the collegiate level.
With that in mind, perhaps the most interesting question heading into this season is how Brown and Myck Kabongo -- a pure point guard all the way -- will play together. There's absolutely no reason they can't complement each other, but it'll be interesting to see whether it takes some time for Brown to figure out how to be as effective in an off-ball role as he can be with it in his hands. It's not that I doubt J'Covan's ability to do so, but it'll be interesting to see how the two guards play with each other, and whether this will be Kabongo's team, or Brown's team, or both.
There will be plenty more to say after we see this new group work together, but for now let me note once more how impressed I've been with Brown's development -- both as a player and young man -- and how relevant that is to his ceiling as a college basketball player. He grew up a lot from his freshman to his sophomore year, and his production on the court followed. By all accounts that development has only continued, and again, we're talking about one of the best pure basketball players I've seen come through Texas -- which is to say, with a player like J'Covan it's much more about removing barriers, rather than developing ability. There may be some new challenges related to the new dynamics of this year's team, but we have every reason to expect that JCB will be his most effective yet.
Turning now to the frontcourt, Texas will be looking for senior forward Alexis Wangmene (6-7, 240 lbs) to step up and play an important role for this team. Though to this point in his career Wangmene has been a marginal contributor, I actually think there are reasons to believe he could be a good bit more productive than most probably expect.
The key is to focus on what kind of value, precisely, this team really needs from Wangmene. Although he's a returning senior forward on a team lacking in size and stocked full of freshmen, there's little doubt that Wangmene isn't capable of being a go-to player in the post. But that doesn't mean he isn't capable of providing critical value to this year's team.
Wangmene averaged just 2.3 rebounds per game last year, but note his offensive and defensive rebounding percentages, which measure how often he comes up with a rebound off a missed shot. On a per possession basis, Wangmene's rebounding was actually quite impressive, right there with Tristan Thompson's 13.9 OR% and 13.7 DR%. Thompson played about three times more minutes per game than did Wangmene last year, and if you triple Wangmene's season averages from last year you get a respectable 7 points and 7 rebounds per game.
In other words, what matters is not whether Wangmene is capable of taking some sort of leap forward to become a go-to scorer (not happening) as a senior, but whether he can improve on his solid per-possession numbers in extended minutes this year (absolutely possible). Wangmene would deliver a lot of value giving us 20 minutes, 8 points and 8 reobounds per game... provided, of course, he can play acceptable defense (more on that in a moment).
Can he do it? Wangmene possesses a somewhat confounding mixture of impressive skills and killer limitations. As for his attributes, Wangmene's has a developed body and underrated strength, he can run the floor, and he's got some real touch, both around the basket and with his stroke. He knocked down 43 of his 54 free throw attempts last year (his 80% clip was second on the team only behind J'Covan) and that strength allows him to go up to get and hang on to rebounds in traffic. Anyone remember his 9 boards in 15 minutes in last year's win against North Carolina?
The good news on the flipside is that some of Wangmene's limitations are of the type that isn't unrealistic to imagine he might improve upon. Specifically, Wangmene has often put himself back on the bench with out-of-control play -- senseless fouls, turnovers caused by overeager play, general clumsiness, and the like. He may well fall prey to the same limitations this season, but among all the kinds of things to improve, those are the kind that are more easily improved upon. What Wangmene doesn't have is a consistent post-up game, and it would be quite a shock to see us feeding the ball in to him in the post as a focal point of the offense. That's fine, but genuinely concerning is Wangmene's below average lateral quickness, which is the primary reason Barnes hasn't been able to give him more minutes. He struggles to stay in front of his man, the result of which is too often an easy bucket or a Wangmene foul.
That, above all else, will determine whether Barnes can extract the value of Wangmene's skills across 20 minutes. If he can play solid defense and cut down on the fouls, Wangmene can be a hugely valuable player for this year's team. If not, his contributions will again be limited to what we can get situationally in 6-10 minutes per game. I'm optimistic for the former, mostly because of how much I want this team to benefit from what Wangmene can do, but I won't fault anyone for doubting that he's going to be able to improve enough where he needs to in order to stay on the floor.
That brings us, finally, to senior forward Clint Chapman (6-10, 245 lbs), who returns after taking a redshirt year to work on his body/strength. To be sure, while during Chapman's first three years others were optimistic about Chapman based on his offensive skill set, I was awfully hard on him -- not because I didn't recognize those offensive skills, but because I saw a player too weak to put those skills to any consistent use. Against that backdrop, I think Chapman's unusual redshirt move was a wise one, and I'm eager to see if he's developed enough to be a real asset.
During his first three years Chapman was simply too slow with his feet, and far too weak in the paint as a rebounder, for Barnes to be able to play him consistently. He wasn't physically strong enough, but more frustrating, he often appeared not to be mentally strong enough: there's simply no reason a player with his skills should go 8 for 33 from the free throw line across two seasons. He wore his self-doubt on his sleeve, and it showed up in his play.
After a year off working exclusively on his physical capabilities with Todd Wright, we should certainly see a stronger and more athletic version of Clint Chapman, but it's hard to say what that might translate into on the floor until we see whether and how he has developed in terms of his mentality and approach. Chapman is a legitimately skilled offensive player, but not so much so that those skills will play without his being a lot stronger and tougher, both physically and mentally. If he can hold his position in the paint on defense, clear the defensive glass, and play offensively with the strength and confidence required to turn his skills into production, he has a valuable role to play on this team. If, on the other hand, we see much the same Chapman as before, I'll be skeptical that he has a big role to play on this team.
To be fair, I should mention what those offensive skills are. Chapman's good with the ball in his hands, and he has real touch and shooting ability to 12-15 feet that make him a potentially versatile scoring threat. If he can do all the other things he needs to in order to stay on the floor, it's not unfathomable that he could be an 8 - 10 points per game scorer. A big if, but we'll be in a lot better shape if Chapman's ready and able to give us 15+ quality all-around minutes.
In sum, Texas has one dynamic returnee in J'Covan Brown, and a pair of senior forwards with the potential to add important, targeted value, but both of whom can't justify meaningful minutes if they remain limited in the same ways that they have to this point in their Texas careers. Realistically, Texas needs one of either Wangmene or Chapman to emerge as a viable, valuable 15-20 minutes per game player, and it needs J'Covan Brown both to complement and draw out the talents of the freshman talents Kabongo and McClellan.
How will that all work together? We'll talk about that in the fourth and final part of this 2011-12 Texas Longhorns basketball season preview...
Two weeks to tip off.... Hook 'em