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Does Texas Have An AJ Problem?

Two weeks ago, I laid out the tenets of the Pittman Problem. In this week's Texas Basketball Report, I noted (not for the first time) that AJ Abrams needed to be contained to a specific role in the offense (three point shooter off screens). I've said several times that Abrams should never be the first, second, or even third option on offense, unless it's in that role. If Texas is going to have someone penetrating and/or shooting off the dribble, it needs to be Durant, Augustin, or Mason, in that order.

In the comment section below the TBR, Eyes of Bevo noted that Abrams' defensive liabilities were further reason to consider limiting Rick Barnes' use of the sophomore guard. That prompted Andrew to ask whether Texas had a corrollary to the Pittman Problem - the AJ Problem.

It's a question worth asking. As Andrew notes, Abrams is deadly effective on offense in the role we've discussed. He extends defenses and creates breathing space for DJ Augustin to get to the rim on penetration. Abrams has been Texas' worst defender, however, by a wide margin. Complicating matters further is Abrams' size and the penalty Texas carries when both he and Augustin play side-by-side.

All that discussion led some to ask whether Barnes should consider starting Connor Atchley and bringing in Abrams as a role-playing reserve. The spirit of the suggestion is in the right place, but I think it's an untenable game plan for this year's Horns. As bad as AJ has been on defense, he's critical to our offense in many regards. So long as Abrams isn't trying to do too much and playing within the role he's supposed to play, he's enormously valuable, both as a scorer, and as a scoring threat. Rather than replace Abrams in the starting lineup, Rick Barnes would be wiser to insist that AJ both play within himself and work harder on the defensive end. Both of his big weaknesses thus far are things he can overcome. While he'll never be a shutdown defender, he can certainly improve his play on defense just by being smarter and working harder. Similarly, on offense, he's doing a lot more right than he is wrong. So long as he doesn't mistake his role on the team, he can continue to be a valuable part of Texas' above average offense.

I think Barnes understands this, which is one of the reasons we saw him yank AJ from the game after he took an early awful shot against Texas Tech. From that point forward, AJ just did what he was supposed to do - ran around on screens and waited for the ball to come to him. It never did, as Durant was too busy playing against himself, but it's no harm when AJ's just working to get open on the perimeter. That helps Durant, too.

The rotation gets a little bit dicier when Texas plays bigger, more physical, teams, and I think you'll see Rick be a little bit quicker about getting Atchley and Pittman into the games in those contests. Nonetheless, there's no reason to bench Abrams for his weaknesses just yet. They're correctable, and, when evaluated next to what he brings to the table on offense, something we can (more or less) live with.