Walking in to the Erwin Center tonight I was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning. My first live look at a Longhorns basketball team is always one of my favorite sports experiences of the year, and this year that anticipation was as exciting as it's ever been. I think the only other time I've been this eager to check out a Texas basketball team for the first time was November 2006, when Kevin Durant, DJ Augustin, and Damion James made their Longhorns debuts.
I've noted many times how important I think seeing players live in the gym is to evaluating their capabilities and potential values, and that proved true once again tonight. Watching this young Texas team thoroughly overwhelm a solid Boston University squad from 50 fifty away revealed a lot about the players we have on hand... and I'm thrilled to say that my optimism heading in to this season was, if anything, only enhanced by what I saw tonight. This team is very young, it has clear limitations, but the collection of talent is very interesting and very capable. I think we're going to be a good basketball team, with a chance to develop into a pretty dangerous squad by the time the calendar turns to January.
Before turning to individual player notes, after the game I jotted down a quick list of our strengths and weaknesses, and though there are some obvious problem spots that will limit this team's ultimate ceiling, there's a lot more to be excited about than you'd expect from a team with so much turnover.
Strengths: This is a very fast and athletic squad... Our roster is loaded with strong open court players... Everyone on the team -- literally everyone -- can shoot the ball... We have very nice length on the perimeter... There are two A-grade primary ballhandlers (Brown and Kabongo), both of whom excel at making the player around them better... We have a lot of interchangeable parts, which will help us with depth and provide helpful flexibility.
Weaknesses: This is a very young and inexperienced team, obviously... Our frontcourt size presents problems with both interior defense and rebounding.
Like I said, there's a whole lot to like. Click through the jump for notes on both team and individual player performances...
INDIVIDUAL PLAYER NOTES
J'Covan Brown -- 31 minutes, 28 points (10-19, 3-9 3PFG, 5-6 FT), 4 rebounds, 8 assists, 1 turnover, 1 steal
I've said it on several occasions, and after tonight's performance it's certainly appropriate to do so again: J'Covan Brown is the best pure basketball player I've seen come through Texas. This is not to say that Brown is the most talented, or the best shooter, or best scorer, or best anything else, really. As I said the first time I brought it up, I just mean that Brown "has the purest hoops instincts" of anyone I can recall.
Brown completely controlled the game tonight, playing as brilliant and complete an all-around game as I've seen some time. He used spacing, timing and body-positioning exceptionally well throughout the game to score buckets, get to the line, and set up teammates for scores of their own. He was fantastic as a scorer, but it was three passes he made that especially speak to what I mean when I refer to him being such an incredible pure basketball player.
The first play came late in the first half when Brown received a pass on the wing, used a quick shot fake to get his man in the air, took two dribbles in towards the lane, pulled up with perfect body control, and instead of shooting fired a strike to Sheldon McClellan in the opposite corner, who buried a three. The second play was that unforgettable half-court bounce pass, which... there are no words for how great a pass that was -- both in terms of seeing the opportunity and actually executing it. Unbelievably difficult degree of difficulty all around, and he not only nailed it, but it's not terribly surprising that he did. The third play was late in the second half when Brown again received a pass on the wing, again used a shot fake to get his man off his feet, only this time he used the pause to create the right moment to rise and -- while everyone expected a three-point attempt -- zip a beautiful pass all the way across the floor to the corner where Julien Lewis was open for a three. It was absolutely astounding that he saw that pass, and the way he delivered the opportunity for his teammate was stuff you just can't teach.
All told, J'Covan played a pretty much perfect game, and I think he's going to prove to be the best guard in the Big 12 Conference this year. I'm penciling him in First Team All-Big 12, with a real shot at making some All-American teams. I think he's that good.
Myck Kabongo -- 22 minutes, 6 points (2-6, 1-2 3PFG, 1-2 FT), 3 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 turnovers, 2 steals
No doubt like many others, I was most excited to get a live look at Texas' talented new point guard from Toronto. It took him a little while to get into a rhythm, but he's as good as advertised. Now, after seeing him in the gym I can tell you that he's a little bit different than TJ Ford. When Ford was on campus I remember swearing I'd never see a point guard so insanely quick, and though I wondered whether Kabongo might just be able to match him in that regard... no way. Ford's speed and quickness were at a whole different level.
Kabongo can't quite match Ford in either department, but he's not all that far behind, and I think he's superior to TJ in a number of other important regards. Kabongo is a better ball handler, and one of the most capable I've ever seen in terms of being able to use that dribble to beat a defender to a spot/create space in order to take a shot or make a pass. He's also taller than TJ Ford by a good 2 - 2.5 inches, and his shooting stroke is miles ahead of where Ford's was when he arrived on campus. Kabongo's release on his jumper is a little bit slow, but the form is pretty and sound -- the kid has a nice stroke that defenders will have to respect.
Much more important than Kabongo vs Ford, however, is what they share in common -- truly elite vision and the ability to create high-percentage opportunities for teammates. He made a picture-perfect drive and dish to set up Lewis for a wide open three, and he made one of one of the most subtly difficult/impressive passes I've seen in a while with a touch lob in to Wangmene for an easy bucket. The kid sees the floor well, he has the handles to break down defenders and create space, and he has elite passing ability to execute all manner of passes.
This was just an introduction. We only started to see the full range of Kabongo's game in the second half. Exciting stuff.
Julien Lewis -- 20 minuts, 18 points (7-12, 4-7 3PFG), 4 rebounds, 0 assists, 3 turnovers, 1 steal
My crew was caught by surprise when Lewis started over McClellan, but it didn't take long to understand what Barnes likes about the kid. I was very bullish on Lewis as a guy who could deliver crucial tough defense right away, but I underestimated his capabilities as an offensive contributor. Lewis did impress on the defensive end, and I expect him to draw the assignment of guarding opponents' best offensive player (like Balbay last year, but I wasn't expecting to see Lewis contribute as much as he did on offense.
Based on his tape I was impressed with Lewis' abilities around the rim and I loved his open court game, but he's got a much purer jumper than I realized. Lewis shoots from a good balanced base, with a quick, smooth release and excellent rhythm. He launched one horrible three off balance that missed badly, but every other shot he took was a silky smooth stroke from within the offense. After tonight, I'm not sure this isn't the best outside shooting team Rick Barnes has ever had at Texas.
Sheldon McClellan -- 22 minutes, 6 points (1-6, 1-3 3PFG, 3-4 FT), 1 rebound, 2 assists, 0 turnovers, 2 steals
McClellan had the kind of debut I expected to see from the team as a whole: raw, choppy, struggling a little to get into a rhythm, with flashes of exciting potential. It's great that the overall team performance was a lot better than that, and not a cause for concern that McClellan wasn't. McClellan's raw ability and potential was apparent, and indeed one of the things that makes this team so intriguing is the possibility of everything coming together for McClellan at some point this season.
McClellan made three plays that particularly stood out: First, I was impressed with McClellan's catch-and-shoot three pointer from the right corner in the first half, which highlighted his ability as a jump shooter. Second, McClellan showed good awareness and passing ability in setting up consecutive jumpers by Holmes and Lewis in the first half. And third, while I definitely want to see McClellan be more active on the glass, the one rebound he did secure Sunday night was as impressive as they come: he and Wangmene went up simultaneously to clear a missed jumper, and though Wangmene was in perfect position to snag the board, he never got the chance because McClellan grabbed the ball about a foot over Wangmene's high point.
The question with McClellan is not if, but when. If he starts putting it all together in January-February, look out.
Jonathan Holmes -- 20 minutes, 7 points (3-5, 1-2 3PFG), 2 rebounds, 2 steals
Holmes got the start at the 4 for us and he was every bit as polished an offensive skill player as advertised, using the glass to score a contested bucket from the block and draining two jumpers, including one three. He's bigger than I had realized, which is good, but he's at this point bigger than he is strong, and he's not yet a great rebounder. He'd really shine playing alongside a true center (please sign on the dotted line, Cameron, kthx), but he won't be able to provide the inside rebounding or defense that this year's team so badly needs.
I want to see more of Holmes before I decide just how much interior defense and rebounding he might be able to provide, but whatever he's not, I was very impressed with what he is. The kid's got great hands and is a very natural basketball player, and his ability to score it from anywhere on the floor will be a very valuable asset. Like Lewis, after seeing him in person I'm higher on Holmes than I thought I'd be, which is exciting and encouraging.
Alexis Wangmene -- 26 minutes, 4 points (2-6 FGs), 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 turnover, 5 blocks
Unfortunately, Wangmene is still limited in the same ways as he has been in previous years. He manages to have a comically difficult time holding on to the ball and struggles to remain in control while trying to score in traffic. With that said, he does still very much look to me like a player who can provide some specific, important value. Wangmene doesn't do particularly well as a defender when he has to use quickness to stay in front of someone, but he uses his strength well to body up guys one-on-one pretty well and is above average at disrupting shots. If he can put his attributes to better use to secure rebounds he'll really be a valuable asset on this team, but there won't be any big leap forward in terms of his all-around abilities. The focus will remain on his ability to provide this team with those specific needs.
Sterling Gibbs -- 20 minutes, 3 points (1-2, 1-1 3PFG), 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 turnovers, 2 steals
Gibbs isn't at the same level as his classmates in terms of raw talent, but he's got a good feel for the game, he's physically stronger than I realized, and like everyone else on the team he has a credible jump shot. His defense has a good ways to go, such that I don't think we'll be seeing him out there for 20 minutes against better teams, but I'm encouraged that he can be a valuable sub in the rotation for this team.
Clint Chapman -- 19 minutes, 6 points (3-6, 0-1 3PFG), 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 0 turnovers, 3 blocks, 1 steal
Chappy has added some much-needed strength to his frame, and while he's still as laterally challenged as ever, he showed in a strong second half that he's capable of providing some quality minutes. There's never been any question that Chapman possesses offensive skill, but he'd previously been too incapable a rebounder and defender to play for meaningful minutes. I'm not sure that he's very good in those regards now, but he's definitely better than before, and I saw enough to be hopeful that he can be a useful part of this team. We'll need him to give us some good minutes against teams with real frontcourts, so that's important progress. I'm interested to watch how he performs over the next month.
Jaylen Bond -- 14 minutes, 4 points (2-4 FGs), 3 rebounds, 3 fouls
Bond struggled to get into the flow of the game for the first 30 minutes, but he finished strong with a flurry of activity that confirmed his strengths as an active athlete who can rebound and run the floor. In my preview of the freshman forwards I highlighted my excitement about Bond's ability in the open court, and he delivered on that promise Sunday night with an electrifying tomahawk jam to finish a fast break.
After watching him in person on Sunday night, I'm not sure he's not going to be a bit hamstrung by being something of a tweener -- he may be as much a big wing as a small forward -- but I'm reserving further judgment on what I think he can provide for us until I see him across a series of games.
Boston University didn't provide the specific kinds of challenges that will test this Texas team's weaknesses, and in that regard we didn't learn anything new about whether, and if so how, they'll be able to overcome them. Nevertheless, the Longhorns' season debut was a spectacular success that provided a lot more to be encouraged by than worried about.
I previewed this team with excited optimism centered on having two elite primary ball handlers and an athletic squad flush with strong open court players who can score. After one game, I feel better about our prospects as a defensive squad and I'm fairly certain I underrated just how good a shooting team we are. I didn't spend a lot of time in the individual player notes talking about defense, but I was very impressed with our aggressive pressure defense in the halfcourt, and unlike so many recent Texas teams, this group might actually excel at creating turnovers -- a real source of weaknesses in recent years. Our perimeter defenders have length, and just about everyone on the roster has quick hands. We have some work to do with our help/team defense and guarding penetration off screens, but I was more impressed than I expected to be by our individual capabilities.
We didn't do a great job on the glass overall, and that's certainly going to be a huge challenge and limitation for this group, but it wasn't quite as bad as the numbers suggested, given how many of their rebounds were secured off long, well-contested jumpers.
Overall, though, I came away even more excited to see what this team can do based on my four most important takeaways from the game: First, as emphasized heading into the season, it's difficult to overstate just how valuable it is that this team features two elite primary ball handlers. Second, every single player on this team can shoot the ball, and those two elite ball handlers are going to provide this team with an incredible number of open threes. Third, we have the length on the perimeter and all-around quickness to play effective and aggressive defense that can help counter or size deficiencies. And fourth, we have a lot of versatile players and interchangeable parts, which should be helpful to this young team in trying to develop.
It's only one game against a manageable opponent, but we couldn't have asked for a better start to the season.
Next Game: Tuesday at 3:00 p.m. CT vs Rhode Island