So we've established that Rick Barnes has assembled himself a damn fine group of tall dudes. Now for the guys who dribble and shoot. Can they make a few more this year?
Guards Who Need To Provide Shooting
Kendal Yancy (Sophomore, 6-3, 200)
Damarcus Croaker (Sophomore, 6-2, 190)
Demarcus Holland (Junior, 6-2, 190)
After this trio shot a collective 30% from beyond the arc a year ago (connecting on just 42 of their 139 three-point attempts), I'm not sure any of them has earned the title "Shooting Guard" yet. For now, we'll note that they are guards who we would sure like to provide good outside shooting -- 30% from your top three off-ball guards is inadequate, to put it mildly.
Before we discuss whether there may be improvement in store, let's talk for a minute about its importance. Jeff and I have written many thousands of words over the years emphasizing that there are different ways for a basketball team to be effective on the offensive end. One way that Rick Barnes' teams have often excelled is by maximizing opportunities: racking up lots of extra shots with offensive boards and minimizing the number of possessions that end without a shot (i.e. limiting turnovers). So shooting the ball well is not the only path to offensive success.
It's a nice way to go if you can get it, though, and with the elevated point expectancy on three point field goal attempts, more and more coaches are trying to develop what I'll call Dual Outcome teams, where the objective of each offensive possession is to produce either (1) a shot at the rim (where the highest percentage of attempts are made) or (2) three point shot attempts (where the expected return per attempt is elevated).
Rick Barnes is decidedly not in that group: Texas has never even cracked the Top 100 in the number of three point attempts as a percentage of total shots taken. Last year's group attempted just 26% of their total shots from beyond the arc, among the lowest percentage in the country. Instead of with three-pointers, Barnes' squads have typically manufactured points through extra possessions (offensive rebounds and low turnover rates) and racking up trips to the free throw line.
Looking at the season ahead, then, is there any reason to expect anything different? Yes and no. On the one hand, considering that this is the same backcourt from a year ago minus the most successful three-point shooter in the group (Walker, 35% on 68 attempts), it's difficult to project anything changing dramatically in that department. Moreover, this isn't a group in search of an identity; this team knows how it wants to play and what it intends to do to win basketball games, and firing up more three pointers just isn't a focal point of who we are and what we're trying to do.
On the other hand... I firmly believe this group has better outside shooters than last year's percentages suggest. We've already talked about Holmes and Lammert's shooting ability, and we're about to talk about the guards, but suffice to say that I think Taylor (26.3% on 19 attempts), Holmes (33.3% on 84 attempts), Croaker (29.7% on 74 attempts) and even Holland (29.2% on 48 attempts) are primed to improve on their numbers from a year ago.
Turning, finally, to the group of Holland, Yancy, and Croaker, they're still unlikely to set the world on fire from the outside, but they should be better in that regard, and overall there's a good deal of promise in the games of these three.
Let's start with Demarcus Holland, who's been a really interesting player to watch across his first two seasons. There's no question that Holland's subpar shooting has been a pretty substantial limitation over his first two years, but that doesn't tell the whole story with the player who saw the second-most minutes on the team last year (averaging 29 per game). There is his defense, of course, for which Holland gets plenty of credit -- although at times in a backhanded way, as an indirect way of highlighting that he is limited offensively.
Holland was still a subpar shooter across his sophomore season, but he made real gains from his freshman campaign -- raising his shooting percentages to 45% on 2-PT FGs and 29% from beyond the arc, up from 43% and 17%, respectively. For most, however, that's as far as the story with Holland goes: good defense, can't shoot -- often accompanied with a call for Barnes to reduce Holland's minutes.
I wish Holland could drain 38% of his outside shots as much as the next guy, but after that I generally part ways with the consensus, in that my general take on Holland isn't that he's killing us with too many minutes, but that over the past two years he's developed and the narrative hasn't.
Don't get me wrong: Holland's limitations have not been imagined, and the justifications for his minutes the past two seasons have to a meaningful extent been about lousiness of others. in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and when no one else will defend an opponent, Demarcus Holland is a 30-minute per game player.
That's really only half the story, though, and I'm pretty sure my co-conspirator Jeff agrees with me on this point. Demarcus Holland's limitations may be real, and some portion of his minutes the past two years may well have depended on the lousiness of others, but it is also the case that the kid has consistently, meaningfully improved -- both within and between seasons -- and sometime early last season reached a point where his perceived value better caricatured, rather than realistically described, his actual value.
His outside shot does still leave a lot to be desired, but it's steadily improved and if he's managed to sustain that trend line over the offseason and going forward, he should be an average shooter this season. And average can suffice if the other components of your game are producing a lot of value. And that's where Holland tends to get sold short: the defense is appreciated, but his transition game, rebounding, and ability in the halfcourt to penetrate to and finish at the rim generally are not. He's got long arms that he increasingly puts to good use, he's already exceeded the utility his recruiting pedigree suggested we should expect, and if he can continue to develop, he's going to have been a really solid four-year player for us.
All that said, the stakes are higher this year, though, and while it may be the case that Holland has been underappreciated the past two seasons, if he is to play a similarly high proportion of available minutes this year, the improvements must continue -- all around, but particularly important to me are substantial improvements with turnovers and free throws. Holland coughed it up on 23% of his possessions last year, and the only way the lost value of a high turnover rate can be overcome is if it comes as a byproduct of a high-value pursuit, which... no, that ain't Holland. A lot of his turnovers are avoidable, and that rate needs to come down -- a lot -- this season. The story is the same with free throws, where Holland did a nice job earning trips to the line, but shot an unacceptable 57% once he got there. I hope someone pointed out to Holland that Cam Ridley got up to 64% last year. Holland can and must do better.
How much Holland will need to continue developing to maintain his minutes will depend in part on how much -- and how quickly -- Yancy and Croaker develop their own games. Starting with Kendal Yancy, he quietly had a solid freshman campaign, providing solid value in many of the same ways as Holland. Yancy is supremely well developed physically, but rarely overextends himself, by which I mean you'll rarely see him trying to do more than he's capable of or asked to do. I'm not convinced Yancy's ceiling is particularly high, but before I draw any firm conclusions I'm interested in seeing what kind of improvement we see between year one and year two. My expectation right now is that in Yancy we've got a solid contributor who can defend, rebound, and chip in 6-10 points a game by scoring at the rim, being opportunistic, and playing his role within halfcourt sets. Huh. Sounds a lot like Holland.
That narrative doesn't fit with Damarcus Croaker, however. Croaker is the opposite of Holland and Yancy -- he's got tremendous upside but is working off a shaky foundation. I talked about the reasons I thought Connor Lammert was going to surprise some people with a great season, and while I don't have the same degree of confidence in my expectations for what we'll see from Croaker this year, what I can say is that I won't be surprised if Croaker explodes into an impact player this season.
No player on the roster has as much unrealized potential as the sophomore from Florida, who struggled to earn consistent minutes as a freshman for a number of interrelated reasons. At the root of the problems, though, was defense, or lack thereof, as it were. An explosive athlete and prolific scorer throughout high school, Croaker found himself constantly struggling to focus on and execute alert, fundamentally sound team defense, and it cost him minutes, which in turn cost him offensive as he wound up pressing on the offensive end of the floor.
Croaker spent much of his freshman year ensnared in a classic vicious cycle, but it needn't be one that handcuffs him going forward. Heading into his sophomore season, priority one for Croaker should be defending, on which his playing time is likely to depend. Croaker was plagued by McClellan-itis last year, a crippling disease in which the player's brain loses focus in inverse proportion to the player's proximity to the basketball.
If Croaker has taken a big step forward defensively to the point where he's defending adequately, there's enormous offensive potential waiting to be unlocked. Croaker flashed some of that last year, but his inability to defend well enough to play sustained minutes impacted him offensively, as he struggled to get in the flow of the game and was erratic with his shot selection, often too eager to make an impact while he could. It'll be interesting to see what Croaker is capable of in a rotation where he's able to give Barnes 20 minutes a game of solid defense. I'd expect double-digit scoring, that's for sure.
Primary Ball Handlers
Isaiah Taylor (Sophomore, 6-1, 170)
Javan Felix (Junior, 5-11, 195)
Let's save the best for last and start with Javan Felix, the junior who's had a roller coaster first two years in the program. A lot has been asked of Felix, much of it unfair, and though like Holland his limitations are real and apparent, he deserves a lot of credit for the value he has been able to produce.
As a freshman when he should have been playing 10 minutes a game as Myck Kabongo's back up, the NCAA's absurd suspension of Kabongo forced Felix into a lead role right away, and heading into February Felix was leading the Big 12 in minutes. That's a drastic departure from the preferred plan of easing him into action as a reserve, and Felix handled it remarkably well, all things considered. He wore down as the season progressed, however, and spent the last quarter of his freshman year playing a minor role on a broken team.
As a sophomore, Felix was asked to change his role again, as the arrival of the brilliant Taylor meant Texas had a primary ball handler for 30 minutes a game. Felix shifted to a hybrid guard role, playing as a shooting guard who also held primary-ish ball handling duties. Felix again adapted reasonably well to what was asked for him, and had some excellent stretches where his natural scoring ability really shined. Although we would prefer to develop a scoring chance through other means, when push comes to shove and we need a shot, Felix is surprisingly adept at creating his own offense given his size.
Where Felix's size has really shown up as a limitation is on defense, where his subpar lateral quickness and lack of height hindered him from adequately contesting shooters in rotation or left him vulnerable to penetration. I'm not sure how much can be done about that -- even by Todd Wright, Miracle ManTM, but that's the thing about college basketball: with a handful of exceptions that will go on to play in the Association, most of these kids have at least one major limitation. It's easy for fans to confuse the applicability of those limitations to a player's professional potential with his ceiling as a productive collegiate player, and both Felix and Holland are great examples of that.
Of course, it's not only fans who need to understand that dynamic, but Felix, too. The big thing for him this year is to understand where and how he can contribute value, and to maximize the efficiency with which he does it. Duh, PB, isn't that the case for every player? Well yeah, but what I mean is that Felix's instinct is to contribute value by being a primary creator in a leading role. That's not what we want or need from him this season, and while he did an admirable job last year trying to adjust to that different role, we need him to complete that transformation this season. If he can't, and assuming the defensive liabilities remain, his value add balances along a delicate line that could easily tilt the wrong way.
Not so with my boy Isaiah Taylor, whose bandwagon I was conducting before anyone else and whose freshman season only made my man crush grow. Everyone knows who Taylor is now, but here's the amazing thing: he's still underrated.
Three guards were named to the preseason All-Big 12 Team, and Isaiah Taylor wasn't one of them. Taylor didn't receive as many votes as West Virginia senior Juwan Staton (preseason conference Player of the Year), Oklahoma junior Buddy Hield, or Kansas State sophomore Marcus Foster. All three are terrific players, and though Taylor's numbers may not look quite as good on paper, but if we were drafting rosters, I'd select Taylor as my first round selection over all three of them, without hesitation.
But whatever, preseason respect isn't why we care about this sport, and Taylor will have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his worth this year. I love Taylor's game as a standalone asset, but I'm particularly excited to see him play with this group this season. Texas has the right weapons to accentuate Taylor's strengths, with the possible lone exception of a consistent enough deep shooting threat to stretch the defense and keep them from packing the paint.
Part of the solution there will come from Taylor himself, who is incorrectly viewed by many as a poor shooter. He's a selective outside shooter, but don't mistake his eagerness to press other advantages for an inability to stroke it. When a third of the way through last season Taylor's free throw percentage was hovering in the 60% range, I noted that his form looked terrific to me and to look for his percentages to rise substantially. From that point on he made something like 90% of his free throws and finished the season at 75%. Expect that number to rise above 80% this season -- no small thing for a player as capable of getting to the line as is Taylor.
Expect Taylor to let it fly from the perimeter a bit more this season, but the increase needn't be drastic to achieve its intended effect, and beyond that, Taylor can and should continue to maintain his aggressive, attacking approach. Remember, this is a kid who believes -- correctly, as it turns out -- that you can't stay in front of him, period, so why should he do anything other than attack you? There's room for Taylor to improve in how he goes about it and adding some defense-checking perimeter scoring is part of that, but on the whole, he's absolutely correct in his evaluation. The other parts of it involve slightly better shot selection in traffic (he's good at it, but can improve with knowing when a pass or retreat is a better option than hoisting a shot) and a modest improvement in his turnover rate. All of these things are entirely reasonable things to expect with Taylor's additional experience, meaning it shouldn't be much of a surprise if he's the best player on the floor more often than not.
Jonathan Holmes is a senior and his successful transition to the wing is a key part of the big picture plan for this team reaching its full potential, but make no mistake about it: Isaiah Taylor is the heart and soul of this team, its best and most important player, and our make-or-break player in terms of the team's chances to win a Big 12 title this year. We all want a deep NCAA Tournament run, but winning the conference should be the goal; the Big 12 champ is going to be a 1 or 2 seed come Tournament time, giving it the best chance of a deep run anyway. So let's make that our mantra: End the Jayhawks' streak: win the Big 12. Outright.
If it happens, it's hard to imagine the All Big 12 First Team won't include Isaiah Taylor.
Alright, I've run long (again) and late (again), but let's take a crack at projecting minutes here and open this up for discussion. Here's what I've got:
How's all this shake out from your perspective? Please do share your thoughts in the comments.
It's game day, my friends. The return of hoops is here! Hook 'em!