In many cases, seven games to begin a season is hardly a credible sample size, but in the case of the 2016-17 version of Texas Longhorns senior center Shaquille Cleare, it’s plenty.
The senior entered the season listed at 275 — 10 pounds fewer than his 2015-16 weight of 285 — and it’s been apparent on the court.
He’s lighter and the extra bit of bounce he’s flashed this season paid off in the extra moment of hang-time necessary to come up with this momentum-changing block in Texas’ win over Alabama:
After spectating for an entire season as a Maryland transfer in 2014-15, in which Myles Turner patrolled the paint en route to Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors, Cleare was thrusted into a reserve role during his junior season.
Amid a deep frontcourt rotation, Cleare played just 12 minutes per game and was a defensive liability behind Prince Ibeh, who followed Turner’s campaign up with his own Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award.
While it’s unlikely Cleare brings a third consecutive defensive award to the 40 Acres, early sightings reveal a much-improved interior presence in the 6’8, 275-pound center.
In 397 minutes on the court last season, Cleare recorded only one block, which came during the second game of the season against a severely overmatched Texas A&M-CC club.
Fast forward to 2016-17 and Cleare has already rejected six shots; all of which have come in the last five games.
I talk about Texas' lack of rim protection and then Shaq Cleare does this #HookEm pic.twitter.com/f2nbT7RzfX— Cody Daniel (@CodyDanielSBN) November 22, 2016
To put Cleare’s rim protecting prowess into perspective, his six blocked shots in just 131 minutes this season equate to 1.8 blocks per 40 minutes and 2.6 per 100 possessions — the exact same rate as 6’11 Jarrett Allen.
The talented freshman has recorded only three more blocks in 66 more minutes.
Last season, Cleare’s lone block of the entire season resulted in a mark of 0.1 blocks per 40 minutes and the same total per 100 possessions.
The increased minutes certainly aid in padding stats, but the apparent difference has been a much more athletic Cleare, as first seen in the Texas Tip-Off.
Shaq Cleare looks much more athletic heading into his senior season. This finish on the Jacob Young oop is enough affirmation #HookEm pic.twitter.com/h2RmBnag56— Cody Daniel (@CodyDanielSBN) October 24, 2016
No, the spurt of blocked shots don’t necessarily signify Cleare is a defensive force to be reckoned with, but on a Texas team with two 18-year-olds patrolling the paint, his presence is invaluable.
Although James Banks and Allen lead the team in total blocks with 13 and nine, respectively, their inexperience shows up with lapses in focus and being out of position in situations that likely never cost them in high school.
The same can still be said for Cleare at times, but far less often than the freshmen and the difference in the Texas defense allowing 0.93 points per possession with Cleare in the game, as opposed to 1.01 when he sits.
Considering that Texas games this season are averaging 70.9 possessions, the pace-adjusted difference is the ‘Horns allowing roughly 71.6 points without Cleare and 65.9 points with him per game — a margin of 5.7 points.
It’s not substantial, but it’s a difference that may alter the outcome of a few close games throughout the season.