RTC 2010-11 Impact Players – Southwest Region

Posted by rtmsf on November 1st, 2010

Welcome to our RTC Impact Players series.  The braintrust has gone back and forth on this and we’ve finally settled on a group of sixty players throughout ten geographic regions of the country (five starters plus a sixth man) to represent the who and where of players you should be watching this season.  Seriously, if you haven’t seen every one of these players ball at least once by the end of February, then you need to figure out a way to get a better television package.  As always in a subjective analysis such as this, some of our decisions were difficult; many others were quite easy.  What we can say without reservation is that there is great talent in every corner of this nation of ours, and we’ll do our best to excavate it over the next five weeks in this series that will publish on Mondays and Thursdays.  Each time, we’ll also provide a list of some of the near-misses as well as the players we considered in each region, but as always, we welcome you guys, our faithful and very knowledgeable readers, to critique us in the comments.

You can find all previous RTC 2010-11 Impact Players posts here.

Southwest Region (NM, AZ, NV, HI, SoCal)

  • Jio Fontan – Soph, G – USC. Last year, USC was the talk of the college basketball world for a stretch, when senior point guard Mike Gerrity, a transfer from Charlotte, took over the team in December and promptly led the Trojans to an upset blowout victory over then #8 Tennessee in his first game of the season. The Trojans went on to win their next five games, including the inaugural Diamond Head Classic, with Gerrity serving as a big spark. In 2010-11, head coach Kevin O’Neill and his team will welcome another Division I transfer to the active roster over the winter break, and they hope to sustain the bump in talent they’ll get when Fontan joins the team as a midseason transfer from Fordham. In fact, Fontan was in the midst of an on-campus visit last December 19 when Gerrity was leading the Trojans to their win over the Volunteers and he committed to the school just days later, perhaps seeing the blueprint for his own success in Gerrity’s. Luckily enough for O’Neill and the Trojans, Fontan will have more than just the one semester of eligibility that Gerrity had.  But while their paths to the USC roster may seem similar, their games are different. Fontan is more of a combo-guard, capable of running an offense, but more adept at creating for himself than being a pure distributor. Not that he isn’t capable of handing out assists – he averaged more than four assists per night during his one season plus five games at Fordham – but Fontan is at his best with the ball in his hands, able to both blow by defenders and hit from long range, scoring the ball to the tune of 15.3 points per game in his freshman season on his way to Atlantic 10 rookie of the year honors. Paired with established frontcourt returners Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson and a talented group of newcomers, including 5’7 point guard Maurice Jones who will handle the lead guard duties until Fontan is eligible, Fontan will be surrounded by far more talent than he ever was in his time at Fordham. And if things go as well as could be hoped for, Fontan will have a chance to reprise Gerrity’s Trojan debut, as Southern Cal will travel to Kansas (and then, three days later, they’ll play the return game in the Tennessee series) for Fontan’s first game, giving USC a chance to make another big mid-season splash on the national stage.
  • Tre’Von Willis* – Sr, G – UNLV. For a good part of last summer, Tre’Von Willis, the star shooting guard for the Runnin’ Rebels, may have thought that his collegiate career was over thanks to his June 29 arrest for felony battery involving an ugly incident with a woman in nearby Henderson, Nevada.  Willis ultimately copped to a plea agreement of a lesser charge of misdemeanor domestic battery, and in interviews since the incident he has shown considerable sincerity and self-awareness in suggesting that he placed himself in a bad situation.  After he serves a mandated three-game suspension meted by coach Lon Kruger, Willis will likely be back in action for UNLV’s second regular season game against Southeastern Louisiana.  And it’s a good thing that he will be, as the Rebel program has eyes on putting together its best season since the understated head coach rolled into town several years ago.  Considering that the Rebs have been to a Sweet Sixteen and won 30 games in a season under his tutelage (both in 2006-07), those are lofty goals.  But they are also realistic ones so long as some of the injury problems that Willis and several others have recently endured are controlled.  Willis in particular continues to experience knee pain as a result of arthroscopic surgery in August to repair cartilage, a recurring problem which caused the capable scorer to lose some of his lift at the end of last season and definitely impacted his effectiveness.  As an example, after scoring twenty or more points ten times through mid-February, Willis only hit the figure one more time during the last eight games of the year, a sure indication that he was not at 100%.  The hope is that his summer surgery,  a new outlook on opportunity as a result of his legal troubles, a sprinkling of maturity (he also had a daughter) and much-needed rest will encourage Willis to come back with an all-America caliber season.  He was chosen as a first-team all-MWC guard in 2009-10 when he contributed an all-around game of 17.2 PPG, 3.9 RPG and 3.5 APG while increasing his previously-sketchy shot selection to the point where he added nearly 10% (from 38% to 48%) on his field goal percentage.  If he can truly put everything from last summer behind him and remain healthy for an entire season, the new Aria Hotel may not be the only must-see on The Strip this winter.

Tre'Von Willis Has to Sit Three Games (LV Sun/S. Morris)

  • Dairese Gary – Sr, G – New Mexico. Who? Don’t feel bad. That’s a common question. If you’re not familiar with Dairese’s body of work, you’re not alone. What comparatively little talk there is of the Mountain West usually centers around guys like Kawhi Leonard, Tre’Von Willis, and the biggest fish of them all, Jimmer Fredette. Good reason, too. Heck, Gary has even been eclipsed on his own team, let alone by players from elsehwere in the conference — Darington Hobson cast a big shadow during his one season at New Mexico before taking up with the Milwaukee Bucks. But Lobos supporters (and certainly opposing guards) have always known that Gary has always been the cool head and the beating heart of all three previous New Mexico squads that he’s captained. Five games into his freshman season, Gary took over the starting point guard spot at UNM and he hasn’t relinquished it yet. That’s 97 straight starts in 102 games. True, his 7.8 PPG and 3.2 APG from his freshman year and 8.1 PPG and 4.1 APG in his second season might not bowl you over, but he was barely playing a half of basketball on the average for those first two years. When his minutes went up a little last season, so did his scoring (13.1 PPG), but that’s not even head coach Steve Alford’s favorite part. A physical point guard, Gary is the reason there should be a personalized plus/minus statistic in college basketball. He’s always charged with taking on and stifling the opposing side’s best guard, and usually succeeds, so while he might not light up the scoreboard as much as some guys on the offensive end, he’s directly responsible for points that aren’t scored by his opponents on the other end. Gary knows there are many ways to win, including ways that might not show up in box scores or highlight reels, and he usually finds them. He forces the bad shot on defense that leads to a rebound and a game-winning score. He makes the steal that leads to a run-out and a dunk for a teammate. He encourages (or jumps on) his teammates when necessary and is the first one to congratulate them after a big play, and that applies to practices as much as games. In other words, he’s a leader, and a winner. Ironically, perhaps the best proof of this is when you examine his scoring output in the last part of the season. Not only did Gary’s assist-to-turnover ratio peak at 2.6 for the season over the last ten games (including the Mountain West and NCAA Tournaments), but he averaged a team-best 19.8 PPG for the last seven. Gary’s best basketball emerges at the most important times — the very definition of a kid who knows how to win. He was Alford’s first recruit at UNM, and his only senior this year. When his time in The Pit and the Mountain West is done, he’ll be missed just as much as any of those headline-grabbing stars mentioned above. And now you know.
  • Derrick Williams – Soph, F – Arizona. Despite what had to be considered a disappointing season in Tucson, given that his Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 26 years, Derrick Williams laid down a pretty impressive freshman campaign. On his way to Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors, Williams failed to score in double digits only three times: in short minutes in the first game of the year, and then twice later in the season in even shorter minutes due to foul trouble. Every other night, he was a consistent producer for a young Arizona team, notching 15.7 points per game, pulling down 7.1 rebounds per outing, knocking down a sparkling 57% of his field goal attempts and just generally being a strong and silent worker for the undersized ‘Cats. While not the prototypical interior presence at 6’8, Williams made the most of his gifts. He’s not the mind-blowingly explosive power forward, but he did a lot of damage in the key, using quick attacking moves to get good looks. He was at his best going at his defender, drawing contact (and often finishing through it) and getting to the line, which he did at a great rate last season, drawing more than seven fouls per 40 minutes. While his 68% free throw clip could use some improvement, for the most part Williams was an extremely efficient offensive player as a freshman. None of which is to say he doesn’t have quite a bit of room to get even better, as, outside of the key, he hasn’t been much of a threat. The addition of a confident mid-range jumper would do wonders for his game, allowing him to pull often larger defenders away from the hoop and giving him the ability to either hit that jumper or use the space to get his quick first step around his man. He showed some ability to knock down that shot as a freshman, but a combination of a slow release and taller defenders led to some of those attempts getting sent back, so cleaning up his mechanics and getting more sure of his shot has been an offseason project. And, scarily enough for the opposition, he’s also worked on getting even stronger, improving one of his biggest assets. While Williams was a big surprise for the Wildcats last year, the addition of these extra little bits and pieces to his already well-formed game could put him in the running for the Pac-10 Player of the Year, and more importantly, could put his team in contention for the Pac-10 title.

Williams is Virtually Unknown Outside Pac-10 Circles

  • Kawhi Leonard – Soph, F – San Diego State. After a sensational freshman season where he came within four rebounds of averaging a double-double, the Aztec forward will no longer be under the national radar for most college basketball fans. The Mountain West Freshman of the Year comes into the season bearing the weight of increased expectations as many fans see the Aztecs to contending for and possibly winning the increasingly competitive Mountain West Conference this year. Although many classify Williams as a  tweener playing at power forward due to his height (just 6’7), Leonard’s wingspan and strength makes him one of the top forwards in the country and a case can be made that he is the best forward west of the Mississippi River. Leonard will have plenty of help as all five Aztec starters return from a team that had its season end in the first round of the NCAA Tournament when they lost to Tennessee by three points. The Aztecs’ main challenge should come from BYU and Jimmer Fredette, the MWC Preseason Player of the year, who should be considered co-favorites in the conference. Despite returning the entire nucleus from a very good team last year, Steve Fisher will be counting on Leonard to expand his game from just being an interior force, which he did very well last season (ranking in the top 20 nationally in every major rebounding category). Already adequate if not exceptional at the free throw line (72.6% last season) Leonard still has quite a bit of work to do on the perimeter where he was not a threat from beyond the arc (20.5% last season despite taking more than two attempts per game) and lacks the fluid game that NBA scouts will expect him to develop if he wants to work his way up the NBA Draft boards (he’s already projected as a late first-early second round pick). Leonard will get an early chance to show off his game and any improvements that he made over the summer when he and the Aztecs travel north to face Elias Harris and Gonzaga. If Leonard is able to get the upper hand in that battle, he may begin to be mentioned as a legitimate All-America candidate.
  • Reeves Nelson (6th) – Soph, F – UCLA. The 2009-10 season in Westwood was an entirely forgettable one. The Bruins struggled with a combination of injuries, underachievers and attitudes and limped home to a 14-18 record that showed very few of the hallmarks of the teams that head coach Ben Howland took to three straight Final Fours. However, in the midst of those struggles, there were some bright spots of varying intensity, including Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt. But it is Nelson who is the most efficient returning Bruin, and perhaps the one with the biggest upside. Despite UCLA’s struggles, Nelson earned a cadre of supporters among Bruin fans thanks to his non-stop motor, constantly bringing energy with him into the game, even in the most lethargic moments of the UCLA season. In the embarrassing season-opening loss to CS Fullerton, it was Nelson who kept the Bruins within shouting distance, racking up 11 points and six rebounds in just 12 minutes. Within a matter of weeks, his average playing time doubled and he wound up starting in half of the 28 games he played in. He earned a reputation for doing the dirty work with zeal, never letting the possibility of collision deter him from the ball, and paying the price with a black eye or two, a concussion, and even a retinal tear. Throw in the fact that Nelson was downright awful from the free throw line (52% on 142 attempts) and it could be easy for the casual observer to see him as little more than an under-talented garbage man. But his scraggly looks and scrappy style belied efficient offensive production; he scored in double figures 17 times, hit 65% of his shots from the field and grabbed almost six rebounds a night. He doesn’t wow anyone with his athleticism and as a freshman didn’t display much offensive game outside of the key, but he was a very effective finisher inside, capable of scoring with both hands and in a variety of ways. In the offseason, Nelson has put in plenty of work trying to extend his range (not to mention trying to extend his omnipresent tattoos), focusing on improving his mid-range jumper. With freshman big man Josh Smith ready to take over in the post, Nelson will shift primarily to the power forward spot and be pushed a bit further away from the basket, so in order to maintain his efficiency, he’ll need to have confidence in his game away from the hoop and he’ll also be charged with defending more athletic opponents. Additionally, given the rate at which he gets to the line, he’ll need to take strides towards competence at the free throw line. Throw in a stronger commitment towards cleaning the glass and Nelson is capable of being a double-double threat on a nightly basis, and a frontline of Nelson with Smith and Honeycutt could be a good first step towards bringing UCLA back to respectability.


  • Rihards Kuksiks – Sr, F – Arizona State. Kuksiks toyed with the idea of playing ball overseas but the return of the 6’6 bomber who nailed 80 threes last season to Tempe is ASU’s gain.  Needs to improve consistency, though — over half of his treys came in volume during nine games.
  • Drew Viney – Jr, F – Loyola Marymount. Viney, a first-team all-WCC forward who averaged 16.7 PPG and 7.0 RPG last season, is half of the reason that many prognosticators believe that LMU is poised to make a run at the WCC heavyweights Gonzaga and St. Mary’s this season (Vernon Teel is the other half).
  • Troy Gillenwater – Jr, F – New Mexico State. Gillenwater only played thirteen games last season but his impact was felt with 14.6 PPG and 6.8 RPG underneath the bucket; NMSU will need even more from him this year as fellow all-WAC preseason selection Wendell McKines rehabs his broken foot for ten to twelve weeks.

Others Considered (* denotes injury or suspension)

  • Kyle Fogg – Jr, G – Arizona
  • Ty Abbott – Sr, G – Arizona State
  • Greg Smith – Soph, C – Fresno State
  • TJ Robinson – Jr, F – Long Beach State
  • Casper Ware – Jr, G – Long Beach State
  • Vernon Teel – Sr, G – Loyola Marymount
  • Cameron Jones – Sr, G – Northern Arizona
  • Keion Bell – Jr, G – Pepperdine
  • Billy White – Sr, F – San Diego State
  • Malcolm Lee – Jr, G – UCLA
  • Josh Smith – Fr, C – UCLA
  • Orlando Johnson – Jr, F – UC Santa Barbara
  • James Nunnally – Jr, F – UC Santa Barbara
  • Chace Stanbeck – Jr, F – UNLV
  • Nikola Vucevic – Jr, C – USC
  • Drew Gordon – Jr, F – New Mexico
  • Wendell McKines* – Sr, F – New Mexico State
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