RTC 2009-10 Impact Players – Southwest RegionPosted by rtmsf on October 30th, 2009
Ed. Note: the previous posts in this series (Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Atlantic South, Deep South, Mid-South, Lower Midwest, Upper Midwest and Mountains) are located here.
It’s time for the ninth installment of our RTC 2009-10 Impact Players series, the group of hot, dry, desert-y states known as the Southwest Region. Each week we’ll pick a geographic area of the country and break down the five players who we feel will have the most impact on their teams (and by the transitive property, college basketball) this season. Our criteria is once again subjective – there are so many good players in every region of the country that it’s difficult to narrow them down to only five in each – but we feel at the end of this exercise that we’ll have discussed nearly every player of major impact in the nation. Just to be fair and to make this not too high-major-centric, we’re also going to pick a mid-major impact player in each region as our sixth man. We welcome you guys, our faithful and very knowledgeable readers, to critique us in the comments where we left players off. The only request is that you provide an argument – why will your choice be more influential this season than those we chose?
Southwest Region (NM, AZ, NV, HI, southern CA)
- Rihards Kuksiks – F, Jr – Arizona State. Advice to Pac-10 coaches writing up their scouting reports for when they go up against Arizona State this season: when Rihards Kuksiks enters the building, get a man on him. Don’t bother waiting until the game actually starts. You don’t want him getting comfortable, because he’s the kind of shooter who can change a game just that quickly. The guy can touch the ball a few times and the next thing you know you’re down nine before the first TV timeout. Or you get a little comfortable with your late-game lead and after Kuksiks gets a couple of touches the lead is gone and you’re wondering how time can tick so slowly. You want numbers? Fine. Kuksiks is third in terms of returning individual leaders in 3-point field goal percentage (44.3%) in the country among players who hit at least two threes a game and finished 8th in that category last year. A recent article on FoxSports.com by Jeff Goodman reveals some other incredible stats: in games decided by 2 points or less, Kuksiks shot 47% from behind the 3-point line; against ranked opponents he shot 46% from beyond the arc, and in the loss to Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament’s second round last year, he put up his career high in points with 20, with 18 of those coming from long range. In other words, the man steps up during big games. If the numbers don’t interest you, then consider the fact that many of these threes are not from a hair behind the line. They are often from distance. And they are often clutch (ask Arizona about a couple of late ones he nailed in that February game last year). Most importantly, watch the form. It should be an instructional video. He gets good height on his jumper but doesn’t overdo it, and you can see how he gets his legs into the shot. He releases the ball out in front just a little bit, but then the follow-through is a perfect example of that “reach into the cookie jar” that basketball coaches start teaching kids from the moment they can lift a basketball. By the way, he’s 6’6 and more than happy to mix it up in the paint, if needed. My favorite bit about Kuksiks comes from an interview he did for a site called EuropeanProspects.com in which he was asked what kind of player he was. The first words out of his mouth? “I am a sharpshooter.” This is confidence, not cockiness, from the big man from Riga, Latvia. But I think it’s just fine if there actually is a little cockiness there. Long-range shooters are like neurosurgeons. They’re often asked to do the most difficult things in their field…and if I get to the point where I need to depend on one, I want them a little bit cocky.
- Dwight Lewis – G, Sr – USC. There’s not much left for Dwight Lewis to work with at Southern Cal this season. Tim Floyd’s sudden resignation stemming from accusations of providing money to a confidant of O.J. Mayo to lure him to the Trojans and the early departure of DeMar DeRozan, Daniel Hackett and Taj Gibson has left the cupboard (almost) bare. In fact, USC wasn’t even playing that well with those key facets before a miraculous Pac-10 Tournament run resulted in a late NCAA berth and a near upset of eventual runner-up Michigan State in the second round. If the juniors stuck around, Floyd and the Trojans would have been up at the top of preseason rankings in the league with Washington and California. Instead, players and Floyd are both no longer involved and the success of the 2009-10 Trojans will fall largely into the lap of the leading returning scorer, guard Dwight Lewis. Lewis was the best shooter on last year’s squad, averaging 14.4 PPG on the heels of a dependable mid-range game, accuracy from the stripe (75% FT) and 106 three-pointers in his USC career, ranking in the top 20 in the program’s history. His 25 point performance at Oklahoma last year was the peak of a decent scoring season. Lewis is also the Trojans’ best perimeter defender and should lead a USC team under new coach Kevin O’Neill that will stress defense by strength and necessity. In order for the Trojans to avoid the NIT or worse (CBI or CIT or nothing at all), Lewis must bring his all-around game and senior leadership to the table every single game and practice amidst chaos within the USC program. Rather than bolting, Lewis is now the centerpiece and should have a tremendous impact on whether or not the Galen Center is half-empty or half-full for the upcoming season.
- Alex Stepheson – F, Jr – USC. In the summer of 2006, Alex Stepheson was headed east to Chapel Hill, North Carolina as a vaunted four-star forward for the #1 recruiting class in America. The class featured Brandan Wright (#8, 2007), Ty Lawson (#18, 2009) and Wayne Ellington (#28, 2009), all of whom are already in the NBA, and Deon Thompson, the senior starting PF for the defending national champs. Not too shabby. Unfortunately for Stepheson, however, he got caught up in a numbers game. Tyler Hansbrough stayed in school all four years; Deon Thompson appeared likewise; Ed Davis, the wiry 6’10 jumping jack, was on the way. There seemed to be too many capable forwards and not enough available playing time (as evidenced by Stepheson’s 14.5 minutes per contest in 2007-08). So when his dad got sick 3000 miles away, it was a no-brainer. USC beckoned with a short drive to his parents’ home as well as substantially more playing time. UNC’s loss is definitely USC’s gain, as Stepheson already has an NBA body, and if you project out his per-game averages from two seasons ago at Carolina, he may also have an NBA game. Consider that in his 15 minutes per contest, he averaged 4.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG and nearly a block — double the playing time and you’re suddenly looking at a player regularly putting up double-doubles and erasing two or three shot opportunities for the opponents per game. Yeah, Stepheson might be the forgotten man amidst all of USC’s offseason troubles, but from a personal standpoint, he could also be walking into an all-Pac-10 team situation if everything goes well. USC will undoubtedly have some ups and downs this year because of all the turmoil and turnover, but if you analyze things through a talent prism, you see that the Trojans already have two of the better players in the Pac-10 in Lewis and Stepheson. Whether that will turn into wins depends on the supporting cast and how well players take to the curmudgeonly Kevin O’Neill’s system. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in Troy this year, but make no mistake, Alex Stepheson will be heard from.
- Tre’Von Willis – G, Jr – UNLV. Like too many transplants to count in the greater Las Vegas area, Willis showed up in the desert two years ago looking for a fresh start. His one year in Memphis under John Calipari didn’t work out as planned for the scoring machine out of Fresno, CA, as he found himself playing only six minutes per game and staring up at players ahead of him on the depth chart such as Chris Douglas-Roberts, Doneal Mack and Willie Kemp. UNLV was only a seven-hour drive from his hometown, so he alighted west for the dry air, showgirls and promises of more playing time. In 2008-09, as a redshirt sophomore for the Runnin’ Rebs, Willis routinely deferred to his elders within the program — Wink Adams, Rene Rougeau, Joe Darger — but he still made his mark, averaging 11.4 PPG, 4.3 RPG and 3.3 APG in 28.4 minutes per contest. There were occasional whispers that he and the seniors didn’t get along all that well, which might have contributed to an otherwise lackluster season for Lon Kruger’s team (UNLV doesn’t typically aspire to first-round NIT losses), but Willis denied those claims and says on the record that he’s ready to lead UNLV back to their usual heights this year. As a team captain and a preseason all-MWC first teamer, expectations are high, but Willis has offensive gifts that few others in this league have – there’s the nose for scoring and getting to the foul line, but his assist rate (#242) ranks in the top 250 in the country, which shows he also knows how and when to make the right pass. The only knock on Willis’ game is that he needs to better understand shot selection – he shoots 32.4% from deep and 37.9% from inside the circle – numbers that must improve for Willis and UNLV to reach their full potential this season. With incoming transfer from Kentucky Derrick Jasper running point, and Willis as the featured scorer hopefully providing more defined roles and cohesion, this UNLV team might just surprise some people in the league and around the country this season.
- Nic Wise – G, Sr – Arizona. I’m unaware if what Nic Wise has had to endure at Arizona has ever happened to a college player. Kevin O’Neill, Lute Olson, Russ Pennell and Sean Miller represent the four coaches Wise has played for in four seasons in the desert. The hire of Miller for the long-term has stabilized a rocky situation in Arizona the last three seasons and it’s been Wise present to see the program crumble, pick itself up, fall down and dust itself off once again. Miller convinced Wise to stick around at Arizona for a final hurrah in an attempt to contend in a weakened Pac-10. The ex-Xavier headman is thankful Wise is returning to lead a roster that’s in full turnover/rebuilding mode, picking up the fallen pieces of another collapse at rival USC and hoping Miller’s exceptional coaching can lead the way and extend their record of consecutive NCAA appearances to 26 seasons in a row. Wise is a tremendous offensive player and a likely NBA first round pick if his game continues to improve under Miller. Playing with Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger, Wise led the Arizona attack to the tune of 4.6 APG. He was also very consistent providing another scoring punch alongside his fellow forwards, averaging 15.7 PPG on 45% FG, 85% FT and 42% 3pt while finishing in the Pac-10’s top ten in eight statistical categories in his breakout junior season. The pinnacle of last season came during two victories over tournament teams USC and UCLA in which Wise averaged 26.5 PPG, a stretch that allowed the Wildcats to become quite possibly the last team invited to the field on Selection Sunday as a #12 seed. Led by their own Big Three, Arizona defeated Utah and Cleveland State to garner one of the most unlikely Sweet 16 appearances that we can remember. The coaches acknowledged the tremendous all-around effort from Wise by naming him to the all-Pac 10 second team in 2008-09. Expect the Cats’ team leader to shoulder nearly all of the scoring load in this turnover year for Miller and Arizona that could vault Wise into first-team all-Pac 10 status.
- Luke Babbitt (MM) – F, Soph – Nevada. 16.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 86.4% from the free throw line (70th nationally), 43% from beyond the three-point line, and six double-doubles. Not a bad freshman year, eh?!? Mr. Babbitt, welcome to the big time, and welcome to the Preseason Wooden Award list. Even if you’ve never seen him play, from his vitals and that stat line you can tell that Babbitt is the ultimate matchup problem, a quicker-than-you-think 6’9″ guy who shoots a high percentage from behind the arc but will gladly take to the paint to score or grab rebounds. He, in tandem with backcourt running mate Armon Johnson, will be relied upon even more heavily this season to provide stability to a program that has had a rocky off-season. Coach Mark Fox left to take the reins at Georgia, prompting two recruits to jump ship; other players have either transferred or will miss time for various disciplinary reasons. You might remember that out of high school Babbitt was originally headed to Ohio State but decided to stick around and play in his hometown; he fell off of the national radar a little bit because of that, but had no trouble finding his way back, as we all know. There will be no surprising anyone this season, that’s for sure. All eyes will be on him from the start as his minutes, touches, and leadership duties all will increase from last year. Because of the roster shake-up, the Wolf Pack have fallen a little in some people’s preseason WAC predictions, and how this amazingly talented sophomore — he’s already predicted as the 18th pick in NBADraft.net‘s 2010 mock draft — handles the increased responsiblities for this team will determine whether the program can get back to its first NCAA Tournament in three years.
Honorable Mention. Jerime Anderson, UCLA. Kyle Austin, UC Riverside. Keion Bell, Pepperdine. Nikola Dragovic, UCLA. Roderick Flemings, Hawaii. Paul George, Fresno St. Jonathan Gibson, New Mexico St. Troy Gillenwater, New Mexico St. Derek Glasser, Arizona St. Derrick Jasper, UNLV. Malcolm Lee, UCLA. Drew Gordon, UCLA. Armon Johnson, Nevada. Cameron Jones, N. Arizona. Roman Martinez, New Mexico. Wendell McKines, New Mexico St. TJ Robinson, Long Beach St. Sylvester Seay, Fresno St. Tyrone Shelley, San Diego St. Jacques Streeter, Cal St. Fullerton. Vernon Teel, Loyola Marymount. Eric Wise, UC Irvine. Jahmar Young, New Mexico St.