Rex Chapman, an All-SEC player at Kentucky in 1986-87 and ’87-88 and an NABC All-American in 1988, gives his opinion each week on five players that impress. Player statistics are through Jan. 27.
For me, two of the most enjoyable aspects of every college basketball season are getting a chance to see, A) which of the highly publicized/incredibly hyped freshmen are the “real deal” and, B) which of the under-publicized and under-hyped freshmen are playing with chips on their shoulders, so to speak, and are out to prove that they are the cream of the freshmen crop.
Any of you who had the opportunity to watch Villanova knock off both Louisville and Syracuse this past week got a chance to see a Big East player burst onto the national scene in a big way.
Ryan Arcidiacono (pronounced Archie-de-yack-in-no) is a competitor. But not only is the young’un junkyard-dog tough, he’s a guy who already in his young career is someone his Wildcats teammates look to in late-game situations. Arcidiacono will likely, for the rest of his basketball playing career, be playing with a size disadvantage, but no player in either of Villanova’s past two ballgames played any bigger than this fighter.
Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams stands 6-foot-7 and plays even bigger. Arcidiacono outplayed Carter-Williams on Saturday, just as he did Louisville’s Peyton Siva two days prior. There was a point late in the game against Syracuse where there was a scrum on the floor for a loose ball. Bodies flying everywhere. Who comes up with it from the bottom of the pack? Archie D — with a look on his face that appeared to say, “Get used to it.”
It’s easy to fall in love with high-flyers and acrobatic athletes. And I do, regularly. But I’m always more drawn to basketball players who regularly make “winning” basketball plays who, if need be, are willing to drop the gloves and go toe to toe with an opponent and compete every single night. Simply, I love players who give the game its due each time they step between the lines. Villanova’s new PG Archie D is a shooter, a handler, a distributor and a winner. In my opinion, with kids such as Ryan Arcidiacono, head coach Jay Wright and his Wildcats will win considerably more close games than they lose during the next four years. This past week was no fluke.
One of my all-time favorite teammates was Michigan State and NBA standout Scotty Skiles. Archie D isn’t Scott Skiles. Not yet, anyway. But young Mr. D has some Skiles-like qualities to build upon — and my guess is build he will.
And just because I’ve found it to be so damn enjoyable — every time someone makes a big 3-ball in a defender’s face for the foreseeable future, just know that as the ball is going into the basket I’ll be yelling, “Archie-de-yack-in-no!”
I‘ve watched Nick Johnson run up and down the court since he was 8 years old. And I say “run up and down” because that’s about all Nick did on the floor for his first four or five years of playing organized basketball. He ran up and down the floor, not really knowing what he was doing or who his man was — and he couldn’t dribble. But, Nick always had a smile on his face. He cracked me up that entire summer.
Nick, Arizona State’s Jahii Carson and my son, Zeke, all played together on a Phoenix-area team I was sort of roped into coaching during the first year I retired from the NBA (2001). Most of the youngsters on that team had been playing for a couple of years. Nick really had not. He was one of our biggest kids and just as he is now for head coach Sean Miller’s Arizona Wildcats, he was easily our most athletic kid.
Nick hit the equivalent of the genetic lottery. His father is Joey Johnson — a standout player at Arizona State while I played at Kentucky in the mid-to-late ’80s. Joey was and is the single highest-jumping 6-3 dude I’ve ever played with or against. Joey’s older brother and Nick’s uncle is the late NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson, who beat up on me regularly my first few seasons in the league.
That 8-year-old team I coached was the first team and the last team I would ever coach. But I kept up with all of the kids on the team through the years. Nick really began to work at becoming a basketball player during middle school. By the time he became a freshman in high school you could tell that he had a chance to be a very good ball player.
The one question I had about Nick was that he rarely played as hard as he could. As most really gifted athletes do during high school, Nick took shortcuts — because he could. After his sophomore year at Gilbert Highlands High School in Arizona, he transferred to Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev. This did Nick Johnson wonders.
I spoke to Miller last year after their second game of the season and asked Sean how Nick was adjusting to college. More directly I asked, “Is Nick working hard?” Sean looked me dead in the eye and said, “Rex, Nick has come early to practice and stayed late since Day 1. I couldn’t be more pleased. He can help us get this thing turned back around here very quickly.”
If you haven’t had a chance to pay close attention to the Arizona Wildcats and Nick Johnson during this 2012-2013 season thus far, you probably should make a point to do so. The addition of Mark Lyons has allowed Nick to slide over and play off the ball a bit more this season. But having been pressed into playing the point for Miller’s team in 2011-2012 did Johnson wonders. His handle is tighter and he’s become a much better basketball-player — guy who makes plays for others, ie, winning plays.
Nick Johnson is still smiling regularly on the basketball floor. But now he has game to go with that smile.
Michael Carter-Williams is a legitimate 6-7 point guard. Rarely in the college game anymore do we get a chance to watch a player for very long with the type of game that Carter-Williams has.
When I watch Carter-Willaims play the game I can’t help but be drawn into a comparison that I don’t want to make.
I played both against and with a guy who, had he not been hobbled with a couple of microfracture knee surgeries, could have possibly been one of the greatest players to ever play the game. This guy could do everything on the basketball floor. At 6-7 he had terrific vision as a passer. He handled the ball like a 6-foot point guard. He was wiry, athletic, slippery, elusive, tough and played the game with a certain flair. If there was one bugaboo with the guy’s game as a young basketball player it was that he had a somewhat inconsistent jump shot. The guy I’m talking about is former Memphis and NBA All-Star Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway.
Michael Carter-Williams, from the way he moves, to his ability to see the floor, to being able to see over the top of smaller defenders to, when inclined, being a lockdown perimeter defender, to having a bit of an inconsistent jump shot, absolutely reminds me of Penny Hardaway.
I realize that this is awfully tough talk. It may even be a bit unfair to lob that kind of comparison onto a kid. People hear this sort of comparison and immediately expectations can take on a life of their own. But after watching MCW play sparingly for head coach Jim Boeheim as a freshman, seeing how hard he obviously worked during the summer to add weight and strength to what was a very skinny frame when he arrived at Syracuse about a year and a half ago out of high school, and looking at the blind-faith sort of approach he’s taken in trusting Boeheim to help guide him to where he wants to be, I think Michael Carter Williams is the kind of kid who expects to play well each time he steps onto the floor. I’ve been told that external expectations are not what motivates MCW. The young man knows that his size/skill ratio is uncommon and is now beginning to figure out that the work he’s put in is beginning to reap big dividends.
Michael Carter-Williams now has a bull’s-eye on his back. In large print just above the bull’s-eye it reads, “Best PG in the Country.” Now, MCW must begin the process of learning to deal with the Ryan Arcidiaconos of the world taking dead-aim on that bull’s-eye, just as he did on Saturday when Arcidiacono’s Villanova Wildcats upset Carter-Williams’ Syracuse squad.
The great thing about sports is that one game is never exactly like the next. What’s also great about sports is that when someone is labeled or tabbed the top player, in the end, those are only words. And in MCW’s case it’s funny how quickly the hunter becomes the hunted. Some 10 days or so ago, Michael Carter-Williams and his ‘Cuse team went into Louisville’s hostile arena to play the then-No. 1 Cardinals and arguably the top returning Big East point guard, Peyton Siva. MCW saw that bull’s-eye we just spoke of on Peyton’s back and would be determined all afternoon to take dead-aim on Siva. In the end, Carter-Williams’ aim was spot-on. MCW’s Orange knocked off The ‘Ville and in doing so Carter-Williams may have dethroned Siva in the eyes of a few. Maybe even of many.
Fast-forward to Saturday in Philadelphia. Likely all week long Arcidiacono had the Syracuse game circled on his schedule. All week long he’d be hearing from friends, fans, the media and head coach Jay Wright just how tall, long, skilled and just plain good Michael Carter-Williams is. All through warmups MCW had that Siva bull’s-eye on his back. For 40-minutes Ryan Arcidiacono played like a guy possessed. He played like a guy with nothing to lose and from my perspective, Arcidiacono left a bigger imprint on that game than did Carter-Williams.
Now, all of that said, MCW, for my money is still the top PG in the Big East as well as in the country. But again, those are just words. What I can’t wait to see is the next ‘Cuse-’Nova tilt, hopefully in the Big East tournament. My guess is MCW learned a little something on Saturday. Keep an eye on this youngster. He can become any kind of player.
I have long believed that there are only two ways that a father can successfully coach his own son. Those two ways are:
1. If the son is really good.
2. If the son is a walk-on who only plays in blowouts.
Creighton head coach Greg McDermott and his son, Doug, fit snugly into the first category.
Doug McDermott played his high-school ball for Ames High in Ames, Iowa. His high school team was arguably the best prep team the state of Iowa has ever produced. His high-school teammate was North Carolina standout and current NBA player Harrison Barnes. McDermott, upon graduation, originally signed to play his college ball at Iowa. However, when his father left as head coach of Iowa State and was named Creighton’s head coach, Iowa released McDermott from his national letter of intent in order to play his collegiate ball for his father and the Bluejays.
Either Greg McDermott got very lucky or else he had some kind of uncanny foresight and a sense of perspective about his own child that most of us mortal parents simply just do not possess. I’ve often told coaches who have coached my own kids in various sports through the years, “You’re the coach. You can be objective and unbiased. I cannot be. As sports go, I’m just another idiot parent. I love my kids. I’m biased.”
I remember as a little kid watching an interview of then-Marquette head coach Al McGuire. McGuire’s son, Allie, played for his dad and his Warriors in the early ’70s. I’ll never forget McGuire talking about one of his players walking into his office upset that Allie was playing ahead of him. The player said, “Coach, I’m just as good as Allie.” McGuire responded to his unhappy player, “You can’t be just as good as Allie. You have to be better than Allie. Allie is my son.”
Greg McDermott likely doesn’t need to have any conversations with his players similar to the one Al McGuire had. Doug McDermott has turned himself into a fantastic college basketball player.
At 6-8, Doug McDermott is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. He is a super post-player who uses his body as well as any offensive player in America. Not a guy who will outjump some of the better athletes in the college game, McDermott “body hunts” his defender. He feels his defender leaning on him and is extremely slippery in the post. But don’t let anyone tell you that Greg McDermott is strictly a post player. Far from it. McDermott is one of the most efficient offensive players in college basketball — shooting a whopping 56 percent from the floor. But that’s where this whole matchup problem for Bluejays opponents begins. You want to guard McDermott with a post player? Fine by the elder McDermott. He’ll just pull his son from the basket. Son McDermott shoots a nearly unreal 50 percent (44-for-88) from beyond the 3-point arc. Throw in 86 percent from the foul line for a guy who goes to the charity stripe nearly six times a game and, well, you get the picture. Doug McDermott could do what he’s doing to the Missouri Valley Conference to any league in the country and for any coach in America. The kid can play.
Doug McDermott was a First-Team All-American last year. What a treat for those of us who love the college game. A First-Team All-American who is back for another year of amateur basketball. Mark me a fan of this father/son Creighton combo. Well done, fellas.
Ben Howland has taken a lot of heat since becoming head coach of the storied UCLA Bruins program. One of the main gripes from Bruins faithful has been the style of play Howland has employed during his tenure. Howland has elected to play a grind-it-out style which has resulted in many games where the final scores are in the 40s and 50s. Let’s be honest, though, fans and alumni alike will put up with any kind of style as long as the team wins. And there’s the rub. The Bruins have not been winning.
Insert instant offense, starting freshman wing Shabazz Muhammad. Muhammad signed with the Bruins after being one of the most highly sought after players on the West Coast in recent memory.
When Muhammad signed with the Bruins it marked a shift in Howland’s philosophy. Howland has had many thoroughbred-type athletes through the years at UCLA and until the arrival of Muhammad he has always elected to pull the reigns as tightly as possible on those athletes. In essence, it has appeared, at least from the outside, that Howland hasn’t wanted to relinquish any control of what’s happening on the court.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a coach at one of the top programs in the country completely abandon most of what he’s always done as captain of his ship, so to speak. But something tells me that Shabazz Muhammad and his skill set has had as much to do with Howland’s about-face as anything else.
Muhammad is a 6-5 lefty with a very unorthodox game. Being a lefty, I’ve always felt, is an advantage. Defenders are so much more conditioned to defending right-handed players simply because there are just so many more to guard.
I’ve always maintained that when the Good Lord makes someone left-handed he makes them really left-handed. And Muhammad is no different in that regard. Muhammad is going left, left and more left. Much like former NBA player Vinnie Johnson, aka the Microwave. You knew Vinnie was going right, but you still couldn’t stop him. That’s how Muhammad is. He’s a power wing.
I’m reluctant to classify Muhammad a guard. Reason No. 1 as to why I feel this way is because he doesn’t handle the ball and is a reluctant handler under pressure. Reason No. 2 is because thrrough 18 games Muhammad has a total of only 16 assists compared to 33 turnovers. Let’s just say his playmaking ability and decision-making haven’t quite caught up to his putting the ball in the hole.
Muhammad is an explosive scorer who can heat up quickly and score in bunches. Like most freshmen he’s learning each day, but unlike most freshmen he’s learning under the national spotlight. I’ve already begun to see great improvement in his effort defensively. At the beginning of the year Shabazz was instant offense — on both ends. His defense has gotten better as he’s learned to simply compete harder against opponents. In high school, like most very talented players, Muhammad could just overpower foes. Now, guys are bigger, stronger and nearly as athletic. There’s an adjustment period for everyone going from high school to college. Even for the top high-school players each year.
Shabazz Muhammad has long arms, big hands and can score with the best of them in the college game today. He gets to the line some 5.5 times per game, which is a big number for any first-year player. We’ve only begun to learn about young Shabazz. As always at UCLA, the expectations are great for the Bruins’ program. I’m hopeful that the combination of Muhammad, Howland and UCLA will take the Bruins back to their rightful spot among the top college-basketball programs in the country. With Howland opening his offense to better suit the skill set of prized freshman Muhammad, the Bruins are off to a 16-5 start to this 2012-2013 season. “Bazzie” and his 18 points per game are a huge reason why.
Rex Chapman played at Kentucky from 1986-88. He was a two-time All-SEC selection as well as an NABC All-American in 1988 before opting for the NBA Draft. He was the No. 1 choice — eighth overall — of Charlotte and played for the Hornets (1988-92), Washington Bullets (1992-95), Miami Heat (1995-96) and Phoenix Suns (1996-2000). Follow Rex on Twitter @rexchapman