And if Derek Culver gets here it’s gonna be a real party..
It’s official. We can get excited now. Jevon Carter’s coming back for his senior season, and with a little luck we legitimately might have our best team since the Final Four squad.
The luck I’m referring to in this case is course related to Derek Culver. Culver is a 6’9 forward who might be our best recruit in nearly a decade, but something happened with his coach last year that caused him to miss most of his senior season. Last word from him is that everything’s fine and he’ll be here in June, but there’s still some uncertainty around it so as Mountaineer fans we’re naturally expecting the worst. If he does make it though (and I’m taking the lad’s word that he will) and is as good as advertised? Let’s just say it’s pretty easy to see how the pieces come together after that.
Carter returns as the point guard/pitbull fresh off a junior campaign in which he won National DPOY while tossing up a 13.5/5/3.5/2.5 on 40/34/76 shooting. He’s the best on-ball defender in America and will again be our tone-setter, and if he can get those shooting splits up a bit and the turnovers down (2:1 ratio last year) he will probably be the best guard in the Big 12 and arguably one of the best in the country.
Returning as second banana will be Esa Ahmad, who’s coming off a sophomore season where he wowed us at times but frustrated us with his inconsistency. He averaged 11.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game while improving his shooting (48/39/68 last year after 45/22/62 as a freshman), but disappeared occasionally in conference play. It may be unfair to expect him to be “Kansas Esa” all the time, but like it or not he’s going to be counted on to shoulder more responsibility in Nathan Adrian’s absence and he needs to be able bring it on a nightly basis.
Rounding out the starting 5 will probably be Daxter Miles, Lamont West, and Sagaba Konate. If Elijah Macon returns he could slot in here instead of Sags, but he was valuable off the bench last year and part of me thinks that’s the role he’s best suited to. Either way, those first three make more sense.
Dax is a bit of an enigma, capable of being the best and worst player on the floor on any given night, and occasionally outdoing even himself and taking on both roles within the course of a single game. However, he’s a great athlete and defender, and a streaky good shooter who fits as Jevon’s backcourt counterpart.
Lamont West showed some very encouraging signs as a 3 and D wing last year and projects nicely as a guy who can space the floor and get buckets for us without having to run plays for him. He needs to assert himself more on the boards (only 1.8 per game in 12 minutes last year) and improve his decision making when he puts it on the floor, but he provides length and energy on defense and definitely fills a valuable role on both ends of the floor.
Konate, though, is the most intriguing of this group. You have to expect him to start in the middle, where last year he averaged 4.1 points, 2.8 boards, and 1.4 blocks in just under 11 bounce-filled minutes per game. That averages out to a block every 7.6 minutes, which was better than all but about 3 or 4 guys nationally, and there’s an argument to be made that he’s already be the best pure rim protector we’ve ever had here. If he can match that output next year in 20 or 25 minutes per game he’ll end up with well north of 100 blocks on the season and give our already exceptional defense an attitude that we’ve never really had.
What excites me even more about Sags though is that he actually seems to have a decently smooth-looking shooting stroke, leading me to believe that with some work he can develop into a double-digit scorer who can step out and knock down an occasional 15-18 footer. It may not happen this year (and hopefully a few other guys develop enough that it doesn’t have to), but I really can’t help but feel that he’s on his way to becoming a very good all-around player.
The rotation after that is somewhat less certain, but is filled with enough talent and variety that it makes sense for it to vary based on the situation.
Beetle Bolden flashed an ability to score off the bench last year, so the hope will be that he’ll take a step forward and pick up some of the production lost with the graduation of Teyvon Myers. Macon (again, if he returns) gives us size and scoring. Maciej Bender will at least give us size, and should look to build off a reasonably successful freshman campaign where he looked like he could develop into a solid contributor.
Then you have the newcomers.
D’Angelo Hunter and Brandon Knapper should provide some much needed shooting, and both have the added benefit of extra time out of high school (2 years for Hunter, 1 for Knapper) to get themselves physically ready to contribute right away. There might even be an opportunity for one of these guys to snatch the starting job away from Dax if they’re able to perform more consistently, which honestly might not be the worst thing because it would allow Dax to be the third guard and fill a “ride-him-if-he’s-hot” kind of role.
Conversely, Teddy Allen looks like he might need some time to develop his body and build up some explosiveness before he’s ready for any real responsibility, but he has a smooth offensive game and a high basketball IQ (kinda reminds me of a smaller Georges Niang) and should be able to provide cover on the wing. Even Wesley Harris looks like he could contribute, especially in spurts at the top of our press where his long arms and motor should provide a nuisance.
And then there’s Culver.
A few months back, some friends and I were discussing what we might’ve looked like with Devin Ebanks last year, or more specifically, whether we would’ve been better off with him or Nate. One of them bravely fell on the sword that we were better off with Nate, even as the rest of us were falling over ourselves watching highlights of Devin slaying at the top of our 1-3-1 and giddily discussing how perfect he would’ve been. Regardless of where you land on that issue it’s fun to think about, and with Culver we may not have to imagine anymore.
At 6’9 215 he probably still has some filling out to do, but the length, athleticism, and instincts are plainly there for anyone to see. It’s not hard to get excited about what that might look like at the top of our press, and that’s before you even consider the fact that he also has the unique ability to then drop back to anchor us in the half court as a rim protector, where he shows extremely good timing and dexterity with both hands.
His offensive game shows promise, as well. In addition to a raw post game, Culver has the ability to handle and pass with both hands, and is even able to step out and knock down threes on occasion. This versatility, though different from what Adrian gave us over the last few years, should give us some of that same flexibility with our line-ups, and while we shouldn’t expect the world from him in November he definitely has the ability to grow into a very important player for us by February and March.
So, yea. All in all it looks to be a pretty complete team. If Culver makes it and guys take reasonable steps forward in their development, everything fits together and nobody will looked upon to do things they are incapable of doing. That’s when teams function best: when guys can stay in their lane and just focus on doing what they do. Our guards will be talented and experienced, we’ll have shooters, we’ll have length, athleticism, and a pair of rim protectors, and we’ll have a variety of pieces that can help in different ways off the bench – everything an aspiring championship team needs.
There. I said it. Our team could be really, really good next year. It’s going to be a long 5 months. Hopefully Holgs and Co give us something to be happy about in the meantime.