Last week we provided a detailed analysis of the point guards returning to the ASU roster next season. Here we take a similarly thorough look at the team's wing guards/forwards who will be back in 2008-09, headlined of course by James Harden.
James Harden -- The most highly anticipated recruit at Arizona State in many years and perhaps ever did not disappoint as a freshman. In fact, he probably exceeded all expectations. When I recently asked former ASU assistant Mark Phelps (now the head coach at Drake) which player surprised him the most this season, he could have easily said Ty Abbott or perhaps even Derek Glasser or Rihards Kuksiks. But he said Harden. When you bring in a McDonald's All-American who has won 95 percent of the games in which he has participated over a multi-year period, you know he's going to be pretty good.. But James Harden was mind-boggling good. Way beyond expectations. How good? First-team all-league good. 17.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists and a league best 2.1 steals per game good.
The most amazing thing about Harden is that he does everything within the context of the offense and the confines of his own ability. He almost never looks awkward or out of sync. He never appears to be taking over the game at the expense of his teammates. He's not nearly as good yet as his favorite player Kobe Bryant, and he may never be, but he learned a lot earlier in his evolution as a player than Bryant how to best incorporate his game into a team concept. That is the singular most impressive thing about Harden.
When you break down his skill set, Harden's best attribute is his relentless attack of the basket. It's a mindset that was perhaps fostered by one of his few weaknesses (we'll get to that later), and it is a constant in his game. I haven't seen numbers to prove it, but you would be hard-pressed to convince me that any guard in the Pac-10 scored as many points in the paint than Harden, or took as many late-game free throw attempts as Harden. A lot of players who are excellent shooters of the basketball -- which Harden is, having made 44-of-108 (.407) 3-pointers on the season -- settle for that shot too often. Harden does not. If anything, he probably takes too few open 3-pointers. But that's actually not a bad thing considering his field goal percentage (.527) and propensity to get to the foul line.
Harden took more free throws than any other guard in the league last year and more than any other player, save Kevin Love. The number of trips a player takes to the foul line is generally a sign of how impacting that player is on the game. And Harden is very impacting. For someone who shoots so good, it's just a tad surprising (in a good way) how relentless he actually he.
Harden is also a tremendous rebounded, passer and defender for a guard. He's extremely well rounded. He became the first freshman ever to lead the Pac-10 in steals, and he did it playing in a matchup zone defense, which is relatively mind-boggling because anyone will tell you it's harder to procure turnovers when you are not applying consistent man to man or trapping pressure in the half-court. This speaks to Harden's basketball IQ, his ability to anticipate the development of a play before it happens, his knack for sitting in passing lanes and his situational understanding of when and how to put pressure. He does this and yet isn't a gambling defender. You rarely see Harden go for steals at the expense of playing good position defense. He doesn't put his team in jeopardy. That's what makes it so impressive.
Now all of this isn't to suggest that Harden's game is flawless. There are several areas that need to be developed, especially his mid-range game. What we saw last season from Harden was he either shot the 18-22 footer from a stationary position or as a catch-and-shoot off a pass, or he would take the ball all the way to the basket. There was very little in between. On the rare occasions where Harden looked to be not entirely in control, it was here. He breaks down defenders easily off the dribble but needs to learn to hit a jump stop in the 8-12 foot range, elevate and knock down what should be a relatively easy shot. The traffic in the lane in the Pac-10 can be managed, but at the next level, he'll have a problem in this area unless he can develop such a shot. He does a great job drawing fouls on the perimeter (in Kobeesque fashion) and can shoot off the bounce from behind and around the 3-point line. Developing that mid-range game will make him particularly lethal.
Harden has a good first-step for the college game but at the pro level it will be just average among the world class athletes who play the off-guard position. His right hand isn't as mediocre as some many believe, but further development with that off-hand will also help him to be more crafty in his ability to create shots for himself and limit defenders' ability to shade him as strongly to his right. Harden also needs to improve at the foul line, where he shot .754. There is no reason he shouldn't be at least an 80 percent foul shooter.
Ty Abbott -- Coming into this season I knew that Abbott was a better defensive player than the returning wings on the roster and I talked about that quite a bit in advance of the season. I also knew he could shoot the basketball reasonably well. What I perhaps underestimated about Abbott was his cold-blooded approach to shooting the basketball, which is something all really good shooters have. Basically, Abbott doesn't have a conscious, and that's a good thing. He generally is able to recognize the difference between a good shot and a bad shot in terms of "time and situation" in coach-speak, but when he has an open look, the shot is going up at the basket, and that's even if Abbott has missed seven straight shots leading up to that moment. He just doesn't care because he has confidence in himself. And that's a very large part of the battle.
There is no doubt that on the offensive side of the floor, Abbott's primary responsibility was to be a 3-point specialist. 215 of the 286 field goals he attempted were from behind the 3-point line, which is 75 percent, an extremely high ratio. He converted those 3-pointers at a rate of .353, which though not great, is certainly a good enough clip to keep firing away. That shooting percentage translates to about 53 percent if all those attempts were 2-point attempts. To put it in its proper context, the best field goal percentage in the Pac-10 was .480 and ASU's field goal percentage was .464. So the edict given to Abbott this off-season by the ASU coaching staff is going to be simple: keep firing away.
That isn't to suggest Abbott can use further development in other areas on the offensive end. We knew when he arrived that his ball handling was the area he needed the most improvement with and that continues to be the case. Currently, Abbott showcases his athleticism on the defensive end and especially in the open court going both ways, but not as much with the ball in his hands. That's primarily due to not being fluent enough moving to the basket off the dribble. Abbott is a big leaper and he's quick. When he becomes more capable with the ball in his hands, he'll be able to do more off the bounce and that will increasingly add to his skill base.
Like Harden, Abbott plays well within himself at all times. He moves extremely well without the ball in his hands. He has a strong understanding of what he can and can't do and almost never looks out of sorts. He turned the ball over just 44 times in 34 games last season, while dishing out 51 assists and making 39 steals. Those are tremendously efficient numbers. They speak to his ability to pass the ball and also defend. He is perhaps the best transition defender on the entire roster, or at least right up there with Harden. At 3.6 rebounds per game, he's also good on the glass. Abbott just needs to become a better ball handler and his game will take off. He could also stand to bump up his free throw percentage, which was at .731 last season. With an improved handle he'll be getting the line more.
Rihards Kuksiks -- A lot of people look at Kuksiks as primarily a 3-point specialist and he is that, but to just write him off a shooter wouldn't do him justice. He plays extremely good position defense as a base edge in the matchup zone. He's not prone to trying to block shots or go for steals in low reward situations, two things that frustrate coaches endlessly. He gets a solid arm bar on offensive players who try to post up on them and he denies their ability to catch the ball in places on the floor where they can be effective. The battle in the post often comes down to fighting for position before the entry pass and Kuksiks and Jerren Shipp are the best on the team at this, which led directly to them getting minutes over other players on the team last season.
Kuksiks is also a very good passer of the basketball. He's smart and crafty. He sees plays developing ahead of time and he can make passes others either can't or won't attempt. He had 31 assists and only 17 turnovers on the season and that will only improve as he gains confidence.
Athletically, Kuksiks a more limited than Harden or Abbott, and like Abbott, he'll need to work extremely hard on his handling of the basketball in order to maximize his offensive repertoire. At times he was able to make plays going to the hoop but sometimes lost a handle on the ball or got caught in an awkward position or worse, in the air without a plan. Adjusting to the speed of the game has been tougher for Kuksiks than for Harden or Abbott, but he still managed quite well.
As a shooter, he's actually far better than the solid percentage he shot on the season from 3-point range (36-of-98 or .367. He has fantastic shooting mechanics with a great release of the ball, but at times he rushed his shot mechanics and that's what led to some inconsistencies at the rim. When his form becomes more consistent, as I believe it will, we'll see Kuksiks be among the top shooters in the Pac-10. And certainly that and his defensive ability in the zone will continue to be where he is most heavily relied upon in this system.
Jerren Shipp -- With the arrival of Harden, Abbott and Kuksiks we thought it was likely that either Shipp or Christian Polk would see a drastic cut in their minutes, and potentially both. As it turned out, Shipp still was a very important member of the rotation and Polk rarely saw the court in the second half of Pac-10 play. The reason is because Shipp was the best overall fit for what the Sun Devils needed. He also happens to be a little more well rounded.
As mentioned above, Shipp is one of the two best base edge defenders in the zone defense. If you can't play defense for Sendek, you don't get a chance to play offense. It's really that simple. Shipp is undersized but stout and physical. He denies post-entry position and though he isn't a very good rebounded, he plays good position defense. As a product of its lack of size and zone scheme, ASU gave up a lot of weak side offensive rebounds to opponents last season, and that is a concern. But Shipp deserved the minutes he saw on the floor because of his effort and fundamentals.
Offensively, Shipp is primarily a catch-and-shoot player due to a lack of foot speed. He made 31-of-88 3-point attempts (solid .352) on the season. Shipp also moves very well without the basketball and is fluid in the offensive scheme. A lot of his non-3-point field goals were easy baskets off backcuts and other opportunities which came within the flow of the offense.
Shipp's upside is limited because he's essentially an undersized combo forward with below average athleticism, but it probably is about as good as anyone on the roster at maximizing potential, and we're a very big fan of players who do that. As Kuksiks continues to develop and with Johnny Coy arriving as a player who also fills that same role and can be a solid base edge defender, minutes will be even more difficult to come by. But Shipp isn't someone who should be counted out. He understands how to find his niche and is a great teammate. He's also one of the team's best free throw shooters.
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