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Men’s Basketball Season Preview Part III- Bigs

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How much will we see of the 2 new talented big men on the roster this season?

Washington v Utah Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It’s time for the final edition of our player-by-player preview of UW’s men’s basketball team this upcoming season. If you missed the first two parts last week you can check out the guards preview and the wings preview at those links. That means it’s time for the big men which have two very intriguing new additions on top of the returning center duo from last year.

Nate Roberts

6’11, 265 lbs- 4th Year Junior

2020-21 Per Game Stats: 5.2 pts, 5.7 reb, 0.5 ast, 0.4 blk, 55.3% FG, 53.6% FT

Background

When Washington first started recruiting Roberts he was viewed as a 6’7 small forward but he grew 4 inches during his junior year at Brewster Academy and became a center prospect. It was ultimately a battle between Mike Hopkins and Syracuse, his former employer/alma mater, but UW won out and convinced Roberts and his 7’6 wingspan to head west across the country.

Since Roberts was in the same recruiting class as fellow center Bryan Penn-Johnson there was a natural amount of competition between them. It was rumored that despite being the lower rated prospect that Roberts looked better from day one. BPJ saw the court a tiny bit before getting injured as a true freshman while Roberts redshirted. During UW’s Italy tour before Roberts’ RS frosh year he looked like a bigger Jon Brockman dominating on the boards against undersized competition. Back against college players there were a few glimpses of that production but Roberts averaged 3.3 points and 5 rebounds in the only 6 games he saw double digit minutes.

After BPJ’s transfer Roberts became the clear starter last season and didn’t quite make the most of it. He looked too heavy and muscular to start the year and he seemed to be missing a couple inches of vertical. After blocking 4 shots in the season opener against eventual NCAA champion Baylor (looking back, how?) he only blocked another 7 shots the rest of the year despite playing center in a zone defense. Roberts’ rebounding rates remained above average but he never displayed good hands and had a bad habit of seemingly getting a board but having it bounce off his hands out of bounds.

Playing Style

When Roberts first committed to Washington it was somewhat exciting that he was a shorter player who had a huge growth spurt to develop into a big. That’s how you end up with the true unicorns in the game who had to learn guard skills but then suddenly had the size to be bigger than everyone else. Unfortunately we’ve seen no indication that any of those talents ever translated for Roberts.

He has only attempted a single 3-pointer so far in his Husky career and is shooting exactly 50% at the free throw line. If there ever were remnants of Roberts showing offensive skills other than dunking then they’re long gone now. Unfortunately the fact that Roberts didn’t grow up working on his post moves is also noticeable. He shot just 28% on post-up attempts last season while turning it over on 1 of every 6 of those possessions per Synergy Sports. After having Noah Dickerson and Isaiah Stewart over the last half decade the difference is jarring as UW absolutely can’t drop off the ball down low when they need a bucket.

Because of that the primary ways for Roberts to score either comes from rolling to the basket or getting offensive rebounds. When cutting, serving as the roll man in the P&R, or attempting a put back Roberts shot 71% with the majority of those finishing in dunks. If the Huskies can get the ball to Roberts with a clear path for him to immediately jump towards the rim then he is capable of scoring the ball. Otherwise they need him to set a screen or get a rebound.

Fortunately getting rebounds is something Roberts is pretty good at even if it seems like he should get even more of them. Last season Roberts had a 19.2% defensive rebounding rate and 10.2% offensive rebounding rate during conference play per KenPom. Isaiah Stewart the year before was at 18.5% and 9.5% respectively. If Roberts stops fouling to the point that he can stay on the court longer then he is going to average approaching double digit rebounds.

Unfortunately fouls became a serious issue last year. Roberts committed 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes which meant that he would’ve fouled out a lot more if he played more than 22 minutes per game. It certainly didn’t help Roberts that the Huskies out of desperation went increasingly to a switching man-to-man defense last season. Over the final 15 games of the season Washington’s defense was almost 11 points per 100 possessions better when Roberts was off the court. Before that point it was the exact opposite. If the Huskies stick to their traditional zone it will make Roberts look a lot better.

As mentioned earlier though Roberts absolutely has to get better as a rim protector. I’m skeptical whether that improvement is going to happen but even Noah Dickerson who was a generous 6’8 had a higher block rate as an upperclassman in this defense than Roberts did despite having arms that are 6+ inches longer.

2021-22 Outlook

I am expecting that Roberts will continue to start off the season as the starter at center but as we’ll see throughout this section, the Huskies have many more options to replace him if he starts off slowly than they did last year. It wouldn’t entirely shock me to see him slowly fade from the rotation as the year goes on but I’m going to start out anticipating he sees somewhere close to 25 minutes per game and makes a few strides with a legitimate big man coaching him for the first time in his career with Wyking Jones.

Per Game Projections: 6.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 0.9 blocks, 56.5% FG, 50.0% FT

Riley Sorn

7’5, 255 lbs- 4th Year Junior

2020-21 Per Game Stats: 3.1 pts, 2.5 reb, 0.3 ast, 0.8 blk, 55.3% FG, 53.6% FT

Background

Coming out of Richland High it’s clear to see why Sorn was so intriguing for Mike Hopkins. You can’t teach height for the center of a zone defense and they don’t come much taller than Sorn. The Huskies weren’t the only ones interested as Saint Mary’s offered him a scholarship but he decided instead to walk-on at Washington with an agreement that if he was still on the team after 2 years that he would be added to scholarship.

That occurred last offseason and it wasn’t known what exactly to think of that since Sorn never really got on the court in his first 2 years. However he ended up playing a bigger role last year than anyone without the last name of Sorn anticipated. Sorn had 8 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks in an early loss to Utah. Then in a 29 minute stretch versus Montana and Colorado, Sorn looked like a superstar with 27 points, 12 rebounds, and 2 blocks. That was definitely the high point as the entire rest of the season combined (19 games) Sorn had 38 points but there were still flashes against the right opponent.

Playing Style

There’s pretty much nothing overly surprising about Sorn’s approach to the game. When he gets the ball and is facing the basket within a few feet then the ball is going to get dunked. Sorn is taller than 99.9% of the players he’s going up against even if he’s also skinnier than just about all of them. When Sorn catches an offensive rebound and puts it back in it looks like he’s playing on a child’s basket. As long as he doesn’t have to dribble the ball and catches it at (his) chest level or higher then good things are normally going to happen for Washington.

Similar to Nate Roberts you can’t expect Sorn to actually pull off any post moves. At his size that would just be unfair. He only attempted 5 of them last year per Synergy Sports and went 0/3 with 2 turnovers. Whoops. Also similar to Roberts when he was cutting to the basket, the roll man, or attempting a putback then Sorn shot 76% from the floor and turned it over less than 10% of the time. Sorn isn’t the easiest offensive weapon in the world to use but when unleashed in the right way he’s pretty unstoppable.

It seems like that should be true on the defensive end of the court as well but unfortunately that just hasn’t been the case. Sorn may be tall but even at his height he can’t stop a short midrange jumper before it hits its apex just with his arms raised. That means he has to either jump or take 2 steps forward in the zone to contest a shot and he doesn’t have the footspeed to recover when cutters come in behind him receiving a bounce pass or getting an offensive put back. In the first 11 games last season Washington gave up 127 points per 100 possessions when Sorn was in the game. Over an entire season that’s pretty close to worst defense of all-time stuff. He saw improvement over the course of the season giving up 106 points per 100 possessions the rest of the way but Sorn is still a below average defender.

The one thing he’s definitely better at than Nate Roberts is shot blocking. Sorn ended up with a block rate more than 4 times higher than Roberts. There are definitely times when chasing blocked shots are more detrimental for a defense than not doing so but if you’ve got Sorn in the game you kind of need him to go for them.

Because unfortunately Sorn isn’t a very good rebounder given his size. His defensive rebounding rate in conference play last year was just 15.9%. Hameir Wright who was killed by fans for years for his lack of rebounding manage 15.5% last year. Sorn is either out of position or not strong enough to get around opponents for boards despite his prodigious height. Things are better on the offensive end but it’s still a problem overall.

2021-22 Outlook

The hope for Sorn is that another offseason adjusting to the zone defense will help him develop his instincts so that he can become a difference maker in short bursts on that end of the court. Washington’s big man depth is much better this year than it was last year which may result in Sorn seeing fewer total minutes. Still, there are definitely moments where Sorn will overwhelm an opponent and you can be sure in those instances he’ll remain a fan favorite.

Per Game Projections: 2.1 points, 1.9 rebounds, 0.5 blocks, 70.0% FG, 62.0% FT

Langston Wilson

6’9, 215 lbs- 3rd year Sophomore (JUCO Transfer from Georgia Highlands College)

2020-21 Per Game Stats: 10.1 pts, 7.6 reb, 0.8 blk, 54.0% FG, 30.8% 3pt, 52.4% FT

Background

You don’t often find a college basketball player who never played a minute for his high school team but that’s the case for Langston Wilson. He was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome at age 12 which puts someone at increased risk of heart failure and is worsened by physical exertion. Due to concerns over what would happen if he over-exerted himself, Langston was barred by doctors from athletic competition after the diagnosis. Wilson ended up serving as the equipment manager for his Philly high school team to stay around the sport he loved despite knowing he might be the best player on the team if allowed to play.

However after turning 18 he underwent further examination and it was determined that Wilson showed no signs that his condition had worsened and was cleared to play competitive sports again. Wilson inherited his love of basketball from his father (who played for Villanova in the 80’s) and was given a shot by the coach at JUCO Georgia Highlands College after he was spotted displaying jaw dropping athleticism playing pickup in Atlanta.

Wilson didn’t exactly shatter records at the JUCO level and in fact came off the bench for the majority of his 2 seasons (supposedly by Wilson’s request to help be an energy boost). However, his physical gifts are undeniable and he became a walking human highlight reel with an absurd vertical leap for a man with his height and wingspan. Wilson committed to Alabama after being named the #2 JUCO recruit in the country by 247 Sports but after Bama was overly aggressive in the transfer market and ran out of spots (shocker) they let Wilson look around. Washington reached out after he got his release from Alabama and the coaching staff with an assist from Emmitt Matthews managed to seal the deal.

I never had the chance to make it out for the Crawsover this summer but Wilson by all accounts was a player that stood out both for the stats he put up and his highlight plays. He is instantly the best dunker in the program since Marquese Chriss but also showed some extra offensive versatility. His jump shot isn’t exactly automatic but it’s not unreasonable to think that Wilson can instantly fill in as a much more aggressive Hameir Wright from day one even if his team defense isn’t quite at that level.

2021-22 Outlook

Washington will start out with Wilson playing the power forward spot with Nate Roberts and Riley Sorn continuing to rotate at the center position. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone (if Wilson is able to hold up okay as a rebounder) if he winds up getting minutes at the center spot as well. On the one hand, Wilson came off the bench for a JUCO program and averaged essentially 10 points per game. On the other, Wilson has jaw dropping athleticism and is so new to truly organized basketball that he has the chance to develop at a rapid pace. I’ll again hedge my bets and project based on Wilson averaging about 20 minutes per game off the bench with the chance that he starts out closer to 10-15 and grows towards 25 by season’s end.

Per Game Projections: 6.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.0 blocks, 52.0% FG, 28.5% 3pt, 55.0% FT

Jackson Grant

6’10, 205 lbs- 1st year Freshman

Recruiting Ranking: 247 Sports Composite #77 overall, #13 center, #3 in WA

Background

Given the downturn that Washington has experienced in the program lately there have understandably been some swings and misses by the UW coaching staff on the recruiting trail. However sometimes a commitment falls in your lap and at least some credit is due in not screwing it up. Jackson Grant coming out of Olympia high school grew up a Husky fan and Washington did what they had to in order to help him achieve his dream of playing for the Dawgs.

This was a loaded big man class in state with Paolo Banchero (Duke) and Kaden Perry (Gonzaga) but Washington still got an impressive talent. Grant was named a McDonald’s All-American even though the game never happened. Normally you don’t see recruits ranked outside the top-40 in the national rankings get named to the team but Grant showed enough to make it. That said, it’s possible that that particular accolade will give fans the impression that Grant is a one and done type instant impact player.

It would certainly be a surprise if that’s the case. Grant is a skilled big man who is able to shoot the ball well for his size and doesn’t rely on overpowering strength or athleticism to get the job done. He’s more than capable of dunking the ball and going aggressively to the rim but there’s definitely a big contrast in the highlight videos for Langston Wilson and Jackson Grant.

At 6’10 Grant played center for his high school team but I’m anticipating that he will be in a similar position to Wilson initially playing power forward mostly. I’m not sure if the length/athleticism combo for Grant is quite at the level that the Huskies want from their centers in a Mike Hopkins zone. While Grant is probably at his best near the basket he is a capable 3-point shooter and could help stretch the floor which is something that will be sorely needed this season.

2021-22 Outlook

Grant looks like he has the potential to be a really good 4-year player for Washington that at his floor should have a career like Hameir Wright and at his ceiling could resemble something like USC’s Bennie Boatwright. Unless Wilson and Grant are allowed to play together as the 4/5 combo while Riley Sorn falls out of the rotation though I’m not sure if the Dawgs will be able to regularly play 4 bigs across the 4/5 position. I think Grant is too talented not to see the court but there’s definitely a chance he plays something closer to 10 minutes per game this year than 25 depending how the rotation shakes out.

Per Game Projections: 3.4 points, 2.6 rebounds, 0.4 blocks, 49.5% FG, 33.3% 3pt, 68.0% FT