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Season Report Card: Nate Roberts & Riley Sorn

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We grade the performance of the two Husky centers

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 24 Utah at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the 2020-21 Men’s Basketball season officially (mercifully?) over we can look back at each of the players to see how different things ended up from what we thought might happen in the preseason. We’ll be going through the roster 2 at a time to review how each player performed and figure out what expectations should be for them moving forward. The letter grades given out to each player are a combination of how they fared compared to expectations and how they played overall. If someone was much better than I expected but still not great then they cap out at a B+. If someone was really good but worse than I expected then their floor is a B-. Unfortunately, for this past season’s Husky team I don’t think we have to worry much about the latter.

We begin with the 2 players most often found manning the center position for Washington this season.

Nate Roberts- Redshirt Soph., 6’11, 265 lbs

Max’s Per Game Predictions: 25.0 minutes, 5.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 51.4% FG, 61.2% FT

Actual Per Game Averages: 21.8 minutes, 5.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 0.4 blocks, 55.3% FG, 53.6% FT

Prior Seasons

Roberts chose the Huskies over Syracuse and entered Hop’s first full recruiting class alongside fellow center Bryan Penn-Johnson. There were early rumblings that Roberts was ahead of BPJ on the depth chart but that he was more willing to redshirt and so sat his entire true freshman year. Last year It was clear that playing time would be scarce with Isaiah Stewart, Sam Timmins, and BPJ also on the roster and Roberts saw only occasional spurts of the court. He only played 12+ minutes 3 times throughout the season and in those 56 total minutes he finished with 14 points and 20 rebounds and was just 6/16 from the FT line. With all 3 of the other centers heading out of town it was clear Roberts would enter the season with the first chance to win the starting center job.

Season Summary

Roberts did indeed take firm control of the starting center position and never relinquished it throughout the season. He ended up the only Husky to start every single game. And yet it’s hard to feel that Roberts didn’t have an underwhelming season. It certainly didn’t help that he had to follow Noah Dickerson and Isaiah Stewart who were 2 of the best post scorers that Washington has ever had.

Despite the outcome of the game, it looked like Roberts at least would be able to be an elite rim protector after he had 4 blocks against Baylor in the season opener. Unfortunately that never really came to fruition as he finished with just 7 total blocks in the remaining 25 games combined.

Rebounding was a major issue for the Huskies this season (that’s an understatement) and as the starting center Roberts deserves some of the blame for that. He ended the season though 5th in the Pac-12 in offensive rebound % and 10th in defensive rebound %. You could wish that his numbers were a little better but it’s hard to quibble with them too much.

What maybe made it feel so disappointing was the number of times Roberts got one or both hands on the ball and either had it bounce out of bounds or poked away and secured by the other team. If Roberts’ hands were just a little bit better he easily could’ve averaged an extra rebound or two.

The rate stats are more informative than the raw numbers partly because Roberts didn’t stay on the court nearly as often as UW’s other recent bigs. He committed 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes which means on average Roberts would’ve fouled out after 34.5 minutes. That only actually came to fruition twice including in the regular season finale against Arizona in just 17 minutes but he had 4 fouls an additional 9 times. It certainly didn’t help Roberts that the Huskies played an increasing amount of man-to-man as the season went on and many of Roberts’ fouls were when he got switched onto an opposing point guard out on the perimeter and was forced to guard him in space.

Roberts’ hands were also an issue on the offensive end of the court. He finished the season taking just 11.4% of UW’s shots while on the floor which was the lowest number on the team. His utility on the offensive end was almost entirely as an offensive rebounder looking for putback attempts and as a screener. His turnover rate of 20.5 certainly wasn’t great but was passable for a center not known for his dexterity (for context, Sam Timmins never had a rate below 25).

At least Roberts’ physicality translated fairly well on offense. He finished the season with a 59.6 free throw rate which was just higher than Isaiah Stewart’s in 2020. Although with additional usage it’s likely that number would’ve fallen a bit since some of those free throw attempts came getting fouled on a rebound attempt rather than on a post move.

Advanced Stats Breakdown

Since we finished the summary talking about offense let’s go ahead and start there. After the post-up mastery of Dickerson and Stewart it became evident early that that wouldn’t be a part of Roberts’ game. He finished the year shooting just 28% on post-up possessions which was in just the 10th overall percentile per Synergy Sports. On all other attempts he shot 68% from the floor so it seems clear that any time Roberts can be given the ball within 5 feet of the hoop where he doesn’t have to back his guy down that he’s much more likely to be effective.

Overall, the Washington offense was a little bit worse with Roberts on the floor but it wasn’t by a significant amount. The team scored 98.5 points per 100 possessions with Roberts on the bench and 94.9 points per 100 possessions when he was in the game. The gap got a little bigger when looking at just the final 15 games which is when the Huskies began to look a little more competitive. In those contests the offense was 5.82 pts per 100 poss worse when Roberts played versus when he didn’t.

The bigger issue is Roberts’ defense. As I noted in the season summary, the team changed up its defense over the second half of the season and we saw a decreasing amount of the traditional 2-3 zone. That was unfortunate for Roberts. Just looking at those last 15 games the team gave up 10.75 more pts per 100 poss when Roberts played versus when he didn’t. That’s almost the exact opposite of the first 11 games when the team surrendered nearly 12 more pts per 100 poss with Roberts off the court and it seemed like he was the only thing keeping the defense afloat.

Once the Huskies went to more of a switching defense, opposing teams were able to get Roberts away from the rim and forced to guard on the perimeter where he was completely helpless. The stats bear that out as opponents shot 62% with Roberts as the primary defender in a man defense which ranked in just the 7th percentile nationally.

Conclusion

Going into next season there are a few clear priorities for Roberts. The first is that he’s got to drop a few pounds. It’s great that Nate has remade his body to try to look like Dwight Howard but it just looks like he’s less explosive than he used to be. He put on 20 pounds of muscle between his redshirt freshman and sophomore years. I’d like to see him lose 10 of them to see if there’s a better balance that can be struck between his strength to battle inside and his vertical leap to contest shots and sky for boards.

I think at this point we can give up on the idea that Roberts is ever going to be more than a 5th option on offense. It’s not the end of the world to have a center who can’t create their own offense. At this point he needs to focus on the little things like just being able to catch an entry pass and not setting a moving screen to help cut down on turnovers.

On defense it seems clear that Roberts really needs to play in Hop’s traditional 2-3 zone in order to be effective. If the Huskies don’t go back to it next season then they have to find a way to keep Roberts from consistently getting switched onto smaller guards with no rim protection behind him for help.

I’m not ready to say that Roberts can’t be a starting center for a good basketball team. Because I think he can be. But entering his 4th year in college he has to take another step on both ends of the floor to meet that potential.

Final Season Grade: C

Stanford v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Riley Sorn- Redshirt Soph., 7’4, 255 lbs

Projected 2020-21 per game stats: 0.6 points, 0.4 rebounds, 80.0% FG, 50.0% FT

Actual Per Game Averages: 3.1 points, 2.6 rebounds, 0.9 blocks, 72.1% FG, 71.4% FT

Prior Seasons

The big (and I do mean big) man out of Richland, WA didn’t see much recruiting attention despite his prodigious height. He did receive a scholarship offer from Saint Mary’s which has been a great basketball school under Randy Bennett. But Riley ultimately decided to become a preferred walk-on at UW instead since they had the academic program he wanted to study. The deal was reportedly that if Sorn stuck with the team for 2 seasons then he’d be put on scholarship and that’s exactly what happened this past offseason. Sorn entered the year having never yet appeared in a game so it was unclear what his role would be as both a former walk-on and also seemingly the only depth at the center position.

Season Summary

It was an up and down first year on the court at Washington for Sorn. He came in late against Utah in the 3rd game of the season of what became a blowout and put up a very respectable 8 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists. Then after a few games of little impact he had a combined 26 points, 14 rebounds, and 2 blocks in just 29 total minutes against Montana and Colorado. At that point it looked like Sorn might be the steal of all steals.

Through the rest of the season however Sorn only scored more than 4 points twice and played double digit minutes fewer times than he played single digit minutes. It was clear that Sorn’s lack of playing time was more attributable to his defense than his offense. At times Sorn looked lost trying to support the back end of the Husky zone as he easily bit on pump fakes and once in the air was helpless to recover. He didn’t foul quite as much as Roberts but fouls were still an issue with 4.9 committed per 40 minutes. You can live with that from your backup center since he’s usually not relied upon to play enough minutes where fouling out is a real concern. That was true since Sorn never had more than 3 fouls in a single game.

As expected for a 7’4 center Sorn was able to block a good number of shots. He had nearly double as many blocks as Nate Roberts despite playing half as many minutes. Per KenPom, Sorn’s block percentage would’ve been 3rd in the conference had he played enough minutes to qualify for the leaderboard. The 8.3% block percentage is higher than Isaiah Stewart’s 7.0% from last year and equivalent to Matisse Thybulle during his senior year though obviously they are impossibly different types of players.

Defensive rebounding was also a bigger issue for Sorn than you’d expect given his size. He had a 15.9% defensive rebounding rate in conference play which was almost identical to Hameir Wright who is notorious among the fanbase for his lack of rebounding. Fortunately Sorn made up for that with his superlative efforts on the offensive end of the floor. In 8 tier-1 games Sorn had a 14.9% offensive rebounding rate which would’ve been 2nd in the conference over an entire season.

Advanced Stats Breakdown

It’s a good thing that Sorn had success as an offensive rebounder or he might never have scored. Unsurprisingly almost one-third of Sorn’s shot attempts came on offensive put backs and he managed 1.3 points per possession on those shots. Sorn also showed some ability when rolling or cutting towards the rim. On a combined 27 possessions as either a cutter or the P&R roll man he scored 39 points which is absolutely fantastic efficiency. Throw the ball to Sorn when he is facing the basket and close enough to dunk the ball and things generally work out all right.

When they do not work out is if Sorn is forced to try put together any kind of post move. He only had 5 post-up attempts all season but they resulted in 3 missed shots and 2 turnovers. Letting Sorn set a screen and then spring towards the rim or just try to tip a shot back in appear to be the two ways to effectively utilize him on offense.

That’s generally enough though to have Sorn help the team score points as Washington scored 102.4 pts per 100 poss with Sorn playing compared to 94.8 when he was out of the game. That +7.8 margin of an offensive boost was the highest on the team this season.

However, it should be clear that the team was not drastically better with Sorn playing and thus there’s a but coming shortly. But. The team was 5.3 pts per 100 poss worse on defense with Sorn on the court. That’s still a favorable trade-off with a +2.5 margin.

And the benefits were even more pronounced as the season went along. If you just look at the last 15 games the offensive numbers stayed better but the team suddenly became better on defense when Sorn was on the court for a +12.4 pts per 100 poss margin when Sorn played.

As I noted in the Roberts recap section, Washington’s defense got much worse in the 2nd half of the year when Roberts was asked to play a switching man-to-man scheme. If you just look at that 15-game sample, the team gave up 117 pts per 100 poss with Roberts on the floor, 106 with Sorn playing, and 104 when neither was on the court (generally with Hameir Wright playing center).

There was definite defensive improvement for Sorn over the course of the year. The team went from giving up 127 pts per 100 poss in the first 11 games to 106 over the final 15. However, part of the defensive improvement with Sorn playing has to be attributable to the defense returning to its base 2-3 zone once Sorn came in rather than Roberts playing a scheme to which he was ill-suited.

It’s also clear where Sorn is and is not effective on defense. Sorn was viewed as the closest defender to a jump shooter on 24 occasions per Synergy Sports and only 5 of those shots went in which was good for the 97th percentile nationally. When Sorn lunged out at a shooter with his huge frame and they tried to shoot it over him he caused serious problems.

Conversely, opponents scored 26 points on 22 tries while posting up Sorn. That was 571st out of 591 players in D1 with that many defensive attempts. Opponents essentially became a slightly more efficient version of Isaiah Stewart when backing down Sorn. He just didn’t have the combination of foot speed/defensive instincts to successfully defend an opponent’s spin move or up and under or the strength to keep from getting backed down under the basket.

Conclusion

Sorn definitely surpassed my expectations from the preseason. You can’t really blame me though for being unsure how well Sorn would transition to the college game considering he had sat on the bench for 2 seasons.

It’s fair to say at this point that Sorn is absolutely a serviceable backup college center. He can block shots, he can get offensive rebounds, and he can disrupt an offense that doesn’t have an effective post-up threat. Probably the most effective usage for Sorn is to sub him in while the opponent’s best big man is out of the game and hopefully let him feast against someone much less likely to simply back him down every time down the floor.

As Roberts’ play trailed off down the home stretch it became much more of an argument which of the two should be considered the favorites to start next year. I still give the edge to Roberts but it’s at least a discussion. And in an ideal world the Huskies would have a traditional center who’s a clear tier above either ala Stewart or Dickerson so that Roberts and Sorn aren’t needed to combine to play 40 minutes. Unfortunately, unless an impact transfer comes in it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

Final Season Grade: B