When Mike Hopkins became the coach of the Washington Huskies, it was expected he would be bringing a lot of size and length that would ultimately shut down opposing offenses near the rim. Early on, it seemed like the case as UW ranked #1 in the Pac 12 in Blocks as well as in total Steals in Hop’s first 3 seasons, which was a common staple for the Syracuse Orange signature teams.
The first two years were a little unconventional as super freak Matisse Thybulle had almost double the number of blocks (82) his senior year compared to anyone else on the team but still had some solid contributions from Hameir Wright (45), Sam Timmins (25) and Noah Dickerson (22). Overall that team led the Conference with 195 blocks and was ranked #4 in the nation on Kenpom for Block %.
The 2019-2020 season with Isaiah Stewart was Hopkins’ first team built with his guys and it seemed like this would be the type roster that was similar to the successful Syracuse teams. The team ultimately struggled finishing games but was the 4th tallest team in the country and also led the Pac 12 with 192 blocks. The Defense was not the issue with 5-star freshmen Isaiah Stewart (66 Blocks) and Jaden McDaniels (43 Blocks) protecting the hoop, which led UW to a #31 defensive ranking on Kenpom. The defense did its part but unfortunately the offense without Quade Green struggled closing out games.
However, since then, the Huskies have been pretty mediocre on defense the past two seasons and a lot of that can be attributed to the lack of rim protection in the post.
How did it look last season?
In terms of total blocks, the Huskies still managed to be a top-4 team in the conference with 132 blocks and #70 in the country with 4.1 blocks per game. However, this doesn’t really reflect the lack of rim protection around the hoop that allowed opposing teams 45% FG shooting in conference play and close to 50% on 2-point FG’s.
The Huskies were led in blocks by Center Nate Roberts with 22 total Blocks and a block % of 3.1, which is pretty poor for a starting center. It was actually an improvement from the year prior as Roberts only had 11 blocks and a block % of 1.9 in 2020-2021. Needless to say, Nate Roberts was not a shot blocker and teams were not afraid to attack the rim. Roberts was a solid rebounder and defender but he needed additional help protecting the rim. Surprisingly, 6’1 PG Terrell Brown finished 3rd on the team last year with only 5 fewer blocks than Roberts at 17 total so also not a great sign if your undersized PG is almost leading your team blocks.
2021-2022 Block Leaders
- Nate Roberts: 22
- Jamal Bey: 21
- Terrell Brown: 17
- Emmitt Matthews: 14
- Daejon Davis: 13
- Langston Wilson and Riley Sorn: 11
Compared to Hop’s first 3 seasons, the numbers from last year were a far cry from the Thybulle and Stewart teams but there is reason for optimism for the upcoming season.
What can we expect in 2022-23’?
Let’s first look at the 3 transfers that the Huskies brought in with Franck Kepnang, Braxton Meah and Keion Brooks. Then we’ll look at the returners that could see a similar or expanded role this upcoming season.
As highlighted in Max’s preview of the Bigs, the Huskies brought in some reinforcements in 6’11 Center Franck Kepnang from Oregon and 7’1 backup Center Braxton Meah from Fresno State. Both players are big and mobile post players that should help the Huskies get back on track on the defensive side.
Franck Kepnang is the headliner of the group on the defensive side and finished 5th in the Pac-12 last year with 42 blocks in only 14.5 minutes per game. Kepnang also finished higher than Oregon starting Center N’Faly Dante by 9 blocks in 130 less minutes total. Kepnang put up a solid 9.0 Block % which would have finished as #18 of all-time (Since 1985-86’ Season) in the Pac 12 if he played the minimum of 20 mpg but should be in store to play 20+ minutes this year. It will be interesting to see if Kepnang can maintain a 9.0 Block % or perhaps even improve on that number. As a comparison, Malik Dime is currently #10 all-time in the Pac-12 at a Block % of 10.76 for a single season.
Very excited for Franck Kepnang to join UW this year. Franck is going to be a fan favorite and will look much better in the Purple and the Gold! Will be an instant impact on offense and Defense @franckkepnang @UW_MBB pic.twitter.com/LEojM9GrdZ— UW Hoops World (@world_uw) June 11, 2022
Oregon did play man to man defense 86% of the time according to Synergy so it will be a different system for Kepnang this year. However, Kepnang did struggle at times playing man last year so moving to a zone defense could be beneficial for the big man from Cameroon. In 89 man-to-man Possessions, Kepnang graded poorly with a 1.06 Point per possession (PPP), which was in the 8th Percentile in the country. In a smaller sample size of 14 possessions, Kepnang fared much better in the Zone at a .85 PPP and 55th percentile.
Kepnang could be the front runner to man the middle of the zone and being positioned in front of the hoop should only help his blocking numbers as he won’t have to chase around opposing players as often. In his commitment interview with Dawgman, Kepnang was quoted:
“I will protect the basket all the time. The way that Washington plays on defense and the zone, people will come to me. And with me being my size, all I have to do is wall up and just protect the basket as much as I can.”
Kepnang will have to stay out of foul trouble but as long as he “walls up” and waits for the action to come to him, he could absolutely feast in the middle and make opposing players think twice about entering the post.
In the clip below, Franck is sitting parked in the middle and minding his own business until a Stanford player decided to enter his Fly zone. Only thing he could have done better was send it back to his teammate for an easy layup/dunk on the other end.
Braxton Meah is another player that should make an impact but most likely backing up Kepnang at the Center position in limited minutes. Meah only averaged 8.1 minutes per game, backing up All-American Center Orlando Robinson (33.1 mpg) and finished with 13 blocks in 32 games last season. However, he would have finished 2nd on UW last year with a block rate of 6.8%. That number itself was not great but Meah has the size and length to perhaps increase those numbers with more playing time in the middle of the zone and mobile enough to play some man to man defense as we saw glimpses of in the Exhibition win over Alaska Fairbanks. It’s very possible Meah plays 10-15 mpg this season backing up Kepnang (or starts games and earns more playing time) and averages close to a block per game in the zone or more, which should replace and improve on the production provided by 7’4 backup center Riley Sorn. Sorn did have a high Block % in limited minutes but it never seemed like opposing players were afraid of attacking the big man.
He’s not necessarily known for his shot blocking but the former 5-star recruit, Keion Brooks, had a pretty productive season last year with 21 blocks at Kentucky. Brooks has some major hops for a 6’8 wing and sent several shots into the stands last year. Brooks should see plenty of time in the corner of the zone to help with weakside rim protection and help contest shots on the perimeter as well. It may take him a few games for Brooks to get comfortable in the zone, but Brooks has the athletic ability to make up for being out of position.
Kentucky’s Keion Brooks Jr. with the MONSTER block. pic.twitter.com/ld2x6fNskA— Sportsbook Review (@SBRReview) March 18, 2022
Outside of the incoming transfers, the Huskies should see improved production from both 6’9 Forward Langston Wilson and 6’10 Forward Jackson Grant. Hard to predict how many minutes each will get this season and at which position but could see Wilson play 10-15+ mpg and possibly Grant as well if he can crack the rotation. Langston Wilson also offers weakside rim protection with his freakish athletic ability and length.
Jackson Grant doesn’t have the same athleticism as Wilson but at 6’11 and a little more strength, Grant does add some paint protection and will continue to get stronger and add more experience.
Stay out of Jackson Grant’s paint!! pic.twitter.com/DfYciOB9rL— T-BILL (@tbillnw95) November 19, 2021
Jamal Bey, also not known as a shot blocker but put up a quiet 21 blocks last year which was 2nd on the team. If I were to have guessed without looking, I would have bet money that Emmitt Matthews would have been 2nd but Bey did it through a combination of weakside blocks and on the perimeter for a healthy contribution. PJ Fuller and Noah Williams will look to carry on what Terrell Brown (17 Blocks) and Daejon Davis (13 Blocks) were able to provide in the backcourt at the top of the zone. Both have good size to contest outside shots and PJ Fuller has been known to provide some highlight blocks on the defensive end.
Washington logró derrotar a Texas Southern (7⃣2⃣-6⃣5⃣) con acciones tan contundentes como esta defensa de PJ Fuller. pic.twitter.com/7u5sxwf5Yn— Planeta NCAA (@PlanetaNCAA) November 16, 2021
2022-2023 Block Projections
- Franck Kepnang: 50 Blocks (1.7 BPG)
- Braxton Meah: 30 Blocks (1 BPG)
- Keion Brooks: 20 Blocks (.8 BPG)
- Langston Wilson: 18 Blocks (.7 BPG)
- Jamal Bey: 18 Blocks (.7 BPG)
- Jackson Grant: 15 Blocks (.5 BPG)
- PJ Fuller 14 blocks (.4 BPG)
- Noah Williams: 11 Blocks (.3 BPG)
- Cole Bajema: 8 Blocks (.2 BPG)
o Total Blocks Projected: 184 Blocks
This is projection based on past performance and projected minutes and will be some variance until we see what the rotation will look like. Projecting Franck Kepnang will play around 25 mpg so that number could go up a bit with more PT and potentially lower other’s stats if Kepnang is dominating defensively around the basket. Braxton Meah’s totals will come down to how many minutes he plays as well but if ends up at 12-15 mpg, he should be able to exceed Nate Roberts numbers playing in the middle of the zone with his size.
Tried to be conservative on a few players like Keion Brooks and Langston Wilson but they both have the athletic ability to help clean up more shots as well. Wilson will be more dependent on how much playing time but athletically he could produce. Finishing around 184 blocks for the season will most likely land around the top 10 in the nation for blocked shots which would go a long ways to improving the Huskies defense this season.
UW should also end up a contender in leading the conference in steals after leading the Pac 12 in steals last year with 265 Steals. Gone are Terrell Brown (69 Steals) and Daejon Davis (51 Steals) who were 1st and 3rd respectively in the Pac 12 last year but do return Jamal Bey (40 Steals), PJ Fuller (36 Steals) and Noah Williams (35 Steals) who come into this season as the top 5 returning steal artists in the Pac 12 and will see plenty of opportunities this year. Look out for Keion Brooks (23 Steals) to join the party as well and is someone you want out in transition.
What does this all mean?
The 2022-23 season and possibly Mike Hopkins job will be relying heavily on the defense this season and at least on paper, will have the length to impose their will on opposing teams. Of course, other factors like rebounding, fouling, defending the 3, etc., will be very important as well on defense but the added size and depth should help in these areas. Make no question, the success of this season and the team identity will be based on the defensive side.
Also an important factor, for a team that has struggled on offense, an active defense will only help the team with scoring points. Last year, UW was able to get a lot of points off steals but still struggled protecting the rim when the Huskies were not able to create a steal. The offense will still need to be able to create in the half court, but the Huskies will take as many points off of turnovers as they can get this year.
The questions will now be, will the defense carry the Huskies far enough to play in the post season this season and take a big step forward in the Program? Or will there be another slow start as new players try to learn and grasp the system?