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Washington Reels In Former Oregon Transfer Center

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Franck Kepnang is joining the good guys

NCAA Basketball: Oregon at Washington Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

During football season the Huskies were victimized by the rival Ducks as DT Taki Taimani and WR coach Junior Adams both defected from Seattle to Eugene. Today Mike Hopkins got some payback as former Oregon Center Franck Kepnang announced he will be transferring to Washington.

Last season the 6’11 big man from Cameroon averaged 4.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game for the Ducks. Kepnang will be a junior next fall but will have 3 years of eligibility remaining given the COVID year mulligan. He is currently rated the 114th overall transfer in the analytically based rankings at evanmiya.com and a 4-star addition. This is Washington’s 2nd addition through the transfer portal so far this season and the 2nd straight from a rival after previously earning a commitment from Washington State PG Noah Williams.

Oregon was one of the few teams in the country that had a surplus of 6’11+ athletic bigs. Last season Kepnang played 36% of minutes for the Ducks behind starter N’Faly Dante. Oregon also had high 4-star 7-footer Nate Bittle and are adding 5-star center Kel’el Ware in the fall. Given that glut at talent at the same position it isn’t a surprise that Kepnang chose to depart and look for an opportunity at more playing time elsewhere.

Mike Hopkins gave Kepnang his 2nd power conference offer back in June of 2018 so they have clearly known each other for a long time. Oregon conversely was the 2nd to last school to offer Kepnang but got him to commit and enroll a year early coming out of high school when Franck was the 36th ranked player in his class.

As with any player acquired through the transfer portal there are some risks in Kepnang’s game. For someone his size he is definitely a subpar defensive rebounder. Last year he secured a rebound on 15.2% of opponent misses while on the floor. Hameir Wright in his senior season was at 15.5%. Nate Roberts last year for the Huskies was at 22.0%. Given that defensive rebounding is one of the major flaws in the Washington zone that’s not overly encouraging to add a player that rebounds like Wright.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way though there are serious reasons the Huskies were interested. While Kepnang isn’t a great rebounder he is however an elite shot blocker. Kepnang barely missed the 40% of team minute threshold to qualify for the KenPom leaderboard but his 9.0% block rate would’ve rated in the top-40 nationally and would’ve been 3rd in the Pac-12 behind only Arizona’s Christian Koloko and Wazzu’s Efe Abogidi (both of whom are seemingly leaving the conference). When Isaiah Stewart was at the center of the Husky zone he only managed a 7.0% block rate.

Given Kepnang’s shot blocking prowess it’s not exactly a surprise that he commits a lot of fouls. Last year Kepnang averaged 6.7 fouls per 40 minutes. Nate Roberts the last 2 years was at 5.5 and 5.8 so the expectation should be that Kepnang won’t regularly be playing 30+ minutes. However when he’s in the game he gives the Huskies the best rim protector they’ve had in the Mike Hopkins era and the best Washington has had since Malik Dime.

The Ducks didn’t play much zone on defense last year but Kepnang was much better when he wasn’t asked to potentially guard on the perimeter. He ranked in the 55th percentile as the primary defender when Oregon went to a zone versus in just the 8th percentile when in man-to-man. Washington’s defensive system should greatly help Franck to avoid having to guard in space and help turn him into a truly elite defender.

On the offensive end of the court there’s no question that Kepnang is a true center. Every shot he took last year was a 2-pointer and over half of the attempts came in the paint. Per barttorvik.com, Kepnang shot 20/25 on dunks (80%), 21/35 on non-dunks in the paint (60%), 24/53 on 2’s outside the paint (45%), and 65% at the free throw line. He’s capable of stepping out and hitting a 15-foot jump shot but for the most part the closer to the basket he is the better.

Kepnang isn’t an exceptional post-up threat but he’s still better than Nate Roberts having made about 48% versus 38% of Roberts’ attempts on that play type. Throwing it down low to Kepnang and asking him to create a bucket shouldn’t be option #1 but it’s not going to have you on your couch shouting “no, no, no, no!” the way it has been ever for UW centers since Isaiah Stewart turned pro. Less of Kepnang’s offense came from putback attempts than Roberts but Kepnang turned it over about 10% of the time less while shooting a little better on his attempts.

There’s at least some evidence though that Kepnang might perform better in a more consistent role. He only played 20+ minutes 6 times last year but in those contests he averaged 9.7 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game. Those games all came against teams ranked in the top-110 against Kenpom so no mid-major creampuffs. Franck’s per minute totals in those 6 games beat his overall season averages in all 3 categories. Although there might be some confounding biases there that part of the reason he played that many minutes is he happened to be playing well so Altman left him in the game.

There are still some questions to be answered around the center position for the Huskies. Riley Sorn hasn’t officially announced whether he intends to return next year to use his remaining 2 years of eligibility. He has been in college for 4 years, has dealt with back injuries this past year, and got married last summer so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him decide to move on. Even if he does return there’s still very little other experience at the center spot. Sorn, Langston Wilson, and Jackson Grant combined to play about 40% of UW’s center minutes last year in what was Wilson and Grant’s first years at the D1 level.

Let’s just say for a moment that Sorn either doesn’t return or just doesn’t crack the rotation. Given the roster right this second I would expect Kepnang to start but given his foul troubles it’s not smart to rely on him for more than 20-25 minutes per game. Wilson and Grant have clear upside but unless they take a major leap with the other half of those minutes it’s tough to say that UW improved much at the position.

The Huskies however are also still very much in the running for Utah Valley transfer and Vancouver, BC native Fardaws Aimaq who is one of the best big men in the portal. In a do or die year for Mike Hopkins he would still love to add in Aimaq and guarantee that one of Aimaq or Kepnang are on the floor at all times. Wilson, Grant, and Aimaq have shown either in college or in high school some ability to stretch the floor and potentially play the 4 in jumbo lineups alongside Kepnang (or alongside Aimaq for Wilson and Grant).

Washington is also hoping to get Emmitt Matthews Jr. to return to the Dawgs after he surprisingly entered the portal this week. The addition of Kepnang would have a much bigger impact if UW did not also have to find a way to replace Matthews.

Oregon fans loved Franck for his tremendous energy and he was beloved even if he was clearly a notch below N’Faly Dante from a skill standpoint. I’m going to go out on a limb and say he’s no longer a fan favorite in Eugene but we should expect that he’ll become one in Seattle. Welcome to the team big Franck and for finding your way to the right decision eventually. Go Dawgs!