Welcome to the start of our 2023-24 Washington Men’s Basketball season preview series. It may be the middle of football season but before you know it basketball will be here. We’ll be going player by player through the a very new look roster to help you get to know the team. That will include player analysis as well as projections for every contributor. This was a particularly tough year given the depth of the Husky roster and there will end up being someone (or multiple someones) left out of the rotation who thinks they should be playing more often.
Normally I like to divide these articles up into 3 parts with guards, wings, and bigs. This year though there’s too much to talk about for it so we’re going to divide it up into 4 total parts.
PG 5’9 Sahvir Wheeler (5th year), Transfer from Kentucky
2022-23 Stats (per game): 7.7 pts, 2.3 reb, 5.6 ast, 0.9 stl, 43.5% 2pt, 36.6% 3pt, 53.3% FT
Wheeler started out his career as a 4-star recruit and the #100 overall prospect in the country in the 247 Sports Composite. He was born in New York but went to high school in Houston and committed to the University of Georgia. His first year was alongside top recruit Anthony Edwards who dominated the ball on the way to being the #1 pick in the draft.
In his sophomore year Wheeler took over lead ball duties and he averaged career highs of 14 points and 7.4 assists per game (the latter figure led the SEC). That helped him get the call to greener pastures and he transferred to Kentucky to become their starting point guard. The Wildcats earned a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament and Wheeler’s stats fell a little to 10.1 points and 6.9 assists per game with more mouths to feed.
Things fell apart a bit for Wheeler last year as Kentucky started out relatively slow at 10-6 (1-3). Wheeler was injured in a loss to South Carolina and missed a game during which Kentucky appeared to discover a group of five that played very well in his absence. He returned to play 6 games mostly coming off the bench before reaggravating his injury and missing the rest of the season. It was not a surprise to see him enter the portal after that experience and leave as a grad transfer.
No player over the past 4 years has been as prolific a passer at the power conference level as Sahvir Wheeler. He is 157th on the NCAA list in career assists and is tied with UCLA’s Tyger Campbell. If Wheeler even matches his lowest assist total of his career playing with Washington this year then he will advance into the top-40 all-time with a chance at the top-25 with his career best year.
During his career so far, Wheeler has ranked in the top-76 nationally in assist rate every season and has been in the top-25 every year since he didn’t have to play alongside Anthony Edwards. He is often at his best driving into the paint and dishing off the ball at unexpected angles to his center for a wide open dunk. Wheeler’s presence is a huge boon for Braxton Meah who is an elite dunker but struggles to create his own offense.
Wheeler is capable of scoring the ball but it isn’t his strong suit. He shot a career best 36.6% on 3-point shots last year but it was on just 41 total attempts. It’s tough to have a plus offense when your primary ball handler can’t or doesn’t shoot a lot of 3’s but the Huskies have experienced it recently with Terrell Brown Jr.
Similar to Brown, Wheeler likes to drive the ball and pull up in the midrange but he doesn’t shoot it nearly as often and isn’t nearly as good at it when the shot goes up. For his career Wheeler has made 47% of his 2-point shots and it was a career low 44% last season.
The Huskies had a similarly undersized guard last season with Keyon Menifield who was a little bit taller but also quite a bit skinnier. Wheeler doesn’t have anywhere close to the first step that Menifield did but he still has enough of a herky jerky game that he can get just enough of a jump on the defender to get the right angle.
The defensive end of the floor isn’t exactly a strong suit for Wheeler as you might expect for a 5’9 player. He’s not a good rebounder on either side of the floor but that’s not what you’re counting on Wheeler to do. His steal rate has been between 1.6% and 2.6% for his entire career which is below average for a guard but not disastrous by any stretch. That total is about between where Cole Bajema and Jamal Bey were last season.
You might expect the points per possession data to really show Wheeler’s deficiencies but he has been okay given his size. Opponents last year shot 43% against Wheeler on jump shots which rates in the 12th percentile nationally. Wheeler has 5 career blocks and he’s not going to be able to challenge a lot of outside shots with his length. Shots go in about equal rates whether they’re guarded by Wheeler or not so that’s something you just have to live with when he’s your point guard.
It would be logical to think that Wheeler also struggles at the rim but he’s surprisingly adept there. Opponents last year shot just 29% on layups with Wheeler as the primary defender. That put Wheeler at the 97th percentile. The relatively low sample size means that’s probably a bit of an aberration but he was well above average the previous year as well so it seems real that Wheeler’s strength and agility allows him to challenge opposing guards on drives.
Expectations for 2023-24
This is the first time that Mike Hopkins has ever had a true pass-first point guard during his tenure at Washington. The Huskies are used to having tremendous scoring guards like Jaylen Nowell, Quade Green, and Terrell Brown Jr. Both Green and Brown in particular were extremely willing passers but also were more likely to take a shot late in a game. That’s not going to be Wheeler’s role on this team as he will be flanked by more accomplished scorers at all times.
The goal for Wheeler will be to prevent just enough of a scoring threat to create space for Brooks, Meah, and Kepnang to have a parade of easy dunks and also kick it out to Moses Wood for open 3’s. There are clear negatives to Wheeler’s game but he’s so good at the one thing the Huskies have never been good at under Mike Hopkins that he has a chance to be a home run addition.
2023-24 Projected Stats: 9.4 pts, 2.7 reb, 5.5 ast, 1.0 stl, 47.0% 2pt, 33.3% 3pt, 71.2% FT
PG 6’2 Koren Johnson (2nd year)
2022-23 Stats (per game): 6.8 pts, 1.2 reb, 1.8 ast, 1.2 stl, 47.2% 2pt, 32.1% 3pt, 70.5% FT
It became evident several years earlier that Koren Johnson was the top prospect in the state of Washington for the class of 2022 coming out of Garfield. Given that the Huskies had a pair of grad transfers starting at the guard spots last year there was a clear need for help at the guard position in the class. For a while it looked like Washington had badly bungled the recruitment when Koren committed to San Diego State over the Huskies. However Will Conroy stayed in Johnson’s ear and a few weeks later he decommitted from the Aztecs and quickly switched his pledge to stay home at UW. Koren ended up as the #124 recruit in the 247 Sports Composite and a 4-star prospect.
An injury last summer put Johnson behind the 8 ball in the hunt for playing time and it originally appeared the coaching staff wanted him to redshirt. But then Noah Williams got hurt on the final play of the first half of the first game and so Koren wound up appearing in all but 3 games. He never started but once Fuller and Williams were both out at the end of the year, Koren played 24+ minutes in each of Washington’s last 6 games.
From the moment you watch Koren Johnson play, you know that he is a high confidence guy. There’s never much hesitation when he shoots the ball and he believes that he can shut down any opposing guard. The talent is there to live up to those expectations but the consistency wasn’t. Which might be expected of any true freshman who wasn’t a 5-star recruit.
Koren’s role last year was primarily as a guard stopper on defense off the bench while providing some additional ball handling responsibilities on offense. He finished the year in the 81st percentile per Synergy Sports in defensive points per possession. That included finishing 4th in the conference during Pac-12 play in steal rate. Johnson is a physical defender despite his size who isn’t afraid to get up in the body of opposing ball handlers and poke the ball away.
That aggression comes at a cost. He committed 4.7 fouls per 40 minutes last season which was the highest on the team among anyone who played at least 15% of the team’s minutes (and the highest of anyone under 6’9). Until Johnson figures out how to play without fouling, it will make it very difficult for him to rise higher in the rotation than as a 6th man.
On the offensive end there were several games where you saw Johnson’s potential. He scored 15 points per game on 7/9 three-point shooting during a home sweep of the Bay Area schools last year. During the last 6 games of the year Johnson averaged almost 11 points and 3 assists per game.
The problems have been that Johnson is still too prone to a poor shot decision or a turnover. His 23.2% turnover rate was second worst on the team ahead of only P.J Fuller. The decision making has to improve for Johnson to be viewed as more than a combo guard/secondary ball handler on offense.
He shot just 35% as the primary ball handler running a pick and roll and 32% as a spot up shooter, both of which were below average. Koren actually shot better off the dribble than in catch and shoot situations which isn’t typical and may be due to sample size. Given the rest of the guards on the roster, Koren should have plenty of catch and shoot opportunities so he will need to get above 35% there to carve out a role.
When driving to the basket, Koren shot 58% at the rim which is a good total for a 6’2 guard. He settled a little too often for runners and floaters though and made just 36% of them.
Expectations for 2023-24
There was a point last season where it looked like Mike Hopkins was ready to commit to the youth movement at the guard spot. P.J Fuller and Noah Williams both sat the last several games and it opened up minutes for both Koren Johnson and Keyon Menifield. Both Johnson and Menifield put out the same message they would be returning and seemed excited to form the backcourt of the future.
Then of course Menifield reversed course and entered the portal to ride the Muss Bus (where he has since been ruled academically ineligible for this year) and Washington brought in 3 more potential primary ball handling options to compete for minutes through the portal (and one in the recruiting class). Suddenly it’s unclear where Johnson stands in the rotation. Washington appears to run 10 deep and some guard is going to get left out. I’m hedging my bets with the below projection that Johnson will stay in the rotation but won’t play quite as much as he did last year unless we similarly see multiple injuries to the guards around him.
2023-24 Projected Stats: 4.3 pts, 0.7 reb, 1.0 ast, 0.6 stl, 44.4% 2pt, 33.3% 3pt, 72.0% FT
SG 6’2 Nate Calmese (2nd year), Transfer from Lamar
2022-23 Stats (per game): 17.6 pts, 2.5 reb, 2.0 ast, 1.2 stl, 55.5% 2pt, 36.7% 3pt, 75.5% FT
Calmese was a completely under the radar prospect coming out of Gilbert, Arizona. He was unrated by the recruiting services despite leading his team to success and hitting a ton of big shots for his high school program. With a lack of opportunities in front of him, Calmese committed to lowly Lamar of the Southland conference found in Beaumont, Texas.
But the lack of talent surrounding him ended up sparking success for Calmese. He was 2nd among all D1 true freshmen in points per game last season only behind eventual #2 overall NBA Draft pick Brandon Miller. Overall, Calmese averaged 17.6 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game while shooting 48.1% from the field, 36.7% from 3, and 75.5% on free throws.
Those are incredibly impressive numbers especially for a true freshman. So why wasn’t Calmese viewed as one of the elite players available in the portal? That’s due to the quality of his team and their competition. Lamar went 9-22 while finishing last in the Southland Conference. But 3 of those wins came over non-D1 competition and the Cardinals were 358th out of 363 teams at KenPom. They were one of the worst teams in the country and had one of the lowest strength of schedule in the country. Not great.
There are a few ways to look at that. It’s not hard (relatively speaking because obviously I couldn’t do it) to put up a ton of points on a terrible team as long as you get the green light. Calmese finished 43rd nationally taking 31% of his team’s shots while he was on the court. That certainly makes it easier to score a ton of points. But it’s not like Calmese was the one shooting his team out of games. In conference play he made 58% of his 2’s and 40% of his 3’s. He was pretty definitively the best scoring option on the team and kept up a great efficiency level while taking a ton of shots. The aforementioned Brandon Miller at Alabama shot 62% on 2’s and 38% on 3’s in SEC play.
Of course, there’s a big difference between the Southeastern Conference and the Southland Conference. Unlike some small schools, Lamar didn’t run out a non-conference schedule with 8+ games receiving a pay check to get flattened by a major program. There were only a few opportunities for Calmese to play against premium competition. The results were not great. Here’s what Calmese’s numbers look like if you break it up by KenPom rank:
Teams ranked 1-100 (3 games): 10.7 ppg, 37% 2pt, 23% 3pt, 43% FT
Teams ranked 101-200 (5 games): 16.0 ppg, 50% 2pt, 39% 3pt, 77% FT
Teams ranked 201-300 (8 games): 17.6 ppg, 59% 2pt, 31% 3pt, 81% FT
Teams ranked 301+ (12 games): 20.1 ppg, 59% 2pt, 40% 3pt, 76% FT
Obviously those percentages against top-100 teams wouldn’t be good enough to see the court if kept up over an entire season. But we’re also talking about a sample size of 3 games that came in the first 5 weeks of a true freshman’s college career. His worst game of the season came against the best team: TCU (who ended up as a #6 seed in the NCAA Tournament). In that game he scored just 2 points on 1/10 shooting. But even though his shot wasn’t falling he had a season high 5 assists with 0 turnovers so found other ways to try to help his team win.
The competition was certainly part of it but overall Calmese was efficient from every spot on the floor. Like many players his biggest weakness was on contested jumpers as he shot 28% on those catch and shoot opportunities. When taking an open 3-pointer in rhythm though he canned 40% of them so he provides another floor spacing option alongside Sahvir Wheeler’s passing.
Calmese was also very good when driving the ball. He has the ability to pull up and hit a runner/floater if there’s a shot blocker around the rim. That translated to shooting 52% on those shots which ranked in the 89th percentile nationally per Synergy Sports. He also shot 61% on layup attempts which ranked in the 77th percentile overall and surely ranked even higher if you just looked at players of his similar height.
Despite being able to handle the ball, Calmese is definitely more of a shooting guard and plays off the ball frequently. About half of his possessions last year came as a spot-up shooter or in transition. He struggled to run the pick and roll effectively, shooting only 38% in those possessions and turning it over 23% of the time. Washington is unlikely to put Calmese out there without playing alongside another guard to at least share ball handling duties.
It’s also fair to say that at this point Calmese doesn’t offer much else other than scoring punch. His overall defensive numbers per Synergy were solid, giving up 0.831 points per possession as the primary defender which ranks in the 59th percentile nationally.
The specific defensive stats though are lacking. His 1.1% block rate is slightly high for a 6’2 shooting guard but his 1.5% steal rate is definitely below average especially factoring in the strength of schedule. His 5.8% defensive rebounding rate is bad but not totally out of sync for a smaller guard.
Expectations for 2023-24
There’s no chance that Calmese can get anywhere close to the shot attempts or minutes played that he did last season. The guard spot is suddenly extremely crowded on Montlake and Calmese and Johnson are likely battling for the same spot in the rotation by the time we get to the end of the year.
I’m projecting Calmese to play a little bit less than Koren right now just by virtue of Johnson being more of a known entity but it wouldn’t be surprising if his offensive game translated to the extent that he carved out a more major role than I’m giving him credit for. At the very least he’ll be a very serviceable bench scoring option with the chance to do more than that.
2023-24 Projected Stats: 4.5 pts, 1.2 reb, 0.8 ast, 0.4 stl, 40.0% 2pt, 33.8% 3pt, 75.0% FT
We’ll be back on Tuesday with Part 2.