We’ve made it to basketball season. Washington hosts Saint Martin’s in their public exhibition game tonight (not televised). It’ll be the first chance to see a fully revamped Washington roster. We’re getting our final projections in before the buzzer then as we conclude our preview series with the big men taking the court for the Huskies this season.
C 7’1 Braxton Meah (4th year)
2022-23 Stats (per game): 8.8 pts, 6.3 reb, 0.6 ast, 1.6 blk, 70.6% 2pt, 69.0% FT
You can’t teach tall and Braxton Meah had that going back to his time in high school as a 7-footer. He reported offers from Pac-12 schools such as Arizona and Washington but chose to commit to hometown Fresno State as the #235 recruit in the 247 Sports Composite rankings.
That wasn’t exactly a smart decision for playing time because Meah’s arrival coincided with Orlando Robinson’s Fresno tenure. Robinson put up eye popping stats and Fresno’s hesitance playing multiple centers at the same time meant that Meah’s playing time was capped at about 10 minutes per game.
He made the most of it shooting 65% or better from the field but only averaged a few points and rebounds per game. Despite Robinson’s graduation, Meah chose to transfer to Washington following his sophomore year in part due to his strong personal relationship with Quincy Pondexter. The move paid off for Braxton as he unexpectedly earned a starting role over fellow center transfer Franck Kepnang and saw his playing time balloon after Kepnang tore his ACL in the first month of the year. Meah made the Pac-12 all defense team and played his way into legitimate NBA buzz.
Meah is the type of player that has very strong strengths and very weak weaknesses. We’ll start with the weaknesses before focusing mostly on the strengths. Meah is a traditional center who does nothing to stretch the floor in the modern game. He has never attempted a 3-point shot and only took 26 shots outside of the paint last season. His effectiveness on offense is entirely about his game at the rim as well as his ability to set screens.
While Meah is most effective in the paint, he also isn’t the type of player you can just throw an entry pass in to and expect him to score. Meah shot just 47% when posting up last year and turned it over on nearly one-quarter of those attempts. His post moves need a lot of work and he shouldn’t be asked to do anything other than catch the ball and dunk it without needing to take additional dribbles.
The good news is that Meah is very good at dunking the ball. He finished with 82 dunks last year which was the most of any player since the start of the Lorenzo Romar era on Montlake. About one-third of Meah’s shot attempts were dunks and he actually more attempted dunks than attempted free throws.
The free throw element is an underrated one for Meah. He has one of the goofiest deliveries you’ve ever seen with the one handed push shot but it goes in a lot more than it doesn’t which improves one of his biggest weaknesses from his time at Fresno State. If you’re in a close game in the last few minutes you don’t have to feel like the other team can go hack-a-Meah to get a defensive stop.
It will be an interesting change this season to see how Meah takes to a more man-to-man defensive approach. He isn’t an elite shot blocker or rebounder but Meah was still 5th in the Pac-12 in block rate and 10th in defensive rebounding rate.
The numbers agree with the eye test that Meah was better when playing zone last year. He gave up an extra 0.1 points per possessions playing zone versus man which resulted in opponents shooting 35% versus 43% from the field with him as the closest defender. Meah doesn’t have the lateral agility to guard on the perimeter when stuck in switches and UW will have to figure out ways to help him out on that end this season.
We’ll get into Franck Kepnang’s status next but one of the problems for Meah last year was that he was UW’s only viable option at center once Kepnang went down with an ACL tear. That meant he couldn’t afford to pick up fouls and it often neutered his challenge attempts. If Franck is healthy and UW can play one at all times it will be freeing. If not, then Meah has to be extra cautious about fouling.
Expectations for 2023-24
Last year Meah won the starting job over Franck Kepnang when both were totally healthy and so it seems guaranteed he’ll start again with Kepnang’s status uncertain. We didn’t see much in the way of offensive repertoire beyond dunking from Meah last year and I don’t expect he suddenly looks like a dancing bear out there. The hope though is that with better guard play we can see Meah get lob looks or rolls to the basket more often where all he has to do is dunk the ball. That might increase his scoring a little but Washington still just needs him to stretch the defense vertically around the rim and play defense to help this team. Anything else is a bonus.
2023-24 Projected Stats: 7.6 pts, 7.4 reb, 0.6 ast, 1.6 blk, 68.9% 2pt, 62.5% FT
C 6’11 Franck Kepnang (5th year)
2022-23 Stats (per game): 9.0 pts, 6.3 reb, 0.3 ast, 1.9 blk, 52.8% 2pt, 72.7% FT
Coming out of high school Kepnang was a borderline 5-star recruit in the class of 2021. Oregon however was looking for more big man depth and got Kepnang to commit and reclassify in order to join the team for the start of winter quarter. He did what you’d expect for a very young, athletic center: dunked the ball, blocked shots, and committed fouls. Kepnang’s block rate as a freshman would’ve led the conference had he played enough minutes to qualify.
In his sophomore year Kepnang started a few games while N’Faly Dante was injured and got up to 15 minutes per game of playing time. He started to branch out a little more on offense which saw his field goal percentage drop but averaged almost 5 points and over 1 block per game. The rotation at Oregon though got very crowded with Dante, Bittle, and 5-star Kel’el Ware coming in so Kepnang transferred to Washington.
Franck ultimately lost a starting spot battle with Braxton Meah but still was averaging more minutes per game than Meah early on last year. He was on his way to career highs in every statistical category. Then he fell awkwardly in a narrow loss at Oregon State and was diagnosed with a torn ACL. Hopkins said earlier this month that it was 50/50 whether Kepnang would be ready by the time of the first game but Washington badly needs him.
Franck the Tank came by that nickname honestly as he has a clear NBA body. At 6’11 and 250 pounds he looks chiseled and has showed off premium athleticism. It was somewhat perplexing then that Kepnang really struggled to rebound the ball during his time at Oregon. His defensive rebounding rate of 8.5% and 15.2% were more fitting of a 6’6 wing than a muscular nearly 7-footer. That got a little better playing in Washington’s zone at 18% last year and will need to continue to improve to help the Huskies get stops.
Just like with Meah, there are questions about what Kepnang will look like in a fully man-to-man defensive scheme. In 22 defensive possessions last year playing man, Kepnang gave up more than 1.2 points per possessions which would rank in just the 2nd percentile nationally. That trend also showed itself as a sophomore at Oregon playing much better in zone. As a freshman in limited possessions it was the exact opposite with a dominant points per possession mark playing man and worse at zone. With Kepnang coming off an ACL tear though it’s reasonable to think zone would actually be better for him.
No matter the scheme though we should still see Kepnang’s shot blocking ability. He has been at least 8.4% every season in college which would’ve been 3rd in the Pac-12 last year among those qualified. You need to scheme to make sure he doesn’t end up on the perimeter but Kepnang definitely protects the rim at an elite level. That also means Kepnang has committed at least 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes every season so you can’t count on him for 30+ minutes per game which is okay as long as Meah is also available.
We’ve seen growth in Kepnang’s offensive game over time which may not be a good thing. Kepnang is willing to step out and shoot a midrange jumper or try a long hook shot when it’s open but he made just 11 of 29 (38%) of shots outside the paint. It’s valuable to have the threat of a pick and pop opportunity from your big man but the defense is likely happy every time Kepnang opts for a 15-foot jumper instead of going to the basket.
While Meah isn’t comfortable playing with his back to the basket and posting up, Kepnang lives for it. Almost 40% of his offensive possessions last year were post-ups and he made almost 55% of those attempts. Those are solid numbers and demonstrate that it’s reasonable to think you can drop it off to Franck down low and have him get you a bucket. He shot 90% on dunks last year though and 36% on layups so it’s still much preferable to have Kepnang get all the way to the hoop.
Expectations for 2023-24
The big question mark for Kepnang is his health. Will he be available by the beginning of the year? And if so, how close to his old self will he be? The good news is that Kepnang’s strength shouldn’t be too effected by the knee injury but there’s reason to question whether his jumping ability will be the same.
When Kepnang is healthy and available he should be able to fill in for any moment that Meah is off the court. There were brief glimpses of twin towers lineups of both Kepnang and Meah but I’d expect it’s more likely we see some small ball looks with 6’6 Mulcahy, 6’7 Brooks, and 6’8 Wood than that this year. At the very least Kepnang will be a supreme energy shot blocker and offensive rebounder when on the court but the hope is he can get healthy and continue building off some of the progress we saw early last year.
2023-24 Projected Stats: 7.0 pts, 4.6 reb, 0.2 ast, 1.6 blk, 55.6% 2pt, 59.3% FT
PF 6’10 Wilhelm Breidenbach (3rd year), Transfer from Nebraska
2022-23 Stats (per game): 3.6 pts, 2.7 reb, 0.5 ast, 0.3 blk, 48.0% 2pt, 23.4% 3pt, 61.1% FT
Breidenbach graduated from Mike Hopkins’ high school alma mater of Mater Dei in California where he averaged 16 and 8 and was the #105 rated recruit in the country. He ultimately committed to Nebraska over offers from Cal and USC. There was early playing time available and Breidenbach averaged nearly 16 minutes per game as a key reserve before suffering a leg injury on December 7th and missing the rest of the year.
Last year he came back for the start of the season but didn’t see much progress in his role. He appeared in every game getting between 3 and 22 minutes. After the season he opted to transfer and committed to Washington.
You would like to call Breidenbach a stretch 4 but he fits that role in the same way that Hameir Wright earned the description. He certainly doesn’t have a problem with taking 3-pointers. Through 2 seasons about 40% of his career shots have come from the perimeter. Unfortunately he has made only 21% of those attempts. The numbers were a little better when left unguarded at 31% on catch and shoot jumpers but if Breidenbach takes anything other than a wide open 3-pointer then it isn’t really a good look at all.
The results on offense don’t get a lot better for Breidenbach when he moves into the midrange. He made just 4/23 (17%) runners and floaters last season which obviously is not good. If he can actually get the ball at the rim then he is capable of scoring having made 63% of his layups and dunks. He’s able to finish with touch with either hand even though he’s not going to be the guy to slam it on someone’s head.
From a points per possession basis, Breidenbach has graded out as a slightly below average defender. His rebounding numbers are a little lackluster for someone of his size but they’re understandable on offense given that he often is playing on the perimeter. He’s not a very good shot blocker but still commits a ton of fouls which isn’t a great combination.
Breidenbach’s numbers though have actually been pretty okay when he has to defend in space. He graded out above average both closing out on shooters as well as guarding in isolation. Where he runs into problems is getting overpowered in the paint where opponents shot 62% when posting him up. He has the size to play center but from a skillset perspective is more at home playing a power forward role.
Expectations for 2023-24
How much of the court Breidenbach sees this year depends on the health of Franck Kepnang. There hasn’t been a lot of evidence so far that Wilhelm is an above average contributor on a power conference team. He’s not at his best when having to take on the burden of playing center. However if Kepnang isn’t ready to go by the start of the season then Breidenbach becomes the emergency center and will have to be a part of the rotation unless UW goes small with Brooks/Wood sharing center duties.
It’s unclear if Breidenbach is an upgrade over Langston Wilson or Jackson Grant who were forced into action with the injury to Kepnang last year. It will again be in Washington's best interest if Breidenbach can remain the emergency option so I have him appearing in just 23 games assuming he falls out of the rotation in close games with both other centers available.
2023-24 Projected Stats: 1.7 pts, 1.7 reb, 0.1 ast, 0.2 blk, 47.4% 2pt, 25.0% 3pt, 58.3% FT