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Woof: Washington Adds Kentucky PG Wheeler

One of the top passers in college basketball is headed to the Huskies

Texas A&M v Kentucky Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Washington helped fill what was the biggest remaining hole on the Husky roster by receiving a commitment today from Kentucky transfer point guard Sahvir Wheeler who just announced the move live on Youtube. The diminutive PG averaged 7.7 points and 5.6 assists last season for the Wildcats and has one year of eligibility remaining as a grad transfer.

The 5’9 Wheeler is certainly well traveled in his life although this will be the first time he’s called anywhere on the West coast home. He was born in New York but went to high school in Texas before committing to the University of Georgia as the #100 overall recruit per the 247 Sports Composite. Wheeler started from day one in Athens but had his best statistical season for the Bulldogs as a sophomore when he averaged 14.0 points and 7.4 assists per game. That assist total was 5th in the country and 1st among players on power conference teams.

Upon transferring to Kentucky, Wheeler started in a backcourt alongside highly rated freshman TyTy Washington where Sahvir averaged 10.1 points and this time finished 3rd nationally in assists per game with 6.9 . He helped Kentucky earn a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament before they were infamously upset by #15 seed Saint Peter’s.

This year Wheeler didn’t hit the same stride playing alongside freshman Cason Wallace and the Wildcats had their best win of the year, at Tennessee, when Wheeler didn’t play due to injury. After that one game absence Wheeler came off the bench and scored just 3 points per game upon his return. He then injured his ankle and missed the final 11 games of the season before entering the portal. Kentucky fans were quick to blame Wheeler for many of the team’s struggles (including doubts about whether the ankle injury was actually season-ending) although Kentucky finished just 6-5 after he went out for the year.

Wheeler is one of the most unique players in the country with a very specific set of strengths and weaknesses. He has to be considered one of the more prolific passers in the sport. In his 4 seasons so far Wheeler has finished 76th, 11th, 19th, and 24th nationally in assist rate. His 2 seasons at Kentucky he combined to average 6.4 assists against just 2.5 turnovers. Wheeler will instantly be the best passer the Huskies have had since one of Wheeler’s idols (Isaiah Thomas) last played for Washington.

That has been a badly missing skillset for a Husky team that under Hopkins has perennially been one of the worst in the country creating ball movement and assists. In his end-of-season press conference Hop said one of the priorities for next year was cutting down on turnovers and from that standpoint adding Wheeler makes a ton of sense.

Obviously something has to give for a player with that passing skill to still be in college for their 5th season. For Wheeler the primary problem on offense is his lack of shooting. He shot a career high 36.6% from deep this past season but on fewer than 2 attempts per game as a primary ball handler. For his career Wheeler is just 29% overall from behind the 3-point line. He also hit a career low at the free throw line at 53% this season despite career 71% totals. It's most likely given the sample sizes to expect something closer to 30% from 3 and 70% from the FT line than last year's percentages.

Despite standing 5’9 Wheeler still has the capability of getting to the basket. This year Wheeler struggled somewhat in that regard but as a junior he hit 62% on close 2’s and his elite first step allows him to penetrate and either get to the basket or dish it off to a big for a dunk. He is exceptional at fully extending his arm for layups high off the glass which prevent bigger defenders from blocking his shot. For his career Wheeler has shot 56% on close 2’s which is a good number for a player Wheeler’s size. For context, Isaiah Thomas hit about 63% in college on close 2’s but was a much more accomplished scorer overall.

Wheeler’s problem inside the arc is still shooting as he also struggles mightily from the midrange making just 32% on 2’s outside the paint. Having a point guard who has to get to the rim or pass the ball to provide any value isn’t the easiest thing to work around even if he is a truly prolific passer.

Defense also has to be a concern for a player of Wheeler’s size. He is certainly short for college basketball but he’s fairly compact at a well-built 180 pounds which helps him not get completely pushed around. Unsurprisingly, he’s not much help as a rebounder but that’s true for most point guards. He has never played in a full-time zone defense before and we’ll see if that helps protect Wheeler somewhat on that end.

Wheeler’s points per possession defensive numbers per Synergy were actually above average as a sophomore/junior before dipping this past season. Wheeler’s at his best defending the pick and roll where his agility can keep him step for step with opposing guards as opposed to having taller players shoot over the top of him.

Any time you’re adding a player that had a bit of a rocky end from their previous situation you have to make sure you do your due diligence. Wheeler will be the 3rd Kentucky transfer the Huskies have added during Hop’s tenure (Quade Green and Keion Brooks Jr). And fortunately he was teammates with Brooks Jr. in Lexington during the 2021-22 season. You can be certain that Hop and the coaching staff spoke with Brooks at length about whether Wheeler would be a fit on this roster and that he gave the sign-off.

With Wheeler in the fold I’m expecting this to be the last truly major addition for the 2022-23 roster. The Huskies could still use a depth guard and center in case of injury (they’ve reportedly got a gem from Cameroon on campus starting tonight) but it’s unlikely at this point they are able to bring in someone who actually leapfrogs the top-8 guys. There are 3 scholarships technically available though and we’ll see what the staff can do. My current expectation for the rotation looks like this:

Starters: G Wheeler, G Johnson, F Wood, F Brooks, C Meah

Rotation: G Yates, G/F Holland, C Kepnang

Bench: G/F King, F Ariyibi

If Yates shows up and is impossible to keep off the court from day one then I personally like the idea of bringing Koren off the bench even if he’ll often finish games on the court. He brings an energy and intensity that is a good change of pace. Plus, Koren’s pressure defense tends to pick up a lot of fouls so it protects him from having to worry quite as much about that.

Otherwise, a pair of Wheeler/Johnson/Yates will likely be on the court at all times in major competition. Holland though is capable of playing shooting guard and also will likely be the backup small forward when Wood or Brooks sits (with Wood shifting to PF when Brooks is out). As long as he’s healthy Kepnang will play almost every minute that Meah sits but it would be nice to have one more center option just in case both are in foul trouble.

This is a roster that is likely better than the one that saw the court for most of last season (due to injuries) but probably a little worse than what we would have seen with a fully healthy Williams and Kepnang. If Kepnang is close to his normal production then the backup center spot is massively upgraded.

It’s reasonable to think that at the very least the duo of Holland/Wood will be even with the production of Bajema/Bey although with some risk involved given both are moving up a level of competition. Can Wheeler/Yates give more than Menifield/Williams/Fuller alongside Koren Johnson at guard? It’s possible though not necessarily likely.

Wheeler isn’t an absolutely perfect fit on this roster but bringing in additional proven shooters through the portal to space the floor better for Wheeler definitely helps. Wheeler’s court vision should put a lot of stress on defenses with Braxton Meah or Franck Kepnang always on the court serving as an elite lob threat.

Welcome, Sahvir!