NCAA Weekly Performers, 2/4/09

NCAA Weekly Performers, 2/4/09
Feb 04, 2009, 02:00 am
Three Big East players and one ACC big man get the nod in this edition's NCAA Weekly Performers. Louisville's Terrence Williams, Marquette's Jerel McNeal, and Villanova's Dante Cunningham are joined by Georgia Tech's Gani Lawal.

Terrence Williams, 6-6, Senior, Shooting Guard, Louisville
13.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.4 turnovers, 2.3 steals, .8 blocks, 44% FG, 36% 3P, 60% FT

Jonathan Givony

Fresh off seeing their 9-game winning streak snapped at home by #1 one ranked UConn last night, there is regardless still plenty of reasons to discuss the play of the Louisville Cardinals and their star player, Terrence Williams.

Williams has rebounded from a slow start (likely due to the torn meniscus injury he hurried back from) to post career best numbers in virtually every statistical category this season. On a per-minute pace-adjusted basis, Williams’ scoring rate is up, as is his 2-point percentage, 3-point percentage, free throw percentage, free throw attempts, rebounding, assists and steals. His turnover rate is down and he’s relying less heavily on his 3-point shooting than ever before.

What makes Williams unique from an NBA draft standpoint is the incredible versatility he displays at the wing position. He rebounds the ball at an outrageous rate (10.6 boards per-40), distributes the ball better than many NCAA point guards (5.3 assists per-40), sports an assist to turnover ratio nearing 2/1, and gets in the passing lanes about as well as any wing player in college basketball (2.7 steals per-40). Simply put, there isn’t another player in this draft who fills up the stat-sheet quite as well as Terrence Williams.

His physical attributes have been covered in his profile repeatedly—needless to say, he’s everything you look for in an NBA wing prospect and then some. It’s traditionally been his inability to score that has raised the most question marks about his draft stock. Starting from where we last left off, Williams is relying less on his perimeter shot this year than he historically has, and is hitting the jumpers he does take at a slightly better rate. He’s become fairly decent with his feet set (although awful shooting off the dribble), not being quite as inconsistent as he once was with his release point, and displaying better shot selection.

While he is unlikely to ever develop into a great shooter in the NBA, he seems to be making strides towards respectability. Doing a better job of not shooting the ball on the way down, and concentrating on getting proper arc underneath his shot and not line-driving his jumpers will help him cut down on the terrible bricks that are still very much part of his game from time to time. Improving on his horrific free throw percentage (just 60%) would go a long ways as well.

As a slasher, Williams is still mostly a mixed bag. He’s getting to the free throw line at a slightly better rate this season, but still isn’t nearly as prolific a shot-creator as you might expect considering his physical tools. Part of that has to do with his ball-handling skills, as Williams is very poor dribbling with his left hand, and even with his right he often looks out of control and is unable to get all the way to the rim in the half-court, making him fairly turnover prone. He often prefers to shoot a floater in the lane or drive and dish (sometimes in highlight reel fashion) rather than taking an extra step and trying to draw contact at the basket, and really isn’t as good of a finisher in non-transition situations as you might think considering his strength/length and freakish explosiveness.

The irony here is that he’s a slam-dunk contest participant-type leaper/dunker in the open floor, but he isn’t really able to show that part of his game in Louisville’s set offense. Playing in a more wide-open setting (although faster this season, Louisville is still quite a slow-paced team) and developing a more aggressive mentality for taking the ball hard strong would likely benefit him, and there is a chance that he can work on this in the NBA.

Defensively, Williams shows outstanding potential, and he is obviously already a big part of what many people consider to be the best defensive team in the NCAA. His physical attributes are ideal—showing great size, length, strength and lateral quickness, to go along with a tough-nosed mentality that is crucial for getting stops. He will likely be able to defend multiple positions at the NBA level, being capable of switching on screens onto point guards or forwards without too much of a problem—doing a great job staying in front of his man on the perimeter.

At times he seems to lose focus, but he’s so fast that he can typically close out and recover on his matchup without too much of an issue. As mentioned, he gets in the passing lanes at a terrific rate, and is one of the best defensive rebounders you’ll find at the wing position in the last 10 years of college basketball, putting to shame what players like Grant Hill, Andre Iguodala and Josh Howard did before entering the NBA.

Williams has done a better job with some of the bigger issues he suffered earlier on in his career—shot-selection, decision making and incredible inconsistency from game to game and often possession to possession—but he’s not quite out of the clear yet. His basketball IQ still has a ways to go before catching up with his terrific physical tools, but the fact that he is very young for his draft class leaves some room for optimism in this regard. Williams won’t turn 22 until a few days after the draft, making him the same age as some college juniors.

There is no question that Williams is the type of athlete and defender who can easily play 10 years or more in the NBA considering the many different things he brings to the table. The question is whether he can become reliable enough offensive player to be more than just a solid rotation type, which is exactly what NBA teams will try to figure out this spring.

Jerel McNeal, 6-3, Senior, Shooting Guard, Marquette
19.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.6 turnovers, 2 steals, 49% FG, 75% FT, 46.5% 3P

Scott Nadler

The Marquette Golden Eagles are one of the surprise teams in college basketball this season, as they are currently ranked 8th in the nation and 1st in the Big East, with an 8-0 record in conference play. A good amount of their success can be attributed to the play of senior guard Jerel McNeal. McNeal’s off the charts shooting and stellar defense has made Marquette a team to be reckoned with, and has made him a legitimate Big East Player of the Year candidate.

McNeal has shot the ball at an unprecedented rate this year. He’s averaging a touch under 20 points a game with a true shooting percentage of 61% and is connecting on 50% of his 2-point attempts. His 46% from 3-point range, though, good for 10th in the country, is the most staggering stat for McNeal as he was only a 30% 3 point shooter just last season. Not only is he making shots at an incredible rate at the moment, he’s also incredibly prolific from beyond the arc, at 2.5 makes per game (up from just 1 last season).It’s going to be interesting to see if he can keep up this hot shooting or if he’ll eventually cool off and come back down to earth.

Nonetheless, he has certainly shown much improvement and it’s difficult to imagine his numbers dropping anywhere near last year’s marks. He has a very quick release, as he doesn’t appear to dip the ball at all. Off a stand still dribble, he has the ability to pick up the ball and go into his shot all in one motion – making it difficult to even contest, and he’s become incredibly accurate with his feet set. He also shows great balance when spotting up, as he catches the ball on a two foot jump stop with his feet under him at all times. He barely elevates in these two instances but it hasn’t affected his ability to get his shot off.

When he’s forced to put the ball on the ground and pull-up, he has a tendency to force shots. He kicks his legs out on occasion and also fades away often because of his 6”3 frame – making for difficult attempts. His pull-up jumper isn’t falling at quite the outrageous rate that his spot-up jumper is, but it still goes in at a respectable rate.

In transition, McNeal is extremely athletic with the ball and has no problems leading a break and beating defenders down the court. In the half court however, he isn’t able to utilize his athleticism quite as effectively. He doesn’t display a lot of moves advanced off the dribble like hesitations or stutter steps. He likes to turn the corner on pick and rolls, put his head down and attack which gets him a decent amount of free throw attempts. His ball handling skills are good, but must still improve for the next level. With that said, he has improved his ability to drive left considerably as last season he favored his right hand significantly. Certainly not a one-dimensional shooter, McNeal is doing a very good job scoring efficiently from all over the court this season.

While McNeal posts a decent 1.45 A/TO ratio, he doesn’t display great court vision. He’s a scorer first and foremost and often has his head down with the mindset to put the ball in the basket. Considering how often he handles the ball however, with McNeal accounting for almost 23% of his team’s offensive possessions, his 3 turnovers per 40 pace adjusted is not very high. He’s managed to cut down on his turnovers substantially over the past two seasons, which is a very good sign.

On the defensive end is where he thrives. He’s long and bouncy, always on the balls of his feet looking to make a play, but rarely jeopardizing his team. He plays very tight defense, getting into his man, which forces opponents to put the ball on the ground and be funneled into that great Marquette help. Off the ball he can get caught watching it and lose sight of his man. In addition, he hasn’t quite figured out how to get through screens on a consistent basis. He likes to cheat through screens instead of tagging a player and can get hung up as a result.

McNeal is a 6’3” natural two guard,which in past has discouraged scouts to a certain extent. In McNeal’s case however, with his spectacular shooting this year, he’s impossible to ignore. In a league where you can never have too many shooters and with his toughness and ability to defend, he’s going to draw some very long looks considering his play at the highest level of college basketball this season. If McNeal can keep playing this well leading into the postseason, he’s going to be very difficult for NBA teams to ignore, possibly even in the first round.

Dante Cunningham, 6-8, Senior, Power Forward, Villanova
16.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1 assist, 1.8 turnovers, 1.7 steals, 1.5 blocks, 55% FG, 72% FT

Joey Whelan

After three unassuming years in the city of brotherly love, Dante Cunningham is finally having his breakout season at Villanova. The senior out of Silver Spring, Maryland has been the focal point of a four headed offensive attack that has pushed the Wildcats to a number 17 ranking in the latest AP Polls. For his part, Cunningham is posting career bests in every major statistical category and has reduced his turnovers from a year ago.

As an undersized frontcourt player on a relatively undersized ‘Nova team, Cunningham gets the bulk of his touches on the block and in the paint. When watching tape, it quickly becomes evident that when posting up he almost always turns to his left shoulder and relies heavily on a fall away jumper. While this is a fairly effective move for Cunningham, it makes his back to the basket game somewhat predictable for defenders. Despite showing nice footwork and good instincts getting his shot off at the college level, it’s difficult to envision his post-game translating quite that effectively to the next level due to his average combination of size, bulk and explosiveness.

Where the power forward is more likely to make his living in the NBA is with his continually developing mid-range game. Cunningham had proven to be a real threat to catch and shoot from 15-feet this season, connecting on about 50% of these shot attempts according to Synergy Sports Technology. He has good shooting form, with a smooth steady release. At this time, his range appears to be limited to foul line extended shots, so he would go a long to helping himself by extending his range a few more feet. The improvement he has made in the last year to this aspect of his game gives at least some indication that he is capable of doing this.

Making him even more of a headache at the collegiate level and potentially enticing as a pro prospect is how well Cunningham moves without the basketball. He doesn’t simply set up camp on the high post looking for the basketball, but rather will flash from the low post, dive down from the perimeter, or rotate behind a play. Clearly, the senior has a good basketball IQ, as well as the hands and length to be an effective finisher.

The biggest struggles facing Cunningham offensively largely stem from his physical limitations. While he shows decent quickness, he is an average athlete at best for an NBA power forward. He also doesn’t appear to be completely confident as a ball-handler, which limits his ability to face the basket at the moment. The most important thing Cunningham will need to work to improve on in order to stick in the NBA, though, is his rebounding. While 9 rebounds per 40 minutes pace adjusted isn’t terrible, it could and certainly should be higher. Currently he doesn’t rank anywhere near the top of the list for that category as compared to the other power forwards in our database, and considering the complimentary role he’ll likely play in the NBA if he is to make it, he would be best served trying to become much more productive in this area.

With all of that said though, Cunningham is a tremendously active player who brings a lot of hustle to the court; this is pretty evident on the defensive side of the ball. He is constantly on the move looking to make things happen and has shown both solid anticipation and great timing. Cunningham’s lateral quickness is good enough that he is able to step away from the basket and cover perimeter players without being a liability to his team, and in fact forces a fair number of turnovers with his on the ball pressure.

Cunningham’s game certainly has several question marks pertaining to the next level. Will his average size and athleticism hinder him? Can he extend his range out to 18-20 feet and be a consistent floor-spacer? Can he rebound well enough to justify his minutes on the court? Can he consistently guard his position? There is also plenty of intrigue to his game as well. Certainly his high energy level, constant hustle, Big East productivity and basketball IQ will earn him more than a handful of looks from scouts. The fact that he’s improved so much over the past year, and is still only 21 years old, could mean that he hasn’t reached his full potential just yet. If he can make the necessary improvements to his game, Cunningham is certainly capable of impressing enough in individual workouts to land somewhere in the later part of the second round, or to earn a roster spot in training camp. If not, he will likely have a long and productive career playing overseas.

Gani Lawal, 6’8, Power Forward, Sophomore, Georgia Tech
16.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 2.7 turnovers, 1.4 blocks, 56% FG, 55% FT

Joseph Treutlein

One of the more improved prospects in the country as far as production goes, Gani Lawal is having a strong season for the Yellow Jackets, leading his struggling team in scoring, rebounding, and field-goal percentage, while more than doubling his production from last season. The 6’8 athletic power forward’s offensive role has expanded, and while he still would be described as raw in many areas, he’s shown improvement in quite a few from last season. There are not many players in college basketball who offer his combination of length, athleticism and activity level at the power forward position, which makes it fairly easy to envision him developing into a useful complimentary NBA player as he develops down the road.

Looking at his post game, Lawal has a multitude of problems right now, but also shows flashes of great promise at times. The area Lawal is lacking the most in right now is instincts and overall comfort level, something that’s seen clearly in back-to-the-basket situations, especially when opposing teams crowd the center of the court and offer weak-side help on him. He seems to get flustered in these situations, leading to some strange decisions, turning into double teams, getting confused with his footwork, forcing low percentage shots, etc.

Lawal’s footwork on the block is certainly a problem area, but in analyzing his game closely, it appears a lot of his struggles are on the mental side of the game, as when he gets the ball in rhythm and/or with his defender isolated on an island in the post, he actually has shown nimble feet, quick decisions, and crisp post moves at times. When the game gets slowed down and defenses collapse, however, those results are a rare occurrence.

Looking at the rest of his offensive game, Lawal is clearly a work in progress, as his face-up game is highly unreliable, specifically his mid-range jumper (as evidenced by his poor 55% FT shooting). The form on his jump shot is very inconsistent, his form is all over the place, he’s prone to pulling the string, drifting his arm to the right, he holds his guiding hand up too long, leading to poorly aimed shots, his balance is usually off, he fades away unnecessarily, and he just generally lacks touch. Working on this area of his game should be a very high priority, as adding a reliable 15-foot jumper would make him a much more dynamic player and very much ease his transition to the next level.

Lawal isn’t much of an off-the-dribble, face-up player at this stage either, however he’s excellent attacking the rim on cuts or on the offensive glass, showing a very high motor and always getting himself into good position. Lawal’s rebounding in general is vastly improved from last season, up a remarkable 4.4 rebounds per 40 minutes pace adjusted (from 7.6 to 12.0), placing him just inside the top 25 in our database. On cuts and the offensive glass, Lawal’s hands and touch are a bit inconsistent, and it sometimes leads to him not being able to smoothly catch-and-finish, preventing him from taking full advantage of his athleticism in stride.

On the defensive end, Lawal is a pesky post defender, using his body and length well, playing a physical and fairly fundamentally sound game, however he’s prone to giving up too much position at times, as he could probably use a little more lower body and base strength. On the perimeter, while Lawal is both active and attentive, he gives up too much space to compensate for his lack of a strong defensive stance, and can be taken off the dribble as well. It’s tough to judge his lateral quickness given his fundamental deficiencies, but he does show flashes of keeping up with guards off pick-and-roll switches at times, leading us to believe his lateral quickness would be a strength if properly honed.

Looking towards the future, Lawal is still very much a work in progress, but the learning curve he’s shown this season is definitely very encouraging. He will likely be tempted to put his name in the draft this season, especially with Derrick Favors arriving on campus next season, however his game would likely greatly benefit from another season in college, and it’s hard to see him being an impact NBA player in the short term future, even though he clearly has excellent potential.

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