So, the news came down in the last 48 hours that Xavier Thames, Anthony Brown and (almost certainly) Mike Harthun will all be leaving the basketball program for various reasons. And while it's not uncommon for this sort of thing to happen to a program when it suffers a coaching change and possesses so many young players, it still comes as a little bit of a shock to the system when a guy you don't expect -- and in fact are planning on playing an integral role moving forward -- leaves the program.
And while I've heard it played off that losing Thames isn't that big of a deal, I'm here to tell you that it is a big deal. At least for now.
Let's start with the obvious: He was our only competent, Pac-10 caliber backup point guard on the roster. This causes an immediate void in the rotation. Some have suggested that some combination of Marcus Capers/Faisal Aden/John Allen could hold down the fort, and while that might be true, that's hardly ideal.Capers proved last year he's just not sure-handed enough to handle the ball regularly, and while there's a strong likelihood that will improve between now and the beginning of the season because he seems to be as hard a worker as anyone, I'm not holding my breath that he'll ever improve enough to make me comfortable with him bringing the ball up the floor and initiating the offense. Besides, this arrangement takes him away from what he does best on offense, which is move without the ball. Essentially, you're making two positions on the floor weaker when he's at the point.
As for Aden? Raise your hand if you've ever seen him play. We can deduce a few things by looking at his junior college stats: 22.9 points, 3.3 assists, 4.2 turnovers, 32.9 percent 3-point percentage. You know what all that says to me? Aden was the best guy on his team and had the ball in his hands all the time. I think the only thing we can truly learn from those numbers is that given that 3-point percentage, Aden can put the ball in the basket off the bounce (unless he's an exceptionally good midrange jumpshooter). As for reliably handling the ball? Who knows? Those turnovers don't look good, but again, he was likely dominating the ball against inferior competition. Is it possible he could be more sure handed if need be? It's possible. But we just don't know.
Of this trio, I actually think Allen possesses the most potential as a backup point guard. His story is an interesting one, and if not for some eligibility issues in high school, he likely would have been at a solid mid-major straight out of school. The interesting thing about having him on the floor this year was that he certainly wasn't a net negative when he was out there. He didn't turn the ball over -- in 43 minutes this year, he had just two -- and defended competently as near as I can tell. But while he's not your typical walk-on, the fact remains that he's still a Pac-10 walk-on, and he represents a clear step down in talent if he takes Thames' 10 minutes a game at the point.
Additionally, it's not like handling the ball was Thames' only skill. In fact, his total skill set is one that simply doesn't exist on the rest of the roster.
Offensively, he possessed a jumper that was effective from 15 feet on out to 3-point range, and only a seemingly uncharacteristic cold spell from beyond the arc dragged his effective field goal percentage down to where it finished (44.7). As it was, he only finished with a slightly below average offensive rating (95.3). That's not just excellent promise for a freshman -- that's actually pretty good production for a backup guard.
Defensively, I think you could make a pretty convincing argument that Thames was the team's best defender. He might not possess the spectacular on-ball play that Capers can flash from time to time, but you didn't have to look to hard to understand why Tony Bennett loved this guy. He's fairly long, fundamentally sound on the ball, and exceptional in terms of understanding the team defensive concept for a freshman. It's not a coincidence that the team often looked better down the stretch this season when he was on the floor.
And that's where this loss becomes impactful to me. I think there was a very real chance that with more offensive firepower in the backcourt that Thames actually saw his minutes increase and Reggie Moore's minutes decrease. Last season, Bone had to leave Moore on the floor because there just wasn't enough offensive production from the other positions. But with Aden and Simon coming in and with the strides you would expect everyone else to make between this year and next, I think there was a chance that if Moore didn't get significantly better defensively his minutes were going to decrease. I truly believe Thames was going to push Moore this season.
Unless there's a guy out there that Bone can bring in who can handle the ball competently and defend with some length on the perimeter, Thames' loss will be felt.
Of course, that's the caveat, and why I said "for now" earlier. Big Wood said in a comment that backup point guards grow on trees, and while that's obviously an exaggeration -- I'm pretty sure even he would tell you that -- the point is well taken that it's a lot easier to find a guy with Thames' skill set than finding a 6-10, 250-pound body to play next to DeAngelo Casto. That's not to say it's easy, but relatively speaking, it's not even in the same ballpark.
So, in that respect, I'll reserve judgment as to whether losing Thames ends up becoming a big problem. If there's anything we learned from Ken Bone picking up Moore and Steven Bjornstad last year, the guy is not going to be caught off guard. There's no doubt in my mind that he's been actively recruiting guys for months, and that he's got some guys on his radar. And it would be worth remembering that those guys might not be on Cougfan.com's radar, just as Moore and Aden weren't.
As for the losses of Brown and Harthun? I think if we had taken a poll at the end of the year as to who we all would guess were leaving, those two would have been at the top of the list. Brown looked like he never was going to amount to much more than an end-of-the-bench guy, although it's awful tough to say having never really seen him in a game. But we can deduce that Bone never really envisioned him as more than that, either, given that they blew his redshirt for less that 10 total minutes this season.
Harthun, on the other hand? After watching him fail to bring much of anything positive to the table for two years, it was fairly certain he never was going to be the guy we all hoped when he signed two years ago. A lot of people forget that he was the original jewel of that class, not Klay Thompson. But his shooting never lived up to the reputation, and it was painfully clear that he lacked the footspeed to play Bone's style. He also appeared to suffer from confidence issues, which is never good for a guy whose main value stemmed from his shooting.
I always held out hope that Harthun could become a useful player -- and by "useful" I mean like 10-15 minutes a night, come in and bang a couple of 3s. However, my sense has always been that Harthun fancied himself more than a "useful" part-time player, so his leaving makes sense, and I don't find it any great loss. If, in two years, a guy doesn't show you much of anything to convince you he's a Pac-10 level player, he's probably not.
I wish all these guys the best of luck. But like I said, unless we pick up another guy similar to Thames, I think there's no choice but to consider his leaving a net loss for the team this upcoming season.