WSU vs. Gonzaga: Dexter Kernich-Drew comes into his own

Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE

When DaVonte Lacy went down with a knee injury early against Kansas, it created a chance for Dexter Kernich-Drew to shine. With Gonzaga making its way down to Pullman on Wednesday, the Bulldogs better be prepared for the redshirt sophomore from Australia who has made the most of his opportunity.

For a team that was already perilously thin after an offseason that included the dismissal of incumbent point guard Reggie Moore and the non-qualification of Que Johnson, the jewel of the freshman class, we knew going into the season that the loss of any starter for an extended period of time was going to spell trouble for the Cougs. Really, it was just a matter of how big the trouble ended up being.

Turns out, while the loss of DaVonte Lacy to a knee injury for the past two weeks certainly hasn't been good -- you could make a pretty convincing case that if he plays against Texas A&M, we're talking about a team on a four-game win streak -- it also hasn't been as bad as doomsdayers might have first assumed.

That's largely due to the emergence of Dexter Kernich-Drew, who is showing that he just might be ready for a prime role on this team as it rolls towards conference play.

Kernich-Drew was a raw prospect coming out of Melbourne, Australia. Unlike compatriots Aron Baynes and Brock Motum, Kernich-Drew isn't a product of the Australian Institute of Sport, which recruits and trains elite athletes on behalf of the country itself. When combined with a 6-6 frame that looked like it was carrying about 170 pounds, it added up to a redshirt for Kernich-Drew.

After a bit part last year in which he played less than 10 minutes a game, the departures of Moore, Marcus Capers and Faisal Aden meant Kernich-Drew would be counted on to be a key member of the rotation off the bench. He supplied solid production in that regard for the first four games, averaging about 21 minutes and seven points as the first guard off the bench.

That all changed with Lacy's injury, which thrust Kernich-Drew into the starting lineup. And the remarkable thing about the guy fans refer to as DKD is that he's adapted his game to fit the change in role.

Through the first four games, Kernich-Drew essentially was a catch-and-shoot guy: 21 shots (12 of them from 3), three assists, zero turnovers. That made sense playing next to a combination of Lacy, Royce Woolridge and Mike Ladd, all of whom handle the ball a lot more than him.

But check out what's happened in the four games since the injury:

MIN FGA AST TO
EWU, UVU, Pepp, KU 85 21 3 0
TAMU, UAPB, UI, Port 118 38 8 7

Kernich-Drew is taking on a larger share of the offense -- not just in shooting, but in handling the ball, too. And there's really no other way to describe it as anything other than an unqualified success: His offensive rating (what's offensive rating?) for the season is all the way up to 114, a superlative mark. The fascinating thing is that he's done it without really shooting all the well from outside, as he's hit on just 33 percent of his 36 threes.

While I'm as ecstatic as you are that Kernich-Drew is producing at the level he is, I'm going to tell you why you probably want to temper your enthusiasm a little bit -- then I'll bring it back around to being excited again. Don't worry, I'm not trying to be all Debbie Downer here.

There are two things driving his efficiency: An exceptionally high percentage from two and an extremely low turnover rate (for a guard). It's unlikely that both of those things continue at their current rate, given the increase in workload and impending increase in competition level.

Kernich-Drew is shooting 16-of-23 from inside the arc so far this season, a blistering 70 percent. That's stratospheric territory for big men, let alone guards who often see their two-point percentage suffer from taking midrange (and consequently lower percentage) shots. Even Capers, who never seemed to do anything but dunk, couldn't exceed 60 percent on twos for a season. Yet here's Kernich-Drew, with his array of pull-up jumpers, having missed just 7 of 23 attempts in eight games.

As for the turnovers, Kernich-Drew's season turnover rate of 12% is awesome -- just a little more than half of what you'd expect from a guard who handles the ball with regularity. But the key is that last part -- you can see from the table above that taking care of the ball has been more difficult as Kernich-Drew has handled it more. Given that his turnover rate last year was over 20%, I'd say we're due to see this increasing trend continue.

Frankly, he's going to regress in both of these areas at some point. It's just a matter of when. And when it does, his efficiency is going to suffer.

Unless! -- and this is the caveat -- he picks up another part of his game. And his outside shooting would seem to be a real natural place for that to occur. He came to WSU with a reputation as a shooter, and he's got a beautiful stroke. It seems reasonable to me to assume he's capable of eventually getting that mark up around 38 percent this season. If that happens, it should offset most of an expected drop in two-point percentage and increase in turnover rate.

It also would help if Kernich-Drew would get to the line with greater regularity when he's around the basket. His percentage of free throw attempts to field goal attempts is the lowest on the team outside of Brett Boese (20 percent), and while his wiry frame dictates that he'll likely never be a bowling-ball to the cup a la Moore, if he can somehow get that mark up around a Thompson-esque 35 percent, that also would help him maintain his current efficient production. I definitely think it's possible, as Kernich-Drew has been putting the ball on the floor with a purpose the last few games, repeatedly getting to the rim -- especially against Idaho, where he had seven field goal attempts and six free throw attempts. He'll need more of that.

But even if he can't improve those two areas (remember, he's still just a sophomore -- tons of room to continue to develop), it's clear that Kernich-Drew's development has taken a major step forward to the point that he can be counted on to be a significant contributor to the team's success. The impending return of Lacy -- perhaps as soon as Wednesday night -- will only make Kernich-Drew better as he focuses on what he does best: Score.

In a season that appeared to be spiraling to a bad place after three consecutive losses, Dexter Kernich-Drew has been a major bright spot.

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