Dancing Football started a great discussion about UW's Isaiah Thomas last night, and during the discussion TrueCoug asked how the Cougs have done against similar talents in the Pac-10 this year. Johnnycougar posted a fairly lengthy response, but I want to focus on just a few guys and how we've performed against them.
(Fair warning -- this is long.)
The most logical comparison would be a pair of point guards of similar stature: Cal's Jerome Randle and Arizona's Nic Wise. Both are a little taller (5-10) than Thomas (5-8), but at around the same weight, it's comparable. Here's how the Cougs have done against the trio:
What can we learn from this? At first blush, really only one thing -- that we're much better against Randle and Wise when they're not shooting well. Randle settled for a lot of outside shots against the Cougs so it was kind of an all-or-nothing proposition, while Wise used his outside shot to set up his drives in the second game and get to the line.
This presents a problem when looking at Thomas, because he was able to be effective without shooting the ball particularly well overall, although he did start out hot in the game. Even as he started to miss shots, he still was able to get into the lane far too frequently, and still was able to do considerable damage despite missing a fair amount of jumpers.
Perhaps we're making too big of an assumption based on height about how similar these guys are. Here are some other peripheral stats for comparison (national rank in parentheses; for an explanation of what each of these stats mean, read here):
Here's what I see: Three guys who share some similarities, but in reality are pretty vastly different players.
Randle is easily the best all-around point guard in the Pac-10, not dominating the ball but still getting his. He prefers to do his scoring from the outside (as evidenced by the percentage of his shots taken from beyond the arc) but isn't afraid to go inside (as evidenced by his free throw rate and fouls drawn per 40 minutes). He's also a great distributor, as evidenced by his great assist rate.
Wise? He's more of your pass-first point guard. He's an efficient scorer and he'll take an open shot if it's there, but he's third on the Wildcats in percentage of possessions used and shots taken. Surprisingly -- despite his quickness -- he doesn't spend a lot of time trying to get to the basket (as evidenced by his low free throw rate and fouls drawn), preferring instead to set up teammates.
Thomas? He completely breaks the mold. At 5-8 you'd think he'd have to play more like these other two guys, but nothing could be farther from the truth. He dominates the ball. He's not a good shooter, and in fact doesn't take that many outside shots. He makes his living in the lane -- and not the way you'd think a 5-8 guy would. When he ventures into the key, he's only one thing on his mind: Scoring, either with a bucket or at the free throw line.
For that reason, you have to defend him totally differently than Randle and Wise, whom the Cougars had reasonable success against at least once each. I think style, rather than stature, is a better way to go about figuring out how to stop Thomas. To that end, here's the player I think Thomas is most like, the guy who gives us the biggest clue as to how we might contend with this guy:
That's right. Five-foot-8 Isaiah Thomas is most like this 6-foot-4 all-American. Why? Consider how these key stats compare (team rank in parentheses):
Without question, Harden is a better player than Thomas. But equally without question is that their games are very, very similar. Both shoot the 3 just enough to keep defenders honest, but both really make their living getting into the lane and drawing contact. In fact, they don't just draw contact -- they initiate it.
It might seem like an odd strategy for a guy who's 5-foot-8 to go into defenders, but if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. First of all, Thomas may lack height, but he certainly does not lack strength. And if you're not tall enough to get off a clean shot over guys most of the time, at least get enough of an advantage to draw a foul. Thomas is quick enough to get defenders out of position, but in an effort to make up for the disadvantage, defenders will try to stay close, eventually hacking or bumping him, which he can take because he's far from slight.
So how do you defend a guy like that? Essentially, this whole post was one long-winded way to say that I totally agree with Dancing Football's premise on Tuesday night: LENGTH. The reason length works is that it allows defenders to not have to stay so close to the offensive player, yet still be able to bother the shot, whether on jumpers or drives.
Think about how Harden was more or less neutralized in the first upset win over ASU. He was destroying the Cougs, with nine free throw attempts through the first 24 minutes of the game. Bennett put DeAngelo Casto on him, and the rest was history. He did have five more free throw attempts the rest of that game, but generally settled for jump shots rather than contend with Casto's considerable wing span.
In the rematch on Saturday, Harden did have 10 more free throw attempts, but eight of them came in the last 10 minutes -- one in a one-and-one situation away from the basket and three on the final jump shot foul of regulation. Again, he was guarded primarily by Casto, but also 6-foot-6 Klay Thompson and even at times 6-foot-6 Nik Koprivica.
So, back to Thomas. How might length have changed the first matchup? Thomas actually didn't shoot a lot of free throws in that game until the end of the game. He did most of his damage early in that game from outside -- Taylor Rochestie, who guarded him throughout most of that contest, was so obsessed with trying to contain his penetration that Thomas had the space to shoot repeatedly. Once he knocked down a couple, Rochestie (at 6-1) had to tighten up, and penetration was inevitable. That allowed Thomas to destroy the Cougars' pack defense and left Justin Dentmon wide open to kill us from outside.
This time around, expect Thomas to get a healthy dose of primarly Marcus Capers (6-4) and probalby even some Thompson.
Capers is probably the best option because he possesses the best combination of length and quickness. There is precedent for Capers guarding smaller, quicker players as well -- he spent a considerable amount of time guarding Nic Wise the second time around. Now, Wise had his way with Capers at times, mostly because Capers allowed Wise to get into his body; Wise would turn the corner, wait for Capers to catch up, then jump into him -- a classic Thomas move. If Capers stays disciplined, concentrating on staying in front of his man and staying on the floor as much as possible, he could be very effective at harassing Thomas. If he loses discipline ... it could get ugly, since Capers isn't as quick as Rochestie, no matter how you slice it.
Thompson also could do a nice job here. We all know Klay to be an unbelievably mature and cerebral player, and he is expert at moving his feet, staying in front, and just using his length to bother people. He doesn't foul a lot no matter who he's guarding -- just 2.5 fouls called per 40 minutes (14th in the Pac-10).
This frees up Rochestie to just stick with Justin Dentmon, who shoots about 43 percent of his attempts from 3-point range. Teams that purpose to keep Dentmon in front of them -- and few people in the Pac-10 are better at that than Rochestie -- as well as limit the penetration of Thomas for the purpose of wide-open kick-outs to Dentmon can limit the Huskies guards' impact on the game in a way the Cougs couldn't the first time around.
The reality is, you're not going to stop these guys. But if you can contain them each to a degree -- forcing them to take tough shots, because they're going to shoot no matter what -- the Cougs stand a good chance of winning this game.