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Kyle Smith’s plan to rebuild WSU basketball? Start by finding some nerds

The new WSU coach will use a blend of traditional scouting and analytics to construct the next winner in Pullman.

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PULLMAN — Someday soon, Kyle Smith’s office will look like any other office. It’ll have pictures of favorite memories adorning the walls, mementos from years gone by lining the shelves, furniture positioned just so in order to make guests feel comfortable.

Right now, though? Conspicuously bare crimson-colored walls surround a large and austere desk, some bags are strewn about the floor, and a couple of decorative chairs (of questionable comfort) haphazardly face the coach’s work space.

With the late signing period opening up yesterday and at least a handful of scholarships to fill, Smith doesn’t have the time to worry about decorations; he’s busy evaluating, working the phones, trying to find players who not only possess the talent to help the Washington State Cougars compete in the Pac-12 for the first time in a decade, but also to find players who will buy into Nerdball — Smith’s unique, numbers-based system for evaluating his roster.

So much still seems up in the air, at least to fans: It’s unknown whether Isaiah Wade and Ahmed Ali are transferring (although Ali seems set on leaving); it’s unclear if previously signed players Daron Henson and Nigel John are still planning on coming to WSU; and CJ Elleby is still in the NBA Draft — for now. If everything goes sideways, Smith will be turning over more than half the roster.

But one of the things athletics director Pat Chun was looking for in a coach was a man who has a clearly defined sense of how he’s going to do things and the kinds of players he can win with. Sitting behind that desk, carving out a few minutes between phone calls, Smith is unwaveringly resolute in his conviction of how his staff is approaching the late push to add quality players — which, in fact, doesn’t differ from adding players at any other time.

It’s a three-pronged approach that incorporates the elements of traditional scouting — the eye test and character evaluation — with data-driven analysis. It’s what allowed both Columbia and San Francisco to not only immediately improve upon Smith’s hire, but also improve year-over-year during his tenure.

“When the eyes, stats, and your gut all match up?” Smith says.

He claps, and then he smiles, his eyes lighting up as he leaves the thought unfinished.

Smith doesn’t have to say any more. It’s clear that’s when he knows he’s found his guy.

Who they’re looking for

In terms of on-court ability, Smith’s looking for “six-tool guys”: Players who can dribble, pass, drive, shoot, defend and rebound. If that sounds like “everything on a basketball court,” and thus, oddly general ... well, it kind of is. Obviously, not every player is going to be good at everything. But the emphasis is on finding players who can do multiple things — guys who are, as Smith says, “interchangeable.”

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Stanford
CJ Elleby can do a little bit of everything — exactly the kind of player Kyle Smith is seeking.
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

One prime example is already on WSU’s roster — CJ Elleby. Smith actually recruited Elleby to San Francisco, identifying him in high school as someone who checks all the boxes. And if you watched Elleby at all last year, you saw why: The breakout freshman star proved himself to be WSU’s best all around player, truly a “six-tool guy.”

“They’re rare,” Smith said. “(But) they always work for us — they do well for us. Sometimes they’re under recruited because they might be leaner — you know, the Kyle Weavers, the Robbie Cowgills — they’re a little different.”

Yeah, you heard that right: He just name dropped two WSU heroes who famously were under recruited in high school before helping to lead the Cougars to 52 wins and a pair of NCAA tournament appearances in their junior and senior seasons.

Having recruited to successful midmajors against Tony Bennett for the better part of 15 years — first while an assistant at Saint Mary’s, later as the head coach at Columbia* — he’s intimately familiar with how WSU has used body bias to its favor in the past ... and how it can again today. Like the protagonist says in one of Smith’s favorite books: “We’re not selling jeans here.”

*Smith actually tells a story about how Bennett swooped in to flip a local player who had been verbally committed to him at Columbia since his sophomore year. That player? Ty Jerome. Yeah, Smith’s got a good eye.

It doesn’t mean the Cougars won’t go after recruits that other people are after. If you look at this list of guys WSU is pursuing at the moment, most are drawing attention from a host of suitors — that includes David Jenkins, Noah Williams, and Ronnie DeGray. There’s obviously a minimum threshold of talent necessary to be successful; not even Bennett took five guys off the street and turned them into a powerhouse, despite the way some fans remember it. Many of the players he recruited went on to stellar professional careers either at home (Klay Thompson, Aron Baynes) or abroad (Taylor Rochestie, Weaver, Derrick Low, Brock Motum).

However, the targets generally aren’t top 100 guys, the players thought of as “program changers”; these are guys ranked in the 200-300 range, players who could become very good in the right environment and system — and should be imminently recruitable by a WSU coach, despite all the evidence to the contrary over the past five years.

And then you see they’re also in on South Korean Hyunjung Lee, who is 6-foot-7 but only 180 pounds, and you see where this can lead.

Eventually, the program matures to a point where Smith lands enough of those “interchangeable” guys that they’re able to be flexible with their sets on offense. That’s when the fun really begins.

Analytics are a tool — an important tool, but just a tool

Smith’s affinity for data is well known, but when it comes to evaluating recruits, even he realizes it has its limits.

“I always say, it’s a tool for sure, but it’s not foolproof,” Smith said before explaining how he has to caution his assistants about allowing numbers to define players. “I always gotta lecture our guys: (You) can’t be so fixed mindset — like, ‘that’s who that is.’ ”

The example he points to is that of his former point guard, Frankie Ferrari, whose journey to San Francisco, then junior college, then San Francisco again showed how numbers aren’t everything.

NCAA Basketball: San Francisco at Gonzaga
Frankie Ferrari turned into a two-time all-conference player for Smith at USF.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Ferrari was recruited by former USF coach Rex Walters, one of two point guards in his class. Devin Watson, the other guy, played OK for a freshman, while Ferrari had one of the more atrocious statistical seasons you’ll ever see. His offensive rating was 64 on 16% usage, and while those numbers might be gibberish to you, to statheads, they mean one thing: The guy simply cannot play at that level.

After that forgettable season, Ferrari transferred to a junior college, where he redshirted. Smith, who had recruited Ferrari to Columbia but was now the new coach at San Francisco, remembered the player he had seen in high school. And he re-recruited him.

“We sat down and (one of my coaches) said, ‘No one’s ever made it (with those numbers),’ ” Smith said, meaning no player that they could find had ever rebounded to have a productive career after that kind of season. “And I’m like — I get it, but it’s just a tool.”

Ferrari turned out to be an all-WCC player. Twice.

“You know, I always say: Eye test still is ok,” Smith said.

Smith and his staff also sometimes will use the player’s stats at their level to try and project how they’ll translate to Division I, even though the stats can be somewhat unreliable in certain contexts — the summer AAU circuit is particularly notorious. That said, sometimes the numbers can still reveal outliers, guys who are overlooked. Souley Boum, whom Smith recruited to USF, hit some statistical markers but didn’t pass the eye test — he stood 6-3 but was skinny as a rail at just 145 pounds. After having been ranked in the 400s by, Boum went on to average 11 points as a true freshman — second on the team.

Another player Smith recruited to USF? Dzmitry Ryuny, who represented Belarus in the 2017 FIBA U18 B Championships. The stats he produced were comparable to what Jonas Jerebko had produced at that level. Jerebko, by the way, is in the midst of a a decade-long career in the NBA.

“Is he going to be Jonas? Probably not,” Smith said. “But that’s a check mark that’s like — wait a second, we’re worried, we’re stressing (about whether he’s good enough) … again, (data) leads you there. Now, let’s find out what’s making this guy tick, let’s look at his skill set.”

Attitude matters — a lot

The vast majority of college coaches are looking to stockpile the most elite talent they can, any way they can — just add bodies to the pile and then figure out how they fit together. As the saying goes, “It’s not the Xs and Os, it’s the Jimmys and Joes,” which is just another way to say that even a bad coach can look good with enough talent ... and vice versa.

But Smith is looking for guys with a particular kind of mindset to help him build a very particular culture. Smith is up front about his data-driven system of accountability, in which more than 50 categories of actions are scored and totaled from both practices and games to produce a truckload of statistics that drive playing time. It’s not for everyone, and as it turned out, it wasn’t for Boum, who ended up transferring to UTEP after that excellent first season.

Players have to be willing to be held accountable to play for Smith.
WSU Athletics

Nerdball isn’t for the faint of heart.

“Some players (are) scared because they want assurances,” Smith said. “The guys who like it? Risk takers. Growth mindset. Want to improve. That’s the recruiting thing — that’s where Washington State (has to go). I’m sure that’s the same thing (Mike) Leach does — the five-star guys, when they’re recruited, they get assurances. So, it’s a different animal.”

Something that goes hand-in-hand with that? Smith wants players where his scholarship offer is the one the player really desires; he wants to be the school of choice rather than the fall back. Those kinds of players are hungry to prove they belong.

“They’re gonna spin me out as being some kind of analytics savant,” Smith said. “I said, ‘I’m just a coach,’ (and) it’s more the attitude and work ethic — if anything, that’s the secret sauce. Not everyone is selling that. They don’t understand when you’re recruiting and begging, you’re devaluing your product. This is Pac-12 basketball. What an honor to be able to play in the Power 5. It’s gotta be up here, with our guys trying to grab that brass ring, versus, ‘We need you!’ ...

“I think we’ve got the resources here to maximize the guys,” Smith said, “and the attraction is guys who want to play against the best.”

Finally, a word about transfers

Building a program is a tricky business. Sometimes coaches elect to bottom out — or, at least, embark on a strategy that is likely to result in bottoming out, such as stocking the roster with very young, marginal recruits. The players battle it out, and the guys who can play, do; the guys who can’t, leave; and the program gets better, little by little.

At least, that’s how you hope it works out. There’s a big risk in that, one that we’re all too familiar with. Smith isn’t interested in bottoming out, which is good, because his boss made it clear that he paid a hefty sum (by WSU standards) to fire the previous coach because he believed the team underachieved, and that there was enough talent on the roster to improve immediately.

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Oklahoma vs Dayton
Oklahoma’s Matt Freeman is reportedly on WSU’s radar as a grad transfer.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Still, when you’re taking over the 207th team in the Pomeroy Rankings ... clearly, the talent needs to be supplemented.

“We’re going to need to add some (players), for sure,” Smith said.

An increasingly popular way to do that is through grad transfers — players who earned their degree at their previous stop and now can transfer with immediate eligibility. We’re familiar with that, too. But that can be fraught with problems; you don’t want to rely too much on guys who are only going to be around for a year.

“I don’t think you can build a culture off the grad transfers,” Smith said, “but I think it’s also important that we get older, get stronger — I want to make sure that we’re being competitive, doing what we’re doing.”

And that likely will mean adding a grad transfer or two to a roster that is in a pretty massive state of flux. One guy they’re reportedly looking at is big man Matt Freeman, a New Zealander who’s played sparing minutes at Oklahoma; he would fill a direct need in a perilously thin frontcourt. Smith certainly is looking at others.

He won’t sell the farm to add a bunch of one-year players, but Smith recognizes the value of improving the level of competitiveness in the program immediately while transitioning to his way of doing things.

But will it work?

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at San Francisco Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

That, of course, is the $12.6 million question — the amount Smith will receive over the six years of his contract to coach the Cougars, plus the amount Ernie Kent will receive for the next three years to not coach the Cougars. For a school of limited financial means, it’s a big bet on an unconventional way of doing things.

But WSU has never succeeded by being conventional. The history is abundantly clear on that. It was maddening to watch Kent meander between recruiting strategies before finally deciding that jucos were the new market inefficiency. (They weren’t.)

Maybe this won’t turn out any better. Trying to do things differently involves risk, and Smith’s strategy could blow up in everyone’s faces, exposed as something that’s fine for a midmajor but just can’t make a dent in the a world populated by high major athletes.

However, an ambitious, risky plan grounded in data is miles better than no discernible plan at all. At least there’s a potential upside; one of the great sins of Kent’s tenure was that it quickly became difficult for even optimists to see how his revolving door was ever going to translate into anything more than 15 wins and a bottom-third finish in the Pac-12. When half your roster is populated by jucos, you can’t even talk yourself into, “Well, maybe if you give them time to develop, they could turn into something special someday.”

For the first time in a decade, Nerdball gives us something we can all wrap our arms around — a throwback to the defensive identity we embraced so readily under the Bennetts. Smith will be the first person to tell you that he’s not Tony Bennett (he pantomimed “we’re not worthy” while talking about the newly crowned national champ), but the comparisons are obvious: Believe in what you do, have foundational principles that are never up for discussion, and understand that to succeed at WSU, you’ve got to be a little different.

“I say I want to be (Michigan coach) John Beilein when I grow up. I admire him because he’s a brilliant coach, but also because, in his conviction to get the right people, he doesn’t care who’s recruiting them,” Smith said, noting that it takes courage to do that. “If it’s Idaho State (recruiting a player), and it’s the right guy, we know what’s right for us. And I think I actually have the latitude here (to take those risks).”

And to be sure, any optimism you’re feeling isn’t just rooted in hope or nostalgia. Nerdball has worked, recently: Smith led San Francisco to a No. 67 Pomeroy Ranking, which is a height not seen at WSU since Klay Thompson took the Cougs to the NIT final four in 2011 — and finished ranked No. 60.

For once, we can allow ourselves to get excited again, if for no other reason than to simply see if it will work.

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