Washington State Men’s Basketball has had quite the roster turnover, leaving the rotation in a good amount of flux. This is most obvious at the point guard spot, as starting Point Guard Justin Powell is off to pro-ball, lead initiator TJ Bamba transferred to Villanova, and returning backup PG Dylan Darling had an up-and-down freshman season. Incoming transfer Joseph Yesufu will likely play a huge role, and Myles Rice is coming back as well. The guard room at WSU is full of intriguing talent, but almost nothing is set in stone.
The Projected Starter - Joseph Yesufu
The early reports out of camp regarding Yesufu have been positive, and the general rule is that big-time transfers are going to tend to get the benefit of the doubt. I wrote a breakdown on Yesufu’s game when he chose WSU, you can read it here.
Yesufu will help WSU return to its pick-and-roll heavy style of play, which is something that went away last year in order to maximize Mouhamed Gueye’s touches on offense. Prior to last season, however, WSU relied on guards like Mike Flowers and Isaac Bonton to be the engines of their offense. Yesufu is not exactly like those two, but he could fill a similar role.
We’ll discuss the offensive preview later, but returning to a pick-and-roll heavy scheme would work well with the rest of the roster. It will put a lot of pressure on Yesufu to handle a fairly extreme usage level.
For reference, during their senior seasons, Mike Flowers had a 22.3% usage rate and Isaac Bonton had a 31% usage rate. Yesufu had a 27.5% usage rate in his sophomore year at Drake, but he didn’t get above 20% at Kansas -in limited minutes- and he had a fairly low assist rate throughout his career.
Yesufu could definitely see a boost in his playmaking, because reads flatten in consistent pick-and-roll actions. Defenses tend to guard ball-screens in one way throughout a whole game, which makes it easier for the point guard to read and react as a passer. This showed itself with both Bonton and Flowers, as they got more comfortable and efficient as passers throughout the course of their respective WSU careers.
My confidence level in Yesufu being a lead creator is, admittedly, not very strong. He has some nice aspects to his game as a slasher and scorer, but he leans strongly toward score-first, and tends to focus on off-the-dribble jumpers. However, he is a strong athlete with a good handle- and Kyle Smith has had success with his brand of player. He is almost certain to start, and a lot of pressure is going to be put on him to be a solid creator and offensive engine. We’ll see if he’s up to the task.
The Fight for Back-Up Minutes - Darling or Rice?
The starting guard spot feels locked up, but there is likely a fight for the true backup spot between Darling and Rice. Darling played 11.9 minutes a game last year across 25 games while Rice sat out with his cancer diagnosis. All signs point to both players being healthy, and ready to start the season- so there’s going to be some competition for who the go-to bench guard will be.
Darling struggled quite a bit as a freshman, especially offensively, as he shot only 33.3% from two, 16.7% from three, and he had more turnovers than assists. He brought some value defensively, but could be a bit over-gambly. He plays with great energy and there is a lot to like with his ability to get downhill, but he has to become a more efficient playmaker.
There is a chance that switching from the zoom, elbow action offense to a more pick-and-roll heavy offense could be positive for Darling. Having the ball in his hands more often, rather than a more stagnant set approach, could boost his strengths in a way that last season’s offense just wasn’t quite built for. However, his issues as a scorer near the rim and pull-up shooter might be too limiting on his overall performance to make him an effective offensive player.
He doesn’t have to be any type of world-beater to be functional as a backup, though. As Yesufu could absolutely play 28-32, leaving Darling to only have to play adequately for 12-8 minutes a game. All he would have to do is maintain in bench units in order to be worthwhile at that spot.
There is little chance that Darling and Yesufu can play next to each other given their size and catch-and-shoot concerns, so Darling’s minutes would be limited to when Yesufu is off the court. That is not necessarily the same for Rice.
Rice is a little bigger with a slightly more projectable outside shot, but he also has a lot of question marks. The biggest question, understandably, is “how healthy is he?” I’m not here to speculate, but coming back from what he’s been through can be difficult for anyone- let alone an athlete of his caliber. If he can get back to the level he needs to, though, there is a lot of intrigue and potential for him to factor in strongly.
Rice is a solid 6’2 with good length, plus his overall athleticism, which means he could hold up as a shooting guard next to Yesufu.
He was recruited as a PG, and many thought he would step into a starting role last season. He has a shifty, slinky handle style that makes him effective at snaking through defenses- and he’s shown a lot of upside as a passer out of pick-and-roll.
Rice is incredibly talented, and having two years in the program should give him a leg-up with understanding the defensive concepts, but he is far from a sure thing in that role. If he can be an efficient pick-and-roll player, he makes the most sense stepping into the backup PG role. If he hits a solid volume of outside shots, he could push for some real minutes at the two as well.
Both Darling and Rice could make a strong push for the backup PG spot, with Rice representing the higher upside player and Darling being more of a somewhat safe fallback option.
Wildcards and Overall Outlook - Familiar Faces in a Different Role?
There is also a world where players like Isaiah Watts and Kymany Houinsou play some legitimate point guard minutes too. Houinsou specifically could make waves as a PG if WSU decides to play a bit more up-tempo, but I would call that option fairly unlikely. Despite my own personal wishes, Smith and staff tend to prefer to control the tempo and Houinsou makes a lot less sense as a half-court creator.
A lot of Washington State’s upside will hinge on that guard spot, their offense relies on that position, so not having someone guaranteed to create is a bit scary. If Yesufu clicks, WSU can be a deadly two-way team with spacing, solid roll-men, and a playmaker to make the engine turn. But if Yesufu can’t reach that level and Rice, Darling, and Houinsou can’t pick up the slack, the WSU’s offense could be in trouble.
Hard not to be excited to see it play out.