As the 2018-19 roster for the Washington State Cougars finally rounds into shape, now feels like a good time to take stock of where the team stands.
With the signing of junior college guard Ahmed Ali earlier this week, WSU probably is done in terms of meaningful recruiting — even though there still is one scholarship remaining now that formerly suspended guard KJ Langston has been removed from the school’s website, finally confirming everyone’s long-held assumption that he’d be departing the program:
At this point, I presume WSU is holding onto that slot in the hopes that Robert Franks — who declared for the NBA draft but is not believed to have hired an agent — changes his mind and comes back to Pullman for his senior season.
There has been virtually no draft chatter surrounding Franks, save for this assessment from Sam Vecenie of The Athletic, who put Franks in his “uncertain/depends on draft process” when assessing whether he’d stay in the draft. Vecenie thinks Franks could potentially go in the second round:
One of the underrated breakout players in college basketball this season, Franks shed a lot of weight last offseason and became a dynamic stretch-4 who could knock down shots and attack closeouts. With a 6-7 frame and a 7-2 wingspan, he has everything that an NBA team is looking for from the position from a physical perspective. Still, he’s a slow-footed defender despite the fact that he’s gotten into better shape. Franks is definitely a strong candidate for a two-way contract next year if he sticks in the draft. He’ll need to prove himself in workouts if he wants to go through with his plan of staying in the draft.
Franks was not invited to the NBA draft combine, and there have been no reports of team workouts (which doesn’t necessarily mean there haven’t been any). He has until May 30 to make a final decision on the draft, and I’d assume he’ll wait — his initial declaration seemed to indicate he was intent on going pro, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he goes all the way up to the deadline to try and make it happen.
The implication of Franks’ situation on recruiting is relatively minor, given that it’s already pretty slim pickings at this point, but the pickings will get even more slim in the next week or two. Obviously, the best thing for WSU is to get Franks for one more year. If they don’t, expect Ernie Kent to either take a flier on someone who’s not on anyone else’s radar (Arinze Chidom and Carter Skaggs were each signed in August) or just leave the scholarship unused (which he did this past season until giving walk-on Steven Shpreyregin a scholarship for second semester).
As for the make-up of the roster, it continues to be less than ideal for building a quality, sustainable high major program.
As Kent enters his fifth season, he’s found it incredibly difficult to entice high school players to Pullman — in his last two classes, only three-star wing C.J. Elleby has taken the bait* — and those that do sign have usually left before graduating: Of the 10 high school players to sign and play under Kent at WSU, seven have departed before exhausting their eligibility.
Just to drive the point home of how incredible that is: Presuming Viont’e Daniels makes it to the end of next season and graduates (while also presuming Franks doesn’t come back), Daniels will be the first and only Kent high school recruit to leave with a degree in Kent’s first five years. The next player who could possibly achieve that is Jeff Pollard in 2020. So, put another way: If Kent (somehow) makes it through seven years at WSU and Franks comes back, he can graduate a maximum of three players he recruited out of high school.
*Yes, I realize one could include Aljaž Kunc in the “signed out of high school” category. But as an international player who had club experience in Europe and had been playing at an academy before hastily reclassifying from 2019 to 2018 and signing with WSU, that strikes me as something different. If you want to include Kunc as a “high schooler,” then fine, I don’t feel strongly enough to argue. But to me, when we’re talking about building a program, that’s not quite the same as convincing someone from a more traditional talent pipeline to join the Cougs — which, yanno, we were assured that Kent was really, really good at. It strikes me as more of a one off. Your mileage may vary.
As a result of Kent’s inability to hang onto high schoolers, he’s found himself constantly plugging holes with transfers (primarily from jucos), some of whom work out and graduate, but some of whom don’t work out and transfer again — that’s happened five times now.
This year represents a high water mark (or low water, depending on your perspective), as roughly 60 percent of Kent’s roster — again, in his fifth season, which is when some roster stability should have taken hold — will be made up of junior college transfers.
To be blunt, that’s the sort of proportion you typically find at low major programs, since program building is an exceptionally difficult task at that level, and those coaches are all just trying to catch lightning in a bottle so they can make an NCAA tournament and move on to a better job. As far as high majors go, “lightning in a bottle with jucos” is not a thing that exists, so in WSU’s case, it simply looks a high major coach trying desperately to put a respectable enough product on the floor so as to stave off what seems to be an inevitable firing.
While this all sucks for potentially making an NCAA tournament someday, it might not be the worst thing in the world in the short term. The mostly likely scenario is that the team is bad, Kent’s gone at the end of the year, and the new guy isn’t saddled with a bunch of young guys he probably doesn’t want.
On the flip side, maybe these jucos are mature enough and talented enough to be a mediocre team in a mediocre league, which would make them more interesting than Kent’s last three squads. And if you’re worried that could possibly mean an extension for Kent, I doubt merely being competitive will fool athletic director Pat Chun into believing the program is on the right track.
Correction: This story originally incorrectly stated the deadline for Franks to withdraw from the NBA draft is June 11.