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WSU adds two more to class; how far could Cougs go in 2021?

Is the NCAA Tournament really within reach?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 11 Pac-12 Tournament - Colorado v Washington State Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As expected, Washington State Cougars coach Kyle Smith officially added two more high school recruits to his 2020 class yesterday, signing 6-foot-10 center Dishon (DJ) Jackson and 6-3 guard Jefferson Koulibaly.

They join 6-9 center/forward Efe Abogidi and 6-5 guard TJ Bamba, who signed in the early period back in November.

Jackson was a late commitment to the class, and is one of the most highly regarded recruits to head to Pullman in years. 247Sports’ evaluators rated him as a four-star prospect, and their composite rating of him places him as the ninth-highest rated recruit in program history.

To be fair, recruit ratings only go back so far, and even then, they tend to be pretty spotty — for example, none of WSU’s other three signees for 2020 are rated by recruiting services — but it’s still territory that WSU has reached only intermittently since the Bennett years: The last recruit to be ranked four stars by any recruiting service was Que Johnson in 2012, and the last recruit to crack a service’s top 150 players was Ike Iroegbu in 2013.

247Sports’ Josh Gershon evaluated him this way last week:

Big center with wide shoulders, long arms and wide base. Strong kid but not maxed out physically. Plus athlete for position. Soft hands and feet. Improving skill set; has ability to face and post up. Upside as area rebounder and rim protector given physical tools. Can improve consistency and has struggled some with injuries. Projects as high major starter with continued development.

Koulibaly, meanwhile, is a playmaking point guard from the eastern part of Canada who averaged 27.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.5 steals. The competition wasn’t the highest caliber, but he’s been involved in Canada’s international competition program, playing in the FIBA U16 Americas Championship.

He fits the bill of what this team desperately needs: An athletic scorer who can attack the basket. And WSU probably was a little fortunate to land him — he reclassified to 2020 because he wanted to head to college now after initially being in the 2021 class, which means he could still just be scratching the surface of what he’s capable of.

The addition of Jackson to the class has fans rightly excited about the direction of the program; four-star recruits have a tendency to capture the imagination of our fans, thanks to how few of them we’ve recruited over the years, and it’s clear Smith has already recruited at a level that’s orders of magnitude better than Ernie Kent. That’s not just Jackson. Isaac Bonton, Noah Williams and Vova Markovetskyy were immediate contributors as newcomers, while DJ Rodman and Ryan Rapp demonstrated a lot of potential.

When you combine that with the immediate improvement of the program in Smith’s first year — the team picked up five more wins, including its first in the Pac-12 Tournament in a decade, and jumped from 207th in the rankings to 127th — people are wondering just how high the ceiling might be for the team in 2021.

Could this team make a legitimate run at the NCAA tournament?

Possibly. But it won’t be easy.

Bubble teams typically reside in the 40-60 range in Kenpom’s rankings, which are calculated on opponent adjusted efficiency margin — the difference between how many points you score per possession and how many points you allow per possession, adjusted for the level of your competition. It’s proven to be a fairly reliable predictor of actual team quality, and if the Cougs want to play at a level that will allow it to win enough games to get into the tournament conversation, that’s the target.

Jumping 80 spots from 2019 to 2020 is really impressive. But here’s the thing: It’s way harder to jump another 70 spots from there. For example, the No. 207 team in the rankings this year (Robert Morris) had an adjusted efficiency margin of -3.29 points per 100 possessions, while the Cougs (No. 127) were at +4.22. The No. 50 team in the rankings — NC State, which was most likely headed to the tournament — was at +13.39.

  • The difference between 207 and 127? 7.51 points per 100 possessions.
  • The difference between 127 and 50? 9.17 points per 100 possessions.
  • The difference between 127 and 40 — where a high major team can really start to feel like they are more likely to be in the tournament than out? 10.78 points per 100 posessions.

If you’re not a big fan of opponent adjusted tempo-neutral stats, maybe this will resonate: Given 71.5 possessions per game (WSU’s raw tempo this season), WSU will have to get better by roughly 6.5 points per game — either through scoring more points or allowing fewer points or some combination of the two. Again, for context of how big of a leap that is, consider that from last year to this, WSU improved by “just” 4 points per game (5 points worse on offense but 9 points better on defense).

If the numbers have left your eyes bleeding, just take away this: The Cougars will have to improve more in year two than they did in year one. They’ll have to be more than twice as good as they were this season. That’s a tall order.

Of course, we have a great example in our not-so-distant past of how it can happen.

Pacific Life Pac-10 Basketball Tournament: Washington v Washington State Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

If you want to lean on Tony Bennett’s magical first season as an example, I won’t tell you that you’re wrong. But you’re probably not remembering that Dick Bennett’s final team, when the guys in that picture were sophomores, was actually pretty decent, despite its ugly 11-17 overall record and 4-14 mark in Pac-10 play. The Cougs lost a slew of close games to some pretty good teams and ranked 99th in Kenpom — higher than Smith’s team this season. It’s also worth noting that Tony was taking over what was already an elite defense, ranking an astounding 8th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. But that offense ... well, putrid is probably being kind, as it ranked 255th.

They jumped all the way to 27th — and into the tournament as a No. 3 seed. The defense remained steady (16th nationally) while the offense made a hyper leap, climbing nearly 200 spots to 64th thanks to a big improvement in efficiency from the guys who were already in the program and supplemented by an infusion of impact talent.

Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver, Ivory Clark ... all made massive improvements from the previous season to turn into dependable high-usage players. Juco transfer point guard Mac Hopson was good out of the gate before giving way to Tulane transfer Taylor Rochestie, who was even better in the second half of the season; Daven Harmeling emerged as a deadly shooting threat after playing just one game the year before because of injury; sophomore Aron Baynes gave them a solid scoring option behind Robbie Cowgill, which they were missing the year before when Baynes was ... well, pretty awful.

The formula is likely the same for WSU in 2021.

The Cougars already are working with a solid defense (83rd in Kenpom) that is likely to get better from a second year of familiarity, and could actually get much, much better with Markovetskyy playing a lot more and protecting the rim. That means it will be on the offense (183rd in Kenpom) to get this team where it wants to go — and the Cougs will need most everyone to get better.

Some of them will need to get just a little better. CJ Elleby, who I assume is coming back because of the circumstances surrounding the NBA Draft this season, falls into that category; already a potent scorer, he simply needs to diversify his scoring repertoire, something I’ll be stunned if he doesn’t do this offseason.

I think Bonton also falls into that category, despite posting an extremely poor offensive rating of 87.7 last season. We saw flashes of what he could do, but he was thrust into a high-usage role out of necessity, and I think it became clear that it’s not a great idea to rely on him in that way. Plus, he was probably miscast as a primary point guard after Jaylen Shead went down for the season, leading to some real stinkers from a turnover perspective. If he can get just a bit more consistent, play in a role mostly off the ball that suits him better, and have other players step up as legitimate options so that he doesn’t have to take so many shots, he could see some big returns in results with just mild improvement.

Tony Miller is in that category, too. He was a revelation as an ultra-efficient interior scorer, but if he’s going to pair with a space-eater like Markovetskyy, he really needs to develop into a credible perimeter threat. If he can shoot 60 threes and make ~20 of them, that would be awesome.

Washington State v Colorado
Could Noah Williams follow the same path as another lanky guard from a dozen years ago?
Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images

Big improvements? Williams and Markovetskyy are at the top of that list. Williams’ effective field goal percentage of 37.9 was preposterously low for a 6-5 guard; he needs to get stronger so he can use those shoulders and long arms around the rim to better effect, and the jumper also needs to come along to the point where he’s at least a credible threat from deep.

(If you want to feel better about Williams, how’s this for you: Kyle Weaver’s eFG was 39.5 as a freshman, before jumping above 50 as a sophomore and staying there.)

Although a big man can always refine his post moves, Markovetskyy’s improvement is probably less about skill and more about transforming his body. He committed 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes as a freshman, which prevented him from playing more. Yeah, he dropped a few passes, but he already is excellent at using his size and will be a force if he can just play 25 minutes instead of 10 or 15.

After those guys .... ? Somebody else is going to need to make a big improvement. I’m not sure if it much matters if it’s Jaz Kunc or Rodman or Rapp or Cannon, but at least one of them needs to step up as a low usage/very high efficiency player. Even better if it’s two of them.

Lastly: The impact newcomer. This is a tough one to project for what should be obvious reasons, since all four newcomers are freshmen. Jackson seems like the obvious choice here, given the lack of depth at his position and his lofty recruiting ranking. However, it might be a bit much to expect him to be that impact guy right out of the gate — he’s young for his age, and Smith intimated he needs to do some growing into his body, which makes him like pretty much all of the freshman big men who come to WSU.

“I’ve just got to educate him what the NBA centers look like. They’re 2 inches shorter than him now,” Smith told Theo Lawson at The Spokesman-Review. “… He could turn into a moose, he should, he’s only 17 … he’s 240 (pounds). He’s one that’ll be hard to keep the weight off of. We can hold our own now (in the post) and he can help.”

Maybe it’s Abogidi. He’s raw, but if he can stay healthy and block shots and dunk, he could make a big difference. Koulibaly has the mentality needed for this level — and the Cougs really would benefit from someone to taking over the point so that Bonton can get off the ball — but it’s a very large step from Canadian preps to the Pac-12.

“We need some scoring in the backcourt, and he’s aggressive,” Smith said of Koulibaly, via Lawson. “Might take him a little longer on that, just to make that adjustment. But obviously, I’m not afraid to play one of those. He’s just aggressive. We need guys to get in the paint and he’s going to try.”

Bamba is the least heralded of the recruits, but he looks an awful lot like Williams in terms of body shape and style, and could push for minutes at the 2 or 3.

But in terms of trying to figure out which of these four is the guy to do it? I’ll bet the coaching staff isn’t even sure of that. I just know it probably needs to be one of them.

Which leaves us with the transfer market.

Two things we know. First, WSU currently has no scholarships available:

Second: WSU is still putting out feelers with grad transfers. It’s probably worth noting that the last few grad transfers taken on by WSU haven’t really panned out, even if it wasn’t really anyone’s fault it worked out that way this season with Shead and Deion James both going down with injuries. It makes one wonder how much sense it really makes for WSU to take on grad transfers, given that the best ones haven’t yet come to Pullman. Is that really the best use of a scholarship?

But who knows? Maybe there’s an impact guy out there that falls in their laps.

That’s a lot of stuff that needs to come together for this team to make the substantial improvement that will be required to truly challenge for an NCAA tournament berth. It’s improbable no matter how you slice it up, and would be at least a year ahead of whatever schedule Smith has in his head for the timeline of the rebuild.

And let’s be honest: For a team that’s banking on big developmental improvements from so many players, the impact of COVID-19 is yet unknown, but it can’t be helping. For example: Wouldn’t you rather Markovetskyy be under the tutelage of a strength and conditioning coach in the Bohler Gym weight room and not doing pushups in his living room, or whatever?

But I digress. I don’t blame any one of you who are daring to dream right now. Smith and his staff have earned that kind of faith. And even if I think it’s pretty unlikely, I’ll be dreaming of seeing our school unveiled on Selection Sunday, right along with you.