It’s nearly July, which means our attention has typically fully turned to the upcoming WSU football season by this point. However, with the waves Kyle Smith has been making in recruiting, it’s the Washington State Cougars men’s basketball team that has been dominating the headlines.
Fans are rightfully excited about Smith’s list of commitments, which features international prospect Andrej Jakimovski, the Cougs’ highest-rated recruit since Klay Thompson and Michael Harthun showed up to Pullman together 12 years ago. The class features three of the top 11 players and five of the top 15 that WSU has signed since Scout/247Sports started tracking these things, which goes back to 2003.
But there’s likely only one way this stellar class helps the program make major moves this season.
CJ Elleby has to pull his name out of the NBA Draft and return for his junior season.
The wing from Seattle is undoubtedly WSU’s go-to player, a high-volume/high-efficiency scorer who also happens to be a stellar defender and was the team’s best rebounder in 2019-2020, grabbing a 23 percent of available defensive rebounds when he was on the floor — 97th in the country. He was an All-Pac-12 first teamer this season, and he’s the squad’s unquestioned talisman.
But let’s try and quantify his return.
When we had Ken Pomeroy on the podcast with WSU assistant coach John Andrzejek back in April, the college basketball analytics guru mentioned that WSU was on track to have the program’s highest preseason ranking at kenpom.com since Thompson’s last season, back in 2010-2011. The Cougs entered that year ranked 63 and then entered the next season at 89 — the two highest preseason rankings in the last 10 years — so we know that means they’ll be between those two numbers ... provided Elleby returns. That’s pretty awesome, considering the last time WSU even cracked the top 100 at any point was December 18, 2014!
Pomeroy also let us know that the departure of Elleby would hurt the projection quite a bit, although he didn’t get into specifics.
(For what it’s worth: The commitments of Carlos Rosario and Jakimovski won’t make a difference in Pomeroy’s projections — he only factors in “elite” prospects to his projections, since they’re the ones who have proven, year after year, to make a measurable difference. The rest of the formula focuses mostly on recent program performance and returning players, something that has proven to be fairly predictive.)
Now, if you listened to our interview with Pomeroy, you know he’s pretty thoughtful and serious about what he includes on his site — for good reason, given how many of us use it as something of a college hoops bible. There’s another site out there that emulates a lot of what Pomeroy does, but in its own quirky way: BartTorvik.com. Bart’s site is free, takes what it does a bit less seriously, and thus presents a lot of opportunities to play with data in ways that are interesting, if not always in ways that would stand up to rigorous analysis.
One of his fun things is posting preseason projections for the next season basically from the moment the previous season ends. It’s more of a lineup-based approach than Pomeroy takes, which means numbers evolve as rosters shift. It doesn’t change minute-by-minute as players move — after all, it’s just a hobby for Torvik — but he does update the rosters fairly regularly.
Torvik currently projects the Cougs as No. 94 entering the season, which includes Elleby returning and also includes minor contributions from recruits Dishon Jackson, TJ Bamba and Efe Abogidi. It does not include, however, Rosario and Jakimovski, so there’s a decent chance that projection revises upward.
This approach also makes it possible to see what removing one specific player might do to the dynamic. Let’s check in with Torvik’s DraftCast tool:
That’s a projected 47-spot drop for the Cougs without Elleby, as Torvik’s model projects the Cougs to be more than six points worse per 100 possessions.
The defense takes a relatively minor hit, being about 1.7 points per possession worse (defensive efficiency of 99 = 99 points per 100 possessions, so a difference of 1.7 between that and 100.7), but the offense is a whopping 4.5 points per possession worse. The explanation for that is pretty simple, really: Someone of a much lower efficiency will take those shots that Elleby isn’t taking, and that someone is probably Isaac Bonton. He’s unlikely to be as inefficient as he was last season — when he was one of the most inefficient high-volume shooters in the country — but Torvik’s model actually accounts for that, figuring his efficiency improves markedly. But it would still be very low for a go-to scorer.
The important thing here is to not take Torvik’s model as gospel truth, but as a rough idea of just how dependent our hopes for this season are on Elleby’s return. The Cougs have a special player — the kind of player not every team is blessed with. Kyle Smith’s coaching prowess likely would mitigate some of the loss in a way that Torvik’s model can’t predict, plus there’s the additions of Rosario and Jakimovski. But there’s really no way around the idea that this team is likely to be much, much better with Elleby than without.
I absolutely hope some NBA team promises Elleby a first round pick and that he gets to realize his dream of playing in the league. But in lieu of that ... man, I really, really hope he decides to come back for what could be a pretty special season for WSU if some things break right.
(Including a season being played at all.)