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NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Arizona Rebecca Sasnett-USA TODAY Sports

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Here’s how WSU has put together its blistering start

There also are clues for what the future will hold.

It has been a good first week of basketball for the Washington State Cougars. They are 4-0 after beating Alcorn State and Seattle U with relative ease, and then impressively dominating UC Santa Barbara and Idaho. There are some major takeaways from how the rotation has looked, the sets the Cougs are running, and the overall efficiency of the team on both ends. There are some really positive signs, but there have also been some negative ones and the Cougs have a lot to clean up if they want to compete in the Pac-12.

Rotations

The rotations have definitely been the most interesting storyline to follow in the early season, as there were a lot of questions about how Kyle Smith would handle the depth and talent on this team. Thus far, some things have gone as expected and others have been a bit funky.

Starting with the guards, it seems like there is already a solidified three-guard mix. Tyrell Roberts and Michael Flowers have started every game thus far, and it looks like that will continue. Jefferson Koulibaly has been a steady presence off the bench on both ends and he fills out that rotation nicely. There is a chance that one of the two starters are moved to the bench come Pac-12 play; replacing one of them with Noah Williams (we’ll get to him in a second) and then replacing Williams with a more traditional wing would add some size and defensive versatility. But they have both looked good thus far.

Roberts looks likes one of the most talented shooters WSU has seen since Klay Thompson. He was shooting 40% from three on 7 attempts per game before an off-night against Idaho, and a lot of those attempts have been heavily contested. His 12 points per game are second on the team so far and he has been a very solid and exciting replacement for Isaac Bonton through three games.

Flowers has the lowest usage of his career so far during the season, but he has done so many other good things that it hardly matters. He was only at 18.9% from three through the first three games, but his past track record of shooting prowess implied a strong progression to the mean to come — and sure enough, he went 3-of-4 against Idaho. He has rebounded, played good defense, and plays the role as best decision-maker on the team. His steadiness and passing on the court is huge for a young team like the Cougs.

Koulibaly has been the third guard in the rotation and he has really impressed so far. He is athletic, crafty, and flashes a solid jump shot. He comfortably fills the role of a sixth man, and if he keeps up this level of play, he could eventually make a move to the starting lineup to capitalize on his size, but even if he doesn’t, he has excelled in his bench role through three games.

The wing rotation is still very up in the air to this point in the season. The starting wing job is locked up by Williams, who is still a little small compared to most small forwards, but he has played off the other guards well. He started to become the focal point of the offense again with his off-ball movement and scoring being maximized playing next to other initiators — something you saw against Idaho as he repeatedly hunted the soft spots in the Vandals’ zone.

The biggest concern with Williams thus far has been the shooting. Through four games, he is yet to hit a three pointer, and while that could just be down to randomness — he only has 7 attempts — if it’s not, that could be a major concern come Pac-12 play.

The TJ Bamba and Andrej Jakimovski competition is likely still brewing, but they have both played meaningful minutes off the bench. Jakimovski has played plenty at the 3, but he has also played as a back-up 4 for the Cougs when there is only one big on the floor. He has had his ups and downs, but his size allows him some positional versatility that makes him valuable. The jumper is a real swing skill for him and he has to be hitting it to become a staple of the rotation — hitting both his 3s against Idaho was nice to see.

Bamba has been really impressive thus far filling in at the 3. His jumper looks much improved and he has, so far, lowered the bad turnovers. His athleticism has really stood-out on the boards and on defense, where he is much improved from last season. He’s shooting 39% on about three 3-point attempts per game, and he looks really comfortable taking them. Bamba might be solidifying a spot for himself.

DJ Rodman spent the first two games on the outside looking in, but he’s seen an uptick in minutes over the last two games and he has been fine in his limited action. Rodman is not the mystery box that Jakimovski and Bamba are — Smith pretty much knows what he’s getting. There is still a solid chance that Rodman ends up playing more minutes against better competition than one or both of Jakimovski and Bamba, but he doesn’t need to play as much against the worse teams because he has less to prove.

The rotation of the bigs has shaken out mostly as expected. The starting frontcourt has been played with a bit thus far, but all three of Dishon Jackson, Efe Abogidi, and Mouhamed Gueye have played significant minutes and will likely continue to do so. Matt DeWolf has stepped in a bit at times too and looked solid in his role, but is unlikely to play much barring foul trouble.

Gueye has started every game thus far and it looks like that will continue. He and Abogidi have been an effective pair defensively. His offensive rebounding has been really impressive and it allowed him to put up double digit points in two games — including a career-high of 13 against Idaho. He is still a bit slow to dive too deep into using his guard skills, but expect him to slowly expand his game throughout the season.

Abogidi has been absolutely dominant defensively so far. He is averaging 4 blocks per game and has an absurd 16.4% block rate — meaning, he blocks that percentage opponents’ 2-point attempts when he’s on the floor — good for fourth best nationally. He looks like he is making that sophomore leap. Abogidi is becoming one of the top rim-protectors in the country, and he could be the best defensive player in the Pac-12 if he keeps this up.

Jackson has been put into a back-up big role and it going to take him a little bit to adjust to that role. He has struggled with turnovers (32.4% is the rate at which his possessions result in turnovers) and fouls (9.8 fouls called per 40 minutes at the moment), and it seems pretty clear those things have hurt his standing in the rotation. He has still been efficient as a scorer in the post, but he will have to adjust to his role as bench-scorer to maximize himself.

Overall, the rotations seem to be solidifying pretty quickly. The starting guards were something that surprised me, but Flowers and Roberts fit well together and have played well so far. Williams has guarded the mid-major wings well so far, and his isolation scoring in the mid-post has been impressive. Gueye and Abogidi are a scary defensive duo in the frontcourt and they have both played well together. Figuring out who exactly plays off the bench going forward is going to be interesting.

The rotations tend to shrink in Pac-12 play, and finding who those players are is Smith’s next challenge. Jackson is almost certain to remain in the rotation, but it gets a bit closer behind him. Koulibaly has played well so far, as have Bamba and Rodman in limited minutes. Jakimovski still has a chance to take a role too. How the bench shakes out is still a question.

Efficiency

WSU 2021-22 Synergy Offensive Efficiency

The WSU offense has been pretty solid so far this year. The spot-up numbers are outlier bad, but they should move up as the sample size grows and some shots start to fall. The transition and post-up numbers are great, and they could be sustainable with the mix of talent and scheme we have. Overall, the offensive efficiency has been impressive despite the valleys so far — the team has scored more than 1.2 points per possession in three of their four games, including a 1.51 against the Vandals (a record for the program since 2001, as far back as those numbers go). The peaks are really high and limiting some of the negatives will rise as the sample size grows.

WSU 2021-22 Synergy Defensive Efficiency

The defense is once again really excellent. The spot-up numbers are great and this is because WSU has been great at running opponents off the line and forcing them into our shot-blocking bigs. The transition numbers are going to be hard to fix with how much attention we pay to the offensive boards, but the volume on those plays are low thanks to the offensive rebounding and fewer turnovers than last season. The point of attack defense is the one worrying sign here. With a small backcourt, the pick-and-roll ball-handler numbers could remain low. Overall, this should remain a very good defense, especially if the Abogidi jump sustains throughout the year.

Offensive Scheme

Smith has clearly built a better offense this season and it is not hard to see why. He does a great job of adjusting his scheme to fit his talent, and this year is no different: He has three guards who can score and distribute, three bigs who can post, and a group of role players who can all fill in.

Starting with general principles, there are a couple of things that really stand out. WSU has been crashing the offensive boards hard and it seems to be a real key for WSU’s offense. They have a total of 26 more rebounds than their opponents. Gueye has been incredibly impressive on the glass and that should continue into Pac-12 play.

The Cougs have also been an opportunistic transition team. They are not pushing to an extreme extent, and they like to get into their half-court sets, but when they can run they do. Williams and Gueye have been the biggest beneficiaries of these transition sets and it is a nice additive element for the offense.

A good way to see what a team generally likes to do is to watch the first set of the game. Against UCSB, the Cougs ran this play. Here, they run a dummy action on the left side before swinging into a pistol action on that side. From the pistol, they get it into Abogidi in the post, which has clearly been an emphasis as well.

Pistol actions involve three players on a wing. Two guards are standing close to each other and a big is coming up for a screen. The two guards can do a hand-off or a keep and they usually use the screen. Here, the Cougs run a little chin weave into the pistol action to get the defense shifted.

Smith has clearly focused on off-ball movement as well and he likes to get his shooters open looks in advantaged spots. They run this Pistol set into a low stagger screen and create a good look for Roberts from the corner.

That off-ball movement does more than just create a shot, it creates it’s own type of spacing. Here, the floppy action run for Roberts keeps the defense active early and it clears the defense out for a potential post touch.

The post-up has been a major source of offense for the Cougs and looks to be a goal of most possessions. Abogidi has taken major strides in this realm, using his speed to his advantage and making better decisions. Gueye and Jackson have both been efficient in their post-ups as well and a lot of plays are run to get them touches on the block.

A wrinkle to the offense that has been really effective thus far has been running these post plays for Williams. His quickness, touch, and decisiveness makes him a surprisingly effective post player as both a scorer and passer.

The Cougs also go to a lot of Horns sets, specifically with the starting group. Having two bigs makes horns — with each of them set up on the elbows — a clear move, but it is a versatile play set. They like to run double top screens, get into high-low actions, or get into low staggers and clear out a side for pick-and-rolls. This is a go-to play for WSU and they get a lot out of it.

Finally, the Cougs do run some ball-screen sets at the top. They do standard high pick-and-rolls, but Smith has also mixed in a few Spain pick-and-rolls. In a Spain set, a shooter back screens for the roll-man and pops. This is meant to make another defender have to make a decision and it often opens up the roll or the pop with ease.

Overall, the Coug offense has been really solid thus far. The shooting numbers are a bit concerning, but the offense as a whole looks really fun. Smith has built a scheme that really fits with the roster, everyone is contributing, and a lot of good looks are being created.

Takeaways

The major early takeaways is just how impressive Abogidi has been and what he could possibly be come Pac-12 play. He could make a real push for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year with his rim protection and mobility. He has also made clear strides on offense and that two-way equity is insanely valuable for WSU.

WSU’s shooting has been a bit worrying, though the percentage as a whole I expect to rise pretty easily. However, the bigger worry is the lack of shooting from Williams, Gueye, and Jakimovski because they are a bit less proven as shooters. They will need to gain some confidence and efficiency as shooters for the Cougs to reach their ceiling.

This Cougs team is a really special one. It is probably the most athletic team in program history and Smith has them playing a system that really works. They are fun, they play free, and every game is full of highlights. This should be a fun season going forward, with the real tests coming in early December, when the Cougs start Pac-12 play against Arizona State and USC.

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