The Washington State Cougars basketball season still has a lot of time left and there is still hope we can see this very talented team reach their potential and make a push toward the postseason. However, it is hard to not look towards the future and potential players that could fill the holes this team has.
The transfer portal has consistently grown as a path towards team building in the NCAA, and Kyle Smith has utilized it really well so far. Smith got starting-caliber players in Michael Flowers and Tyrell Roberts last season; Flowers has been the Cougs’ leading scorer and most important offensive player and Roberts has been a legit scorer at times.
Flowers is graduating out after this season and the Cougs will need to replace his production in some way. There is also a near certainty that other players on the roster will transfer out. Specifically, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the three Coug bigs tranferred out or attempted to go pro, especially with incoming freshman Solomon Ominu. Some of the lower-level guys on the roster could also transfer out; Ryan Rapp and Carlos Rosario could be prime candidates to seek bigger roles elsewhere.
As good as this team is, the Cougs do lack a consistent creator who can get downhill and make plays for others. The easiest offense is created when a guard can get two feet into the paint as a driver and make plays. Having this type of player could give the Cougs a bread-and-butter on offense that could keep them from the long scoring droughts we have seen numerous times this season. Isaac Bonton was great in this role with his ability to run pick-and-roll and get to the rim. The Cougs could also just use a general bump in feel and decision making all over the roster.
In part one of this series, we’re going to cover to cover some guys from smaller schools who could fill one of those roles for the Cougs. These are guards that are worthy to jump levels with their production and skill sets. All of them would be great additions to this team. Some could be expected to jump into the starting lineup, while others are more likely to be depth for the team.
Jalen Cook (Tulane)
Cook is one of my favorite mid-major players to watch and he has the makings of a potential NBA guard. Cook is only 6’0 feet tall, but he is a strong 205 pounds, and he is lightning quick. He has the ball on a string as a handler and his overall point guard play is elite. He can run in transition, slow it down to run pick-and-roll, create in isolations, and space the floor when he doesn’t have the ball.
The first thing that stands out about Cook’s statistical profile is his impressive offensive efficiency. He is shooting 40% from deep on over five attempts a game and he has a 55% true shooting. He also gets to the line a ton, which is a good indicator of his rim pressure since most fouls occur at the basket. He also has a 23% assist rate to an only an 13% turnover rate — much lower than you would expect from a ball-dominant guard. He has a very high usage (28%), but he capitalizes on it consistently to make plays for himself and others, as reflected by his excellent 108 offensive rating.
Should Cook transfer to Pullman, he would immediately be the best space creator on the roster. His ability to accelerate and decelerate is NBA caliber and it helps make up for his slight stature.
He is also an absolutely elite shooter with a lot of ability off-the-dribble. The Cougs’ offense stalls a lot and Cook could help compensate for that by creating looks like this consistently. This should be a difficult shot, but his ability to stop on a dime and step-back turns this into a wide-open jumper.
Cook’s ability to drive and get paint touches open up so much for his teammates and he is adept at getting the ball to them. Here, he is met well outside the paint, but he jumps on-balance and makes the awesome kickout pass to the wide-open shooter.
Here, Cooks shows off just how easily he can get to the rim. His burst and craft is impressive and defenses have to sell-out to stop him from finishing, which opens up wide open looks for teammates.
He can absolutely use that burst to score for himself too. I love the efficiency of movement in this play, he hops while catching the ball and lands in a staggered stance. This puts the defender on their back foot, which allows Cook to blow right by and get into the teeth of the defense.
Cook’s craft never fails to impress. Here, he fakes like he is going to hit a step-back move but he hesitates out of that and gets right to the rim for the finish. He is not an elite finisher due to his size, but he generates a ton of easy looks there with his manipulation of the defense and he can pass and draw fouls when he gets downhill.
He also has excellent vision for where the advantage is. He realizes there is no big back to protect the rim and he only has one guy he must get by. When was the last time the Cougs had a player that could do this?
Cook is not an elite defender by any means, but I think he can be a part of a good defense. He is strong for his size, and he has a good feel of where he needs to be. He cuts off the drive of this guard simply by staying strong through his chest.
Overall, Cook could the top player in the portal should he choose to transfer, and he could have a variety of offers. The Cougs do offer an enticing fit for him. He will immediately get the keys to the offense, Pac-12 exposure for NBA scouts, elite roll-men to find for lobs, and good catch and shoot players on the wing. Cook started his career at LSU, so there’s a chance he wouldn’t have immediate eligibility if he transfers again. But he’s a legitimate NBA talent with first round potential if he gets the correct exposure, and he is also the type of player that could get the Cougs over the hump.
Kendric Davis (SMU)
Davis would be another grad transfer addition, but an interesting one who could fill into the starting line-up while Jefferson Koulibaly and Myles Rice develop. Davis plays in an interesting system with SMU, where he they don’t play any bigs and they play super up-tempo. However, his skill set is very malleable and could fit well anywhere. He could potentially opt to go pro after this season, but should he remain in college, he would make a great target for the Cougs.
Davis is simply an elite all-around point guard. He is averaging 20 points per game, shooting 38.8% from three on almost 6.5 attempts a game. The senior is also averaging 6.5 free throw attempts a game and shooting 87.7% at the charity stripe. He also boasts an impressive 30% assist rate. He can do it all and would be an excellent offensive fit in Pullman.
Davis’ most translatable and important skill is his ability to get into the paint. He has elite burst and great craft that he uses to get right to the rim. He is a solid finisher and a good passer out of these situations as well.
He also has nice touch when getting into the paint. His floater game is solid, and he is unbothered by the contests of bigger players.
Davis’ pull-up is absurdly smooth. The footwork into it is textbook and the energy transfer is perfect. The release is really quick, and it makes it hard to contest if the defender isn’t in perfect position. He also has excellent deceleration ability, and he can stop on a dime to get into these shots.
Davis also has an innate ability to just hit ridiculous shots. He can knock down jumpers while leaning either way and that allows him to avoid contests on his jumpers.
He has a knack for hitting shots over bigger players too. The general rule of thumb is the bigger someone is, that harder it is for them to slow down. Davis uses that to his advantage constantly, stopping on a dime and drilling shots while the bigger player is still back-pedaling.
Davis doesn’t get to play a ton in pick-and-roll because his team lacks the play finisher for him to run it well. However, he has flashes where he looks like he could run it at an elite level. Here, he makes the pocket pass and then makes the simple read in the same possession.
His passing also shows itself off when he gets to the rim. Here, he hits a hard back-cut to get a running start to the rim, recognizes the help, and makes a great read on a pass to the corner.
Davis has a lot of issues on the defensive end, and most of them come from his size. He can be bullied by bigger wings or guards, and he really struggles when he is hit by a screen. He is the worst defender of all players mentioned in this piece and it shows up in big moments.
Davis would be a really interesting addition to the WSU roster. He is a lot like Bonton and could fill that role for the Cougs. He also has the tough shot-making and rim pressure to boost the offense in a way the Cougs have lacked this season. He might not transfer at all, or even return to school, but if he is gettable, he would be a perfect addition.
Tristen Newton (East Carolina)
Newton is the second player on this list that could forego the transfer portal as a whole and instead find himself in consideration for the NBA Draft. However, if he hears that scouts want to see him play at higher levels, the Cougs could greatly benefit from his services. He excels at East Carolina, but he could look even better surrounded by the talent that WSU has.
The 6-foot-5 guard is a springy athlete who plays mostly as a point guard. He averages nearly 5 assists, and he capitalizes on his usage with a 33% assist rate. His size at the point guard spot would be excellent for the Cougs’ defense and his playmaking and scoring makes him a good all-around fit with the WSU offense.
Newton is only shooting 33% from deep, but the form is solid, and he excels in catch and shoot situations. His base is compact, keeping his knees shoulder width and without knocking his knees, his elbow points to the rim, and it is a smooth one-motion with good energy transfer. He does lean a bit and he dips on every catch, but he punishes teams that leave him open.
Newton’s greatest strength is his ability to turn defense to offense in transition. He has excellent feel for digging on drivers to create havoc and he is good at controlling his speed in the open court. He slows down before exploding to the rim for the finish.
Newton is skinny, but when guarding smaller players, he is a terror. He moves well laterally and stimies this drive. He then gets the board and makes a really nice read that leads to the open dunk.
Newton’s on-ball flashes are really tantalizing. His handle is loose, but it can be really manipulative, and he is slithery when gliding between defenders. This split of the pick-and-roll is perfectly executed, and he makes the right read after getting to the paint.
Newton’s somewhat loose handle can get the best of him at times. He struggles when smaller guards really get into him, and he can absolutely get sped up. I think he might have small hands, as sometimes he just fumbles the ball with minimal pressure (as you can see with his first dribble here).
This is the quintessential Tristen Newton play. A drive gets cut-off, and he has to pick up the ball, putting him in a precarious situation. Then he makes a really solid pass to bail himself out of trouble. He then relocates well, catches the ball, and knocks down the shot.
Being stopped on that last play, despite it putting him in a weird situation, was actually good for him. He needs to utilize jump stops or live ball passes more because he often gets sped up, jumps in the air, and tries to make his decisions there. This leads to turnovers and errant passes that he could do better to cut out.
This is the type of play that really makes Newton stand out. His sprint back to make this play just displays a lot of hustle that would fit right in at WSU.
Overall, Newton is definitely the best defensive option of this group. His size, feel, and intensity on that end all make him a really interesting fit on the Cougs going forward. His offense is not as seamless a fit as other, more natural point guards could be, but his shooting, transition play, and passing gives him some real upside on that end. Newton could really take the Cougs to another level on defense, as hard as that is to believe, and Kyle Smith would love the intensity he brings on both ends.
Elijah Pepper (UC Davis)
Pepper is a different player from Cook, Davis, and Newton, and he would present a different dynamic for the team, but he could be an interesting fit, nonetheless. Pepper — who is from Selah, Washington — is a guard with good size (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) and a diverse offensive game. He stands out mostly for his shooting, as he shoots 40% from deep on over 5 attempts a game, many of which are difficult. He also averages two assists a game and it could be more if he played with a better shooting team. He is an excellent off-ball mover who really greases the wheels of an offense.
Pepper draws a lot of hard closeouts, and he is very comfortable putting the ball on the floor and taking a dribble into his shot. UC Davis plays a lot through the post, and he is also very knowledgeable about how to get to open spaces to get passes into jumpers.
That escape dribble to his left is a common move for him and it allows him to get off a lot of clean looks even against good contests. This shot is also set-up by just how hard he sprints off the pindown and how effectively he decelerates to cause the defender to fly by.
Pepper’s jumper opens up a lot of lanes for him to drive. Here, he is being top guarded, and he is able to get right to the rim for a clean look.
This is another drive opened up by his jumper, but it is worrying that this is the finish he relies on. He is not a super powerful athlete to finish above the rim and he goes to shots like this to compensate. He gets fouled here, but a euro-step, floater, or jump stop and pass all would have been the better move than this.
Pepper is mostly an off-ball player, but there is definitely some on-ball equity there. He gets by his defender with his burst here and if the floor was better spaced, he is likely to get a clean pass off for an assist.
Pepper really has moments as a passer that I think could be expanded if he were playing with higher quality teammates.
Pepper is not as active as I’d like him to be as off-ball defender, but he is excellent at digs. When he is in the ball-side corner, he is great at waiting for the exact moment the ball-handler puts their head down or passes the point where he can’t make that pass to the corner and getting an easy steal. He struggles to finish this in transition, but it is still an advantage created.
Pepper’s defense is also made better by his strength. He is not elite anywhere, but if the Cougs wanted to play small and switch everything, he could handle some wings and bigs in the post.
Pepper is more of an off-guard, though he plays with the ball in his hands plenty, and if the Cougs were to bring him in it would likely be because we see one of Jefferson Koulibaly or Myles Rice are ready for more on-ball duties and we trust Noah Williams, Andrej Jakimovski, TJ Bamba, and Tyrell Roberts to handle most of the playmaking usage. Pepper’s shooting, size, and off-ball ability could make him a worthwhile addition to the roster even if he lacks the upside of other potential transfers.
Mike Mitchell (Pepperdine)
Mitchell is a really interesting potential get for the Cougs because he is still a true freshman who has plenty of eligibility left. The 6-foot-2 point guard from San Jose, California, only had offers from schools in his area, but there is high-major upside to his game.
Mitchell is an elite deep range shooter and a really solid passer. He has a 28% assist rate and is also shooting 41% from deep on over 4 attempts a game. He struggles to finish, and he doesn’t draw much contact, but he is really fast, and he uses that speed to get to the rim.
The first thing that stands out about Mitchell is his blinding speed. He does not have the quickest first step in the world, but he is a blur when he gets a full head of steam. He can take advantage of bigs that don’t get back on defense and force defenses to adapt to him.
When Mitchell does turn that corner, he is really difficult to stop. Here, he gets a clutch bucket by just getting right to the rim in the pick-and-roll.
That speed helps him set some things up on off-ball as well. Pepperdine doesn’t space the floor particularly well, but it’s easy to see this being a really advantaged dribble hand-off with the right personnel around him. He is also a really prolific shooter off the catch and he knocks one down here.
This is a good look at Mitchell’s jumper. The arc is good, and his energy transfer is really solid as well. There is some weird stuff with the off-hand that worries me, but it goes in at a good rate and the off-hand interference is less of a worry off the catch then it is off the dribble.
One of Mitchell’s deficiencies is that he is not a particularly good ball-handler. He struggles a lot with pressure and he picks up the ball in the back-court more than I’d like. He has moments of craft, but it is rarely strung together for him to create in isolations.
He can also be a bit careless with his passes too. He sometimes floats lazy passes in and they would likely be picked off in the Pac-12. Just putting a bit more zip on his passes would be huge for him.
Despite his carelessness, a lot of Mitchell’s reads are high level. His craft here with the hesitation opens up the pass and leads to a good pass. The pass is a bit off target, but the read is good, and it still leads to a bucket.
Defensively, Mitchell is hit or miss, but he can be pesky. He has a real ability to get around screens and his 1.8% steal rate speaks to his good hands when getting up in ball-handler’s grills.
Mitchell is a very different type of transfer from the guys mentioned above him. He is less likely to be an All-Pac-12 caliber player in his first year with the team, but his youth and fit with the roster present some team-building upside. He would be a great addition to the guard room at WSU.