After a nerve-wracking month, Washington State sophomore big man Mouhamed Gueye is returning to Pullman — and the Palouse rejoices. Although not a slam dunk, Gueye’s return was somewhat expected; he hadn’t really been linked to other programs after entering the transfer portal and he seemed focused primarily on the NBA Draft process. But that shouldn’t diminish the importance of he return — he is still a special talent, and he should be a main contributor to what projects to be an elite defense. His potential offensive improvements also tantalize.
In case people have somehow forgotten just how explosive and fun Gueye can be, here’s a flashback to one of the plays of the year for the Cougs:
Improving on offense and accessing some of that stretch forward promise that Gueye came in with as a recruit will be a major key to WSU’s NCAA tournament aspirations. I still believe Gueye can shoot at a solid clip if he overcomes the confidence issues that seemed to plague him last year, and the potential to draw and attack closeout is something never before seen in a 6-foot-11 player at WSU.
Gueye has not come alone, however, and he is just one of a few puzzle pieces to boost WSU’s view in the mainstream.
WSU’s offseason has had three major themes: increasing feel, increasing shooting, and increasing size — all in the name of versatility and optionality around what could be a star duo in Gueye and TJ Bamba. Having versatile players who can dribble, pass, defend, shoot, and play multiple positions has been a clear emphasis for Kyle Smith and staff this offseason. With the introduction of big guards Justin Powell and Jabe Mullins and adding high feel, mobile bigs like Adrame Diongue and Mael Hamon-Crespin, WSU’s offseason has been built around addressing the weaknesses from last year.
Increasing feel is something I was desperately hoping WSU would do this offseason. The offense was often stagnant last season, and quick reads were few and far between. Lots of miscommunication and missed reads led to a heavy diet of difficult shots, but having more players who can organize an offense and make quick reads will go a long way towards making the offense smoother. Possessions like this will hopefully be much more rare this season.
The increased feel will just lead to a lot easier buckets. Passes like this from our post were rare last season, but I expect Diongue to make these reads with regularity. The increased passing and decision-making is all over the roster now and many players will make advantaged reads with regularity.
Increasing size is something everyone at CougCenter was hoping for this offseason. As much as we loved and appreciated Michael Flowers and Tyrell Roberts, we were desperate for guards with size who could make easier passing reads, play at the top of a zone effectively, and make life harder on smaller guards in the Pac-12. Size makes life easier on both ends in the Pac-12.
Sometimes the effect the lack of size had on the offense was subtle, but it was always there. Here, the mix of the lack of size and the lack of easy passes just lead to our guards having to take tough shots. Having better size at the guard spot makes getting downhill easier and increases the number of possible passes.
Increasing spacing seems hard to do. After all, WSU led the Pac-12 in threes last season and they shot a decent percentage. However, so many of those threes were difficult, off-the-dribble looks, and part of the reason they were able to take so many is because teams were willing to concede those shots to a lot of players on the roster.
There were only three consistent shooters on the roster last year — Roberts, Flowers, and Jakimovski — with Bamba being the only other player who warranted closeouts. Replacing non-shooters like Noah Williams with elite spot-up threats — Mullins, possibly? — will go a long way. There is also expected growth from Gueye, and Bamba could lead to a potent three-point attack that opens up more plays like this with extra space for the bigs to work in.
Expect the offense to remain egalitarian, but be a bit more effective. The main issue with our offense last year was the general lack of feel and passing across the roster. WSU is going from having one, maybe two, good positional passers on the entire roster to having at least five. That overall uptick in feel and playmaking will allow for Smith to run a more versatile offense.
Last year, a play like this could basically only be executed effectively between Michael Flowers and Andrej Jakimovski, but this season, it could be any combo of Myles Rice, Powell, Mullins, and Jakimovski with the added touch that Diongue could receive that pass and be trusted to make a good decision.
Little things become much easier when that feel level is increased. WSU had a major issue getting the ball into the post last season if teams were actively trying to take that pass away. Now, WSU can run lineups with four adept playmakers to make these entry passes easier.
Spacing is a term that often gets thrown around without much explanation to it, but WSU’s increased number of shooters will open up more space in the lane for our guards to get downhill and make plays. Last year, guys like Noah Williams and DJ Rodman got completely left open and were never guarded as threats, which allowed defenders to play them honest and make passing windows for roll-men more difficult.
I expect chin plays to become much more frequent with the Cougs’ offense. Diongue is a great positional passer and Gueye has upside as a player with the ball in his hands. Chin can set up these simple dribble hand-off looks, but with the improved spacing and also having someone in Diongue who can be trusted to find back-cutters, a lot opens up.
Gueye, or maybe Diongue, shooting at an adequate level could be the swing for next season. This is a gorgeous action that is ruined by both the two-big spacing and Flowers’ lack of ability to turn the corner. WSU has more athletic guards than Flowers now, especially with Rice, but the action also works beautifully if Gueye can properly space here. If he does, plays like this open up a lot more and WSU can generate easy buckets more consistently.
WSU will likely have two bigs on the court at most times — assuming Crespin plays some minutes — and that means Horns could be a consistent feature of the offense. It almost always looked solid last season, but imagining Rice using this play to get downhill is even more tantalizing.
The improved feel and size will also make Spain Pick-and-Roll a facet of the offense. It was hit or miss last season because the spacing was poor and teams could get away with putting two on the ball to blow up the action. However, if 5-foot-11 Tyrell Roberts here is replaced with 6-foot-6 Powell, there could be some nasty dunks from Gueye and Diongue on the roll.
These north screen plays could look great in a lot of different alignments too. Passes just become easier when players get taller and there are more shooters on the floor. This play creates a lot of solid looks and it could be even more consistent with the improved talent.
Overall, I expect WSU to maintain their defensive staunchness and improve dramatically on offense. If the final math of the offseason is a loss of Flowers, Roberts, Williams, and Abogidi and the addition of Powell, Mullins, Diongue, Hamon-Crespin, and Rice — who is basically a new addition after redshirting last season — then WSU added more size, more shooting, and better all-around feel. There might be some growing pains as these guys learn to play together and many are thrust into roles they have not yet played in, but there is a lot of upside here.
As for what could happen with that final spot, it is very up in the air. WSU could add another transfer, though it would be hard to see them adding anyone expected to play high-level minutes unless it is an experienced PG. They could look to bring in Tre Blassingame — who I wrote about in an earlier recruiting breakdown piece — or keep Solomon Ominu in this class and bring him along slowly. Either way, it feels like the potential rotation players are virtually set as WSU will soon be ramping up summer practices.
There will be much to cover and anticipate over the coming months leading up to the season. From the likely rotation options, to offensive and defensive previews, what to expect from specific players, and even some NBA buzz that is certain to come surrounding this roster. There is much work to be done before we can declare this team a tournament lock, but I have faith in Kyle Smith and what he is building. Excitement is in the air here in Pullman, but the fun is just getting started.