Less than a week remains before the start of the 2013 spring signing period, and Northwestern’s most important recruiting target isn’t giving any hints one way or another. We know 2013 point guard Jaren Sina has narrowed his choices down to four schools (Northwestern, Seton Hall, Indiana and Alabama), and we know new coach Chris Collins will travel to Sina’s New Jersey home Sunday to try and rekindle Sina’s interest in the Wildcats after a coaching change at the end of the season prompted Sina to ask for a release from his national letter of intent.
We also know that no one – besides, maybe, I don’t know, some of Northwestern’s backcourt players – would begrudge having Sina enter the fold next season. Video tapes and scouting reports are unanimous: Sina is as real as point guards get in today’s game, a crafty playmaker with a smooth jump shot and range out to the three-point line. He fits what Northwestern – what all but a handful of schools – demands out of its backcourt players, and his recommitment would give Collins a promising recruiting chip to bank in his first (extremely curtailed) spring signing period.
A Northwestern team with Sina is better than one without Sina, but that’s beside the point. A bigger question: where would Sina fit in the backcourt rotation next season?
There are a number of ways to answer this question, but any discussion must begin with a brief breakdown of Northwestern’s prospective backcourt situation.
(note: not all of the following players strictly classify as guards)
Dave Sobolewski returns for at point guard after seeing his offensive rating, true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage decline, a downward trend that, more likely than not, lends itself to Sobolewski’s increased usage rate, which typically sacrifices efficiency for a larger volume of shots. Besides, Sobolewski’s assist rate climbed nearly seven percentage points.
Year two from Tre Demps could be a repeat of his shot-happy tendencies (Demps hoisted 30.1 percent of available shots, good for 85th in the country) or we could see a more measured approach from a player whose scoring responsibilities will not be nearly as pressing now that Drew Crawford and JerShonn Cobb are expected to be back in the mix.
An up-and-down true freshman season from Kale Abrahamson gives Collins and his staff something to build on, I’d wager, not only because any true freshman in the most brutal Big Ten in years is going to struggle almost no matter what, but because Abrahamson really began to find his footing in a thinned-out backcourt rotation towards the end of the season.
One year removed from a promising sophomore season, JerShon Cobb will try and move past his lost 2012 and embrace an entirely new coaching staff, style and philosophy. You get premier perimeter defense as a baseline with Cobb, and his offensive game made real strides in 2011-12, even as he battled a nagging hip injury.
Early-season shoulder surgery robbed Drew Crawford of a potential breakout campaign – an ascendancy into the elite of the elite Big Ten scorers – but if he returns in full health (re: if he returns, period), Crawford should be the primary scoring option on Northwestern’s attack. His ability to penetrate and create off the bounce is paramount to everything the Wildcats to on that end of the floor.
The other recruit Carmody locked up for 2013, Nate Taphorn, never reneged on his commitment, and his outside shooting touch and length should make a nice addition to Northwestern’s smallish backcourt ranks. Taphorn and Abrahamson are not all that different: two sharp-shooting guards with great size and plenty of room to grow and fill out as they diversify their offensive skill sets.
The massive attrition last season allowed walk-on James Montgomery III to get more meaningful playing time than he otherwise would have, and former coach Bill Carmody was effusive in praising Montgomery III’s work ethic and attention to detail. I don’t envision a Hearn-like walk-on star-turn at any point this season, but a spot in the rotation is not out of the question.
A redshirt year gave Sanjay Lumpkin the chance to settle in with his new teammates, learn a complex Princeton offense and refine his game in a non-pressure practice situation. Now that the Princeton has been officially removed from Lumpkin’s checklist, is he better-suited to thrive right away in a more adaptable and conventional (presumably) offensive system?
As you begin to sift through Northwestern’s backcourt options, you quickly realize there is nothing fixed or constant about it. Starters return, and upperclassmen who played major minutes under Carmody are expected to turn in a similar workload, but with a new coach and a new system that could call for changes both in Northwestern’s lineup construction and depth chart positioning, everything we came to assume about Carmody’s modus operandi – back cuts and high-post flashes and handoffs and threes and 1-3-1 zone defense – gets thrown out the window.
This is Collins’ team to tinker with and control, and his vision of a winning backcourt, built to complement his offensive tactics, could transform the nuts and bolts of Northwestern’s previous primary personnel permutations. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that we really have no idea what Northwestern’s backcourt will look like next season, which makes pegging starters and relative depth chart orderings one big guessing game, or something close to it.
And with that disclosure of the way, I think we can all scan the roster and make reasoned decisions about who will or won’t see the court next season, and in what quantities. Sobolewski should maintain his grip on the starting point guard spot. Cobb, provided his injury problems are completely behind him, should flank Sobolewski. And Crawford, assuming he returns for his final season of eligibility, will start at small forward.
Depending on how Collins elects to employ his personnel, with three guards and two forwards, a four-out offense or a hybridized mixture of the two, the situation remains fairly easy to break down.
Now we turn back to Sina. This is all so speculative, and all so up in the air right now, that my feelings about writing on a subject like this in the first place is bordering on regret, or downright naiveté. Look, I don’t know how good Sina is, and unless someone has discovered a way to transmute his playing abilities into a comparative portal alongside Northwestern’s current guards, no one really knows how good Sina is, either.
We can talk about his AAU resume and tape highlights and it’s all really impressive stuff, but the fact of the matter is we just don’t know where he stands among Northwestern’s current guards, or how his abilities would mesh with Collins’ offensive philosophy. Back when he first announced his commitment, Sina noted his affinity for Carmody’s “offense”, and all the three-point and transition opportunities it creates. From Scout.com’s Evan Daniels:
Ultimately, Sina liked the way he fit in at Northwestern. Their system and his style of play matched and that was significant in Sina’s decision making.
“They shoot a lot of threes and a lot of transition shots,” he said. “I think I’d be really successful in that offense. I wanted to go somewhere where I’d be at my best and where I’d be most comfortable.”
Those conditions were contingent upon Northwestern retaining the coach that recruited Sina, but everything about Collins’ history under Coach K and conversations with former players gives the impression that his system won’t be much of a system at all. Expect Collins to mold an offense that best utilizes the talents of this roster, and if that means getting Sina run-outs and three-point opportunities, then those opportunities should arrive frequently and willingly.
If Sina’s hype is even half of the actual on-court product, Northwestern is getting a dominant player, and Collins will tweak his offense accordingly. I can’t speak to where, exactly, Sina would measure up to the rest of Northwestern’s backcourt players, because until they practice and compete against one another, those comparisons are based entirely on conjecture and reputation-generated assumptions.
I will say this: if Sina does decide to return to the Wildcats, I’m going to go ahead and assume Collins has relayed the likelihood of not only playing right away but starting and becoming the talented backcourt pilot of Collins’ first Northwestern team.
Part of any recruiting decision is a realistic assessment of when and how much a player will play in his first season. For someone as highly sought after as Sina, the potential of playing starters minutes in a true freshman season could just be the difference. Joining a deep but barely set-in-stone Wildcats backcourt could be an intriguing proposition for Sina, and if he winds up signing with Northwestern during the upcoming spring signing period, rest assured immediate playing time specifications will have informed his decision.