While Northwestern has held out senior guard JerShon Cobb for the team's past four games (wins over Mississippi Valley State, Western Michigan and UIC and a loss to Central Michigan) to recover from various injuries, Chris Collins has had a chance to see some of Northwestern's younger players make their cases for larger offensive roles even when Cobb returns.
Frankly, to say Cobb has struggled this season would be an understatement. Expected to be Northwestern best all-around player coming into the year, he has scored in double digits just once in eight games. He's been on a minutes restriction, playing just around 22 minutes per game this year. His impact on the offense has been minimal from a statistical standpoint, although Collins asserts his presence is calming for a young team.
In fact, after Northwestern scored 60-plus points in each of the team's first four games, the Wildcats failed to hit that mark in their next four, games in which they went 1-3. Since Cobb was pulled out of the lineup, Northwestern has scored 60-plus in each contest, going 3-1. While the middle block of games featured Northwestern's most difficult stretch of the non-conference season, it's not like 60 points is some kind of mark only superb offensive juggernauts can hit.
But during the recent four-game stretch, aspects of Northwestern's offense have been markedly better, and most of that's due to the expanded offensive roles of three Northwestern players: Bryant McIntosh, Nate Taphorn and Scottie Lindsey.
Cobb's absences have freed McIntosh in particular to play more of his natural role of a scoring lead guard. Collins, for one reason or another, still says publicly that Northwestern has to rely on Cobb for his scoring ability. But with Cobb out, it's clear that McIntosh was more comfortable and aggressive with his teammates looking at him to not only create for them but for himself, especially in his career-best 22-point performance against UIC, which I wrote about following the game.
While many of the portraits of McIntosh paint him as a pass-first point guard, that's not his natural style. He often played shooting guard on his AAU teams and, as he's told me, has a knack for scoring. He says he looks up to and studies NBA players such as Stephen Curry (who also sports number 30) and Goran Dragic, two ball-dominant lead guards who can be relied on to put up big numbers in the scoring column.
Since Cobb left the lineup, McIntosh has averaged 14.8 points per game and shot 52.5 percent, including shooting 54.5 percent from three.
Unlike McIntosh, who already had a significant role on the team, Taphorn and Lindsey saw more playing time as a result of Cobb's absence and it has paid off for both players. For the better part of his Northwestern career, Taphorn has been used as a big man, usually screening for guards and popping out near the three-point arc. While I think the pick-and-pop element of Taphorn's game is an extremely useful aspect that Northwestern could really exploit, it took the sophomore out of position too often. Taphorn is an underrated athlete whose offensive skill set mirrors that of a wing more so than that of a forward.
Seems like Collins is finally using Taphorn as an off-ball weapon running him through screens and not as a screening big man. Better for NU.— Josh Rosenblat (@JMRosenblat) December 20, 2014
He's not a guy who can make a major impact as screener and garbage bucket guy. He has the ability to attack the bucket off the bounce and is now strong enough (after gaining 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason) to finish there as well. After a poor shooting season a year ago, his shooting has come around and he's shown some glimpses of the versatility he can bring as his scoring role has grown without Cobb on the floor.
The biggest show of Taphorn's improvement: In 2013-14, just 9.7 percent of his shots came at the rim and 79 percent came from three-point range. This season, one-third of his shots have come at the rim and half of his shots have been threes (data via Shot Analytics).
Like Taphorn, Lindsey is a skilled offensive player, well-suited to contribute on the wing for Northwestern. But with Cobb, Tre Demps and Vic Law solidly ahead of the freshman on the depth chart, Lindsey's opportunities have been scarce. With Cobb out, Lindsey showed a little bit more of what he can offer. He's third on the team in true shooting percentage (behind Sanjay Lumpkin and Taphorn) at 60.5 percent. A long, smooth, athletic wing, Lindsey had been earning the trust of his coach, averaging 15.6 minutes per game with Cobb out before playing eight first-half minutes against UIC where he sustained a foot injury.
He has scored in every game he's played in except for a three-minute stint against Elon. He just has a knack for getting the ball in the bucket. He's a gifted scorer, something Northwestern needs more of. Collins should find a way to keep Lindsey in the rotation when Cobb returns.
As for what to expect out of Cobb when he returns, which will most likely be Saturday against Northern Kentucky, it's hard to know. I think his minutes will continue to be rationed and Collins may not be as hesitant to insert Lindsey or Taphorn if Cobb can't get it going. It should be an interesting element to watch early in the Big Ten season.