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Why Sanjay Lumpkin will make the biggest leap for Northwestern next season

In the middle of the Big Ten season, in the weeks following a 14-point loss at Welsh-Ryan Arena to No. 4 Michigan State, Northwestern came to be known a physical, defensive-oriented team. The Wildcats wouldn’t score a lot of points, but they would make it difficult for other teams to do so. NU was the type of team you didn’t want to play, mainly because you knew it would muck the game up. College hoops people nodded in Chris Collins’ direction, bestowing the new-hire approval he had sort of already earned thanks to good recruiting and being one of Coach K’s top assistants for so long. A headline in an article published on this site read, ‘Collins can coach,’ a not-previously unassailable statement considering NU was outclassed in its first three conference games, losing by an average of more than 25 points.

NU fans were starting to believe their team could compete in one of the toughest conferences in the country, maybe not immediately but at some point down the line. Before that happened, though, here was this (cliché alert) scrappy team, jumping into passing lanes and bumping cutters and doing all those things good defensive teams do. They took care of Illinois and Purdue at home, beat a mediocre-if-overrated Indiana team at Assembly Hall and then, less than a month after a 27-point loss to Wisconsin, upended the Badgers at the Kohl Center. Hustle! Grit! Defense! We’re not actually crazy enough to believe we can make the NCAAs, but maybe we can get within shouting distance of the NIT, and honestly, who really cares, bro?! We just beat Wisconsin in Madison! Best as I could tell, that was the mindset most NU fans had at the time. Or something close to it.

Another common thread: Sanjay  can really guard! Which brings me – after rambling preamble that, I'll admit, was probably unnecessary – to my explanation for why Lumpkin will make the biggest ‘leap’ of any returning NU player. For one, look at that photo. Yes, @NUPerformance, we’re looking at you. (Also: thanks Josh for bringing this to our attention and doing the photoshop legwork). Lumpkin clearly got after it in the weight room this offseason, and it seems to have paid off, which bodes well for someone tasked with playing in one of the most physical conferences in college basketball. Another reason Lumpkin will improve this year? Players tend to make the biggest jump between their freshman and sophomore seasons, and I think Lumpkin – who got plenty of run last season (72.6 minutes percentage) and will be surrounded by more talent – will follow that trend.

But the purpose of beginning this with a discussion of NU’s run last January was to note that Lumpkin, at that time, was regarded as a defensive catalyst – someone who made momentum-turning plays, someone you wanted guarding the opposing team’s best player. Barring something unforeseen, it’s reasonable to expect Lumpkin to play stellar defense again. What will really take him to the next level – what could constitute a truly meaningful ‘leap’ – is if his offensive game rounds into form. Lumpkin was pretty brutal on that end of the floor last season, posting an ugly 82.0 offensive rating, 42.3 effective field goal percentage and 45.5 true shooting percentage. He didn’t grade out above ‘good’ on any play type tracked by Synergy Sports; on Lumpkin’s most frequent play type, Spot Ups, he produced 0.726 points per possession for a ‘below average’ rating. His offensive statistics don’t exactly portend a big ‘leap.’

That’s where this argument takes a bit of a nosedive. Lumpkin is athletic and long and skilled and he once said, in an article published on in August 2011, that he thinks he’s a “complete player.” Being complete requires some level of offensive competency, and you’d like to think Lumpkin can offer that next season. But really, not having seen Lumpkin practice this summer, and with no statistical support to speak of, I’m taking a risk in betting that Lumpkin will get his act together offensively. If he does, though? If Lumpkin can put up, say, 10 points a game and become one of those 3-and-D guys? (he shot 26.5 percent from three last season, so he’s got a ways to go) Lumpkin will be extremely valuable to this team. He was already valuable last season, which is what makes the prospect of him ‘making a leap’ exciting.

Whether any of this is possible – whether there’s any offensive upside here, whether Lumpkin has already maxed out at ‘great defender who shouldn’t touch the ball unless primary actions run aground,’ whether his development will be stunted by the arrival of an ostensibly more talented, similarly sized player in Victor Law – is a great question. And we’ll find out the answer this winter.