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How Alex Olah can become the Big Ten's best center

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Northwestern's 7-foot center wants to be the conference's best big man, but it will require a lot of work to get there.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Randolph, Kris Humphries, Meyers Leonard, Cody Zeller, Adreian Payne. The Big Ten churns out talented big men like clockwork, and Alex Olah wants to add his name to the list.

Olah has made it clear he wants to be the best big man in the Big Ten, a goal which he explained in-depth with Henry Bushnell in May. Chris Collins seems determined to help NU's seven-footer make it happen, but it remains a lofty goal.

Even with the strides Olah made in his sophomore season, he was still well behind the conference's best. The Big Ten had three centers, Mitch McGary, Adreian Payne and Noah Vonleh, drafted in the first round this year. And the big men returning in 2014 are almost as good. Frank Kaminsky, A.J. Hammons and Aaron White will all be back to terrorize the midwest.

Unlike most of them however, Olah has a couple seasons to develop into a well-rounded post. He's heading into his junior season, his third year as Northwestern's starting center, and the improvements Olah made last season validated his potential as a Big Ten center. It's pretty clear in the stats.

Year MPG PPG FG% FT% RPG AST TO BLK
2012-13 22.2 6.1 .415 .583 4.1 61 45 28
2013-14 29.5 9.1 .509 .680 5.2 26 50 58

The most important progress Olah made was his offensive efficiency. Unless a center can stretch the floor and shoot the mid-range jump shot, which Olah cannot, they should be shooting around or above 50 percent from the floor. Olah jumped from 41 percent to nearly 51 percent last year.

The 'Cats were able to post-up Olah and use him in isolation plays to score at a high percentage. He still didn't have many post moves, but Olah developed a nice right-handed hook which he used from both blocks. He usually created space for that go-to move using a quick shoulder shake or pivot move. Big Ten teams knew Olah's tendencies, and that's why his numbers really dipped in January and February. In ten games from Jan. 9 to Feb. 13, Olah didn't score in double figures once.

Here's video of Olah's post-ups against Northwestern's opponents in the Las Vegas Invitational last season, courtesy of our own Josh Rosenblat:

Alex Olah Post Ups: UCLA, Mizzou, Gardner-Webb, IUPUI (via Josh Rosenblat)

Adding a couple more post moves to his repertoire and developing his finishing ability with the left hand would vastly improve Olah's offensive game. Defenders would be put on their toes and could no longer shade Olah to his right, making the pump fake more effective. Developing those abilities takes plenty of time, perhaps months or even years, but the in-game changes would be enormous. He'd be able to get more easy buckets and draw more fouls to get to the free throw line, where he improved his shooting percentage from 58 percent to 68 percent last year.

Defensively Olah also has room for improvement as well. When you're 7-feet tall and 270 pounds, it's difficult to keep up with smaller forwards. Players who could stretch the floor, such as Branden Dawson, Noah Vonleh, and Aaron White, were able to blow by Olah after pulling him out of the paint.

The main change Olah can make is moving his feet. He's already a solid post defender. He uses his size well to maintain position and get a hand in the face of shooters, shown in his 58 blocks last season. But quicker forwards are able to lose or cross up Olah too often. Although he's never going to be the ideal guy to guard a stretch forward, just slight improvements to his footwork would help Olah limit his match-up's scoring options.

As much as post moves and better footwork would improve Olah's game, expanding on his rebounding skills would do even more. Olah finished 17th in the conference at 5.2 rebounds per game in 2013-14. Four Big Ten guards averaged more boards than Olah last year, including teammate Drew Crawford. That's not good for a 7-footer, especially since NU was usually in man defense.

Olah_medium
Mike DiNovo - USA TODAY SPORTS

So much goes into rebounding that it's hard to determine what exactly Olah needs to do to up his numbers. He has the size and strength to box out, but Olah isn't always able to get into rebounding position due to his lack of athleticism. Using his feet to get position and create a wide base would be huge for Olah here, as would an improved motor. Vonleh, Hammons and Dawson do whatever it takes to grab a rebound. More physicality and drive would help Olah clean the glass.

Now, that's a lot of different improvements for one man to make, and they all take time. In Olah's case, he can take it one step at a time. The 'Cats have an extremely young roster and average expectations this season. In 2014-15, it's important Olah continues to make small strides. Just another post move or two should get him to averaging double figures and taking almost 10 shots per game. If he can do that and bump up his rebounding totals while improving as a defender, Olah will be a force in the Big Ten.

Can he become the Big Ten's best big man? Not this season, but maybe in his senior year. Frank Kaminsky, Aaron White, Amir Williams, Nnanna Egwu, Ross Travis and Elliott Eliason are all entering their final college seasons. Otherwise, the best returning posts in the conference are Olah and  A.J. Hammons, and Hammons has the talent to leave for the NBA next year. With the loaded recruiting classes Big Ten powerhouses reel in, it's likely an underclassmen surpasses Alex Olah in the next two seasons, but if Olah makes these improvements, there is a chance he is the cream of the crop at center in 2015-16.