After walking out of a meeting with Northwestern head coach Chris Collins this summer in his office overlooking Northwestern's practice court, I stopped to look at the framed headshots of his new team. The player that stood out, undoubtedly, was Nathan Taphorn. From images published on the team's various social media accounts, I knew Taphorn had beefed up. When I asked Collins about him, the head coach smiled and proudly said that Taphorn had put on about 20 pounds of muscle during the offseason.
But, nonetheless, the sophomore entered the season as an afterthought; his role unclear and his skills unknown. Was he really the pure shooter that he had been so often labeled as? Could he build upon the experience he gained as a freshman?
All the questions led to one major one: Could he find minutes in a rotation that was thought to be filled with more talented freshmen?
Through 14 games, the answer has been no. But it's not because Taphorn hasn't played well.
His stats are all up from last season, despite playing fewer minutes. His minutes not only have been limited, but they've been inconsistent.
Taphorn has been Northwestern's most efficient offensive player this season, according to KenPom, despite playing just 19.9 percent of the team's possible minutes.
Taphorn has completely changed his offensive game, showcasing the still underrated athleticism and skills he possesses. As I wrote just weeks ago, Taphorn has been relying far less on threes and has gotten to the rim far more:
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).
That trend has continued as Taphorn has taken over 36 percent of his shots at the rim (where he's made 71 percent) and just over 47 percent of his shots have been threes, as of Jan. 6.
The most puzzling thing about Taphorn is that Collins rarely, if ever, criticizes him. He might talk about how well Taphorn played one game (like when he scored 16 points in 23 minutes over Mississippi Valley State). But in the very next game, he may not see much time at all (like in the following game against Central Michigan, where he played just six minutes and didn't take a shot).
Taphorn should be used as a weapon within a creative offensive scheme. There have been glimpses of Collins' willingness to use him more as a wing than as just a big man screener. But those instances have been few and far between.
Taphorn brings an element of versatility that Northwestern's offense often desperately needs. Against Wisconsin, Taphorn played just four first-half minutes, while Wisconsin's big wings -- the six-foot-ten pairing of Sam Dekker and Duje Dukan -- continued to drill threes and put Northwestern into a deep hole. I'm not saying that Taphorn is nearly as good as Dekker or even Dukan, but the way Wisconsin uses both of those players could give Collins a look at how a player with Taphorn's skillset could present matchup problems for opposing defenses.
It seems as if the sophomore has put in the work to make his game better and has provided Northwestern with what may be an offensive diamond in the rough. But will Collins find it? For one reason or another, he hasn't so far.