With Northwestern basketball under two weeks away, it’s time to start addressing the most important issues facing this team and the questions it must answer as it hopes to progress toward the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament. We’ll call this segment the “Eight Questions of Fate,” as the answers to these questions will likely determine how close Northwestern gets to that goal. We start with the return of Northwestern’s best-ever recruit, Vic Law.
He’s back, ladies and gentlemen.
In just 10 days, Vic Law will pull on a white jersey with a purple No. 4 on the back and take the floor against Mississippi Valley State for his first official game action since March of 2015. Should Wildcat fans be awash with feverish anticipation? Of course. Should they have any idea what to expect? Absolutely not.
Two years ago, the 6-foot-7 wing from South Holland, Illinois stepped onto campus as the most prized recruit in the history of Northwestern basketball, a surefire starter in Coach Chris Collins’ lineup, and a cornerstone of the program for both the present and the future. In the two years since, he has some stretches of success followed by extended struggles; a freshman year benching followed by a late season renaissance; a productive offseason followed by a season-ending shoulder injury; and a successful surgery followed by many months of intensive rehab.
On the other side of those peaks and valleys, he has thankfully emerged back into the fold of Wildcat basketball, but the landscape around him and his place within it is drastically different and far more uncertain than what he was introduced to back in the winter of 2014. Another member of the very freshman class that he once headlined — point guard Bryant McIntosh — is now recognized as the team’s undisputed leader, starters are returning at both forward spots, and the team’s primary post presence — Alex Olah — and primary shot creator — Tre Demps — of the past four years have both now departed.
This brings about a litany of questions pertaining to Law. How prominently will he feature in the offense? What position will he primarily play? How will he fit in defensively? Will he even start? What has he added to the skill set he showed us two years ago?
For all of these — especially the final question — there will be no way to truly find the answer until the season has gotten well underway, but even this shot-in-the-dark forecasting of Vic Law’s role in 2016-17 will illustrate just how mysterious his prospects for the season are, and just how vital he is for any chances Wildcat success.
Offensively, the one phrase that has followed Law around all summer and fall as he has made his way down the comeback trail is that age-old cliché: “jack of all trades.” Collins, McIntosh, senior co-captain Sanjay Lumpkin and Law himself have all repeated the phrase ad nauseam when asked about what the redshirt-sophomore brings back to the table. This assessment is mostly true. He has proven that he can run the floor, get on the glass on both ends, and, toward the end of his freshman year, be a knockdown spot-up shooter from three-point range.
Where the jury is still out on Law is his ability as a shot creator. During his freshman year, he did not show much evidence that he could reliably create good looks for himself or for others, either off the dribble or out of the post. However, from what he has seen in pre-season, Collins seems confident in Law’s abilities to step up as a guy who can have the ball in his hands and have the offense revolve smoothly around him.
If Law has indeed developed the level of comfort and versatility necessary to spend stretches of games as the Northwestern’s focal point in a half-court attack, that would be invaluable for a team looking to replace the offensive ingenuity of Demps and relieve some of the pressure on McIntosh as the lead guard. Collins will likely look to use non-conference games to try to give Law as many extended chances in the role of “offensive maestro 1b” as possible, in hopes that he can acclimate to a point where he can spend major minutes as a guiding offensive force in Big 10 play.
With Law likely filling this new and greater offensive niche, the question of whether he fits better into Chris Collins’ plans as part of the starting line-up or as a leader of the second unit intensifies. All common sense says that the former four-star is a starter for this team, and that will most likely be the case come the start of the season. After all, what team wouldn’t want its best rebounder and defender to be starting every game? Well, interestingly enough, this year’s Wildcats may be the team to defy that logic.
Purely from a standpoint of maximizing Law’s impact on the floor, coming off the bench could actually be an ideal scenario for him. Easily the best stretch of his freshman year came in the Wildcats’ last six games of the regular season, where Law averaged double-figure scoring in nearly 30 minutes per game, shooting over 50% from both the floor and beyond the arc and posting a formidable 121.5 offensive rating (more than 30 points up from his season average per KenPom.com) while doing so. Additionally, his rates of rebounds, blocks, and steals all ratcheted up significantly after his removal from the starting line-up. In fact, in almost every measure of efficiency and effectiveness on both sides of the floor, Law’s numbers coming off the bench towards the latter part of the year far eclipsed what he was able to do as a starter for the first 17 games of the year.
Now obviously a large factor in that improvement was Law learning from experience as a first-year college player and naturally becoming more comfortable and more impactful the more games he played. However, his freshman year numbers do indeed carry some weight, and further speak to Law’s potential value to the team this season as an impact reserve — a boost on both ends off the bench.
If there’s one sure thing that can be said about Law for this upcoming season, it is that his energy and skill as a rebounder, rim protector, and on-ball defender are elite. That package, when brought off the bench, makes for the perfect anchoring and invigorating presence on the floor that is needed to both supplement a tiring first unit and carry an eager second unit through long stretches in the middle of halves. Now add to that the hope that he can be someone who handles the ball, plays out of the post, creates shots for others, and scores in isolation, and you have the perfect player to a) take control of the team and offense while McIntosh rests and b) free McIntosh up to play off the ball where we have seen him be effective for short stretches in the past.
Another element that makes this scenario a real possibility for Law is the fact that, previously in his Northwestern tenure, Collins’ has shown no aversion to bringing top players off the bench to maximize their effectiveness and their impact on his team.
During the 2013-14 season, then-sophomore Demps was one of the team’s top-two offensive players by just about every existing metric and eye-test, played the second highest percentage of minutes, used the second highest amount of possessions, yet still came off the bench for purposes of carrying the team and relieving stress on leading light Drew Crawford. Collins has directly indicated that he could potentially see a similar role for Law this year: leading the second unit, taking pressure off of McIntosh, and still being an important crunch-time player on both ends.
The question of whether or not Law will start will probably be the one that is most talked-about and heavily scrutinized surrounding his return in the build-up to the Wildcats’ season, but the question that’s answer will likely have the heaviest implications for the five months of basketball ahead concerns where the high-flying swingman will line up when on the floor.
The idea of “positionless basketball” is catching hold at every level, and Law is the exact type of player that has made this phenomenon possible. His natural position is as a 3 (small forward), yet he is quick enough defending guards on the perimeter to play as a 2 (shooting guard), and now, at 205 pounds, strong enough in the post and protects the rim at a high enough level to play as a 4 (power forward).
The beauty of this versatility is that there are plenty of lineups into which Collins can fit Law that do not take much imagination or creativity to envision. In a line-up with Law and one of the team’s two centers, any two of McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, or Isiah Brown, along with any one of Aaron Falzon, Lumpkin, Nate Taphorn, or Gavin Skelly could be on the floor at the same time and the result would be a cohesive lineup with rebounding, length, perimeter defense, ball-handling and three-point shooting.
All those lineup combinations arise from Law playing as a forward, but where it will truly get exciting is when Collins first tries to fit him in as a guard. Law barely played the 2-guard position at all in his freshman year, but during the build-up to this season Collins has been openly salivating over the prospects of experimenting with him there. When looking at a potential line-up with Law’s name penciled in at the second guard slot, the reason for the coach’s excitement becomes apparent. This would allow for Law (6-foot-7) to play with a lead guard (McIntosh or Brown), a center (6-foot-8 Dererk Pardon or 6-foot-10 Barrett Benson), a shooting forward (the 6-foot-8 Falzon or the 6-foot-7 Taphorn), and a rebounding forward (the 6-foot-7 Lumpkin or the 6-foot-8 Skelly).
That’s a potential line-up with four guys 6-foot-7 or above, where Law’s quickness, perimeter defense, and spot-up shooting ability allows for all five of the boxes I mentioned above to be checked. That could be scary, even by Big 10 standards.
All of these potential combinations of five that Collins can run out on the floor at any given moment are obviously hypothetical, and it remains to be seen how well some of the more creative and never-before-seen groups will be able to work together in practice. However, the fact that a conversation of this length is even possible shows the beauty of Vic Law this year: The mystery about what he brings to the table can be solved with exactly that — mystery. It is the mystery of his versatility, the mystery of his role, and the mystery of his all-encompassing skill set that gives this Northwestern team more exciting looks, options and possibilities going into this season than have been available to this program in the Collins era.