According to high school rankings, Northwestern basketball’s recruiting class of 2016 is Chris Collins’ best yet. For about a year, Wildcat fans have been salivating over the prospect of seeing the triumvirate of Seattle basketball’s all-time leading scorer (guard Isiah Brown), a physically dominant local product brimming with potential (center Barrett Benson) and the class’s most highly-touted recruit (forward Rapolas Ivanauskas) donning purple and white jerseys on the floor of Welsh-Ryan Arena. The hopes for this group are that they will ignite that final push to get the program over the hump and into a new era.
Unfortunately, a season-ending shoulder injury suffered by Ivanauskas means fans will only get the privilege of seeing two-thirds of that trio in action in the 2016-17. However, they are still left with two interesting and unique newcomers in Brown and Benson, and should still be thoroughly intrigued by the prospects of what they bring to the table and how they will fit into Collins’ plans in their inaugural year on campus.
Friday’s scrimmage left fans with high expectations for Isiah Brown. All summer long, there have been whispers about his special ability as a pure scorer, and his team-leading 18-point performance against UI-Springfield put that ability on full display. He attacked the rim fearlessly, used his body to finish around the cup, showcased a deadly arsenal of mid-range pull-up jumpers, and nailed two-of-two catch-and-shoot three-point attempts.
He already appears to have an all-around package of quickness, handles, body control and jump-shooting ability to establish himself as someone who can flat out get buckets at the college level. It was apparent throughout his 23 minutes off the Northwestern bench on Friday that Collins will trust him and even encourage him throughout this season to attack and get his shots up as often as possible. With all the above factors taken into account and Brown’s spot as the first guard off the bench all but solidified, there is a very real possibility that we could see this freshman’s name amongst the team’s top two or three leading scorers by the end of the year.
Despite all this, however, there is one question that can single-handedly slow down the Isiah Brown hype train: What does he bring to the team when his shots are not falling? For the past four years at Northwestern, Tre Demps was positioned as an off-ball guard whose clear role on the floor was to score the basketball first and foremost. However, Demps was 6-foot-3, meaning he could somewhat guard long, athletic Big Ten two-guards, provide adequate length on the wing of a zone, and marginally pitch in on the glass at both ends every so often. That value that he provided in other facets of play allowed Demps to play some of the team’s highest percentage of minutes from his sophomore-senior seasons, remaining a staple of the rotation even when he was experiencing occasional shooting woes.
Judging by the fact that he did not play a single minute of action in the scrimmage without one of Bryant McIntosh or Jordan Ash—the team’s two point guards—on the floor, it is pretty clear that Brown will occupy a similar off-ball, scoring guard role when in the game that Demps did (although likely at a lower usage rate). Without size (Brown is listed at 6-foot-2 but is realistically more like 6-foot), length or the ability to create shots for others and run an offense on his own, Brown currently lacks the defensive qualities that Demps had which allowed him to go through hot and cold streaks and remain a key part of the rotation. The fear with Brown is that, if his shot happens to go at any given stretch, then his value to the team will go with it. It will be an extreme test of Collins’ faith and patience with his youngster to leave him out on the floor.
The most pivotal factor for Brown’s season will be whether or not he can prove to Collins that he has the poise and playmaking ability to run the team’s offense on his own as a lead guard. If he can do that, he will find minutes backing up McIntosh in addition to his allotted minutes playing alongside him, and will prove to his coach that he can contribute to the team without putting the ball in the basket.
Brown’s best-case scenario is that he establishes himself as the team’s sixth man, the leader of the second unit and a deadly weapon with the first unit, and the team’s second leading scorer in just his freshman season. His worst-case scenario is that some games he plays 30 minutes and scores 20 points, and others he plays 10 and scores zero. However, regardless of whether we see the best, worst, or somewhere in between these two prospects, one thing can be assured: Watching Isiah Brown this season will be very exciting.
Simply by looking at the depth chart heading into the season, Benson appeared more likely to fill a greater role. With the departure of Alex Olah and Joey Van Zegeren, Benson is positioned as the only true center on the team behind sophomore Dererk Pardon. While Pardon certainly showed the ability to score and rebound in his Freshman campaign, his rim protection and post defense often left much to be desired.
The results of these shortcomings were that he consistently found himself in foul trouble, making it hard for Collins to keep him on the floor for extended minutes despite his offensive punch down low. With Pardon now starting this year and receiving a significant uptick in playing time, it logical to presume that these problems will persist in some shape or form. It’s equally logical to suggest that Benson, with his long, wide-bodied 6-foot-10 frame, would be the natural fit to eat up extended minutes in Pardon’s stead if he can defend in the post with discipline and protect the rim effectively.
However, last Friday night’s scrimmage against UIS laid waste to this line of reasoning and tempered expectations for Benson in 2016-17. When Pardon picked up a foul three minutes into the game with Northwestern down 6-2 and sputtering on both ends of the floor, it was not Benson, but rather junior Gavin Skelly who Collins turned to off the bench. The 6-foot-8, wiry Skelly is without a doubt a forward by trade, but he gave the team good minutes at the five-spot, blocking a shot, rebounding on both ends, scoring down low, and ultimately exiting and re-entering for Pardon twice while Benson sat watching.
In fact, the freshman did not see the court for his Northwestern debut until he subbed in with less than five minutes remaining in the half. His performance did little more than provide an explanation for Collins’ decision to go with Skelly as his second option. He looked sluggish and unrefined in almost every facet of his game, struggling to get up and down the floor, get in sync with the offense, move his feet defending the pick-and-roll, and finish easy looks around the bucket. When considering that the opposition was a DII team that finished 5-13 in the Great Lakes Valley Conference last season, his struggle to keep pace with the game was especially troubling.
However, in his limited minutes he did show some flashes of his perceived complementary qualities to Pardon. Matched up against a fellow 6-foot-10 center, he repeatedly played solid post defense without fouling, and was also able to show his ability as a rim protector, altering numerous shots around the basket from driving guards and picking up a nice block as a weak side help defender as well.
With all these negatives and positives taken into consideration, the overall takeaway on Benson should be this: His role will likely be far more limited than many thought, as he does not yet pose a significant scoring threat offensively and is not physically ready from a fitness and quickness standpoint to play major Big Ten minutes. However, while this does mean we may have to wait a bit longer than anticipated to glimpse Benson’s full potential and we may see a lot more of Skelly at the ‘5’ than originally anticipated, there will be times this year where the rookie from Hinsdale, Ill. will be relied upon to play extended and vital minutes when the situation calls for it.
Against teams who possess big-bodied low-post threats, expect to see Benson utilized heavily by Collins to help Pardon nullify those threats on the defensive end and on the glass. Though he may be far from ready in many aspects, nobody on the Wildcats is better equipped to bang in the interior with the likes of Thomas Bryant, Isaac Haas, and Ethan Happ than Benson. When necessary, he should get the call off the bench.