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Breaking down Northwestern’s uniquely talented three-man bench mob

A look at how Northwestern’s reserves contribute to the team’s success.

NCAA Basketball: ACC/Big Ten Challenge-Wake Forest vs Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 season hasn’t been without its lumps for the Northwestern men’s basketball team, especially health-wise. The Wildcats lost Rapolas Ivanauskas for the season before a single game had been played, lost Aaron Falzon for the season shortly after that, and lost Dererk Pardon for a considerable portion and perhaps even more as the Wildcats open Big Ten play.

When completely healthy to start the year, Chris Collins mainly stuck to an eight-man rotation that featured Gavin Skelly, Isiah Brown and Nate Taphorn off the bench. This rotation had been so effective that Chris Collins inserted freshman Barret Benson into Pardon’s starting spot when he went down with an injury, rather than starting Skelly.

Here’s a look at how Northwestern’s reserves have contributed to the team’s success this season:

Gavin Skelly

Despite coming off the bench, Skelly has played the fifth-most minutes on the team. When he’s on the court, Northwestern outscores its opponents by 140 points. When he’s on the bench, the team outscores the opposition by 33 points. It’s clear that he has the ability to start, but Collins has a reason for giving him a reserve role.

“We just bring him off the bench because there’s value in what he brings off the bench,” Collins said after the team’s win against IUPUI. “He’s all over the glass, he’s making hustle plays.”

Skelly is third on the team in total rebounds collected, and when he’s on the court, he gobbles up over 24 percent of the team’s boards. He also leads the team in blocks, averaging 2.1 per game. His mixture of size and mobility allows him to be a deterrent for opponents.

Another one of Skelly’s strengths is his vision. The Wildcats assist on a ridiculous 70.7 percent of their field goals when Skelly’s on the court. Add up his own field goals made and assists, and Skelly accounts for 35.1 percent of the team’s field goals. He’s as much a part of Northwestern’s offense as he is its defense.

“I think what’s underrated about Gavin is his ability to make plays,” Collins said after the team’s loss to Butler. “When you have a guy like Gavin who can roll out and make a shot, it puts a lot of pressure on their defense and it gives us a different look.”

After recording 30 assists in his first two seasons, Skelly has already dropped 28 dimes this year. He said he’s always had the ability since high school, but it’s taken time for Collins to give him more responsibility. Now one of the team’s primary contributors, Skelly believes that time has paid off.

“They trust me, and that’s a huge part of being with this team and this group is that they trust me to make the right plays,” Skelly said after the team’s victory over Bryant. “Points will come and go, but definitely being an assist man lets everyone know that I’m not trying to get mine.”

Skelly’s skill set, which includes a three-point shot, makes him difficult to defend. Add in his vision and he becomes a key cog of the offense. Watch as Skelly sets a pick on McIntosh’s man, drawing the attention of his defender and Pardon’s:

At 6-foot-8, Skelly sees the floor well from the top of the arc. When he realizes that Wake Forest is bringing two defenders to him, he rifles a pass underneath to Pardon for an easy dunk.

Here’s another example of Skelly operating above the arc:

He uses a pump fake to get by his defender, forcing McIntosh’s man to help on the drive. Skelly takes a dribble to feign the drive and pitches the ball to McIntosh for a wide-open three.

“He’s a great decision-maker at the [power forward] and [center] spot,” Bryant McIntosh said after the team’s win over Wake Forest. “He’s a really tough matchup, just being able to stretch the floor with him makes us very difficult [to guard].”

Skelly does have his shortcomings. He’s incredibly active, which can often lead to him committing fouls; in fact, he’s committed a team-high 44 fouls this year. Even though Skelly gets plagued with foul trouble every few games, Collins likes his approach to the game.

“Because he’s playing so aggressive, he’s getting himself into some foul trouble, but I love what he’s bringing to the table for us,” he said after the win against Mississippi Valley State. “He looks like a veteran guy.”

Overall, Skelly has been a pleasant surprise this season. If he keeps performing like this, Collins might have to close games with him at center. The team just plays better when he’s out there.

Isiah Brown

Brown has had his minutes yanked around throughout the season, but it appears his production will dictate his playing time. In the eight games where he’s scored at least eight points, he’s averaged 21.1 minutes per game. In the other five games, he’s only played 11.4 minutes and averaged just three points.

Brown’s best skill is his ability to get the foul line. He’s shot the most free throws on the team and ranks third in percentage from the charity stripe. When he’s on the court, Northwestern has shot 14 more free throws than when he’s sitting, which is pretty impressive considering he plays fewer than 18 minutes per game.

While he can be a potent offensive weapon, Brown tends to soak up a lot of the team’s possessions. When he’s on the floor, Brown is responsible for 36.7 percent of Northwestern’s field goals, whether he’s scoring or assisting, and 29.2 percent of the team’s turnovers.

In other words, Brown has the ball in his hands a lot, and a lot of possessions end with him, for better or for worse. Perhaps what’s most telling is how much more the ball moves when he sits. Northwestern assists on 70.5 percent of its field goals with Brown on the bench. That number drops to 64 when he’s on the floor.

There is a power to having fewer assists — or at least fewer passes — though. Errant passes can be picked off and result in fast-break opportunities. If a team commits a dead-ball turnover, it allows its players to get back and set up their defense.

How does this relate to Brown? When he plays, Northwestern commits far fewer live-ball turnovers. To put it another way, opponents don’t steal the ball as much when Brown is on the court: 46.2 percent of the Wildcats’ turnovers are of the live-ball variety when he plays, as opposed to 60.5 percent when he sits.

While the ball tends to stick when Brown is on the floor, the team is less likely to give up fast-break buckets. This doesn’t mean Brown is absolved of his ball-hogging, but it does put in perspective how important it is to take care of the ball. Notice he was brought in as a key contributor to help break the press against Dayton, and he had zero turnovers while his teammates struggled mightily in the category.

Considering his unsavory shooting percentages from the field and three-point range, he could do without some of those possessions. Despite that, Collins believes that the only way Brown can learn to succeed is through trial by error. In his eyes, playing through mistakes is better than not playing at all.

“He’s gonna have his ups and downs, but I’d rather have him making his mistakes [through aggression] versus being on your heels and being timid and afraid to make plays,” Collins said the day after the team’s loss to Butler. He’s repeated a similar message several times this season.

Early on, Brown was playing too fast, according to Collins and McIntosh.

“He is really skilled, so sometimes I think he overcomplicates it and then kinda fumbles everything,” McIntosh said after the team’s win over New Orleans.

Here’s Brown committing a needless traveling violation, thus wasting a fast-break opportunity for the Wildcats:

Eastern Washington’s Felix Von Hofe steps up to check Brown, but his lunge forward allows for Brown to sneak past him for an open lane to the rim. Brown realizes this, but, as Collins and McIntosh pointed out, he went too quickly, making the move before putting the ball on the floor.

Brown is also prone to pre-meditating his moves. Watch as he tries to spin through a crowd, getting his shot blocked:

As soon as he catches the ball, Brown knows what he wants to do. He takes a dribble toward the basket, spins to his left and finds a towering defender in his face. Instead of passing the ball off to Skelly, Brown still pulls up for a short jumper that had no chance.

These are the kinds of mistakes Collins wanted Brown to play through in the non-conference slate. He’s clearly got talent, but he needed to do a better job of reading the floor and making good decisions.

As the season wore on, Brown began to show signs of steady play, producing plays like this:

Rather than blowing up the play or passing to McIntosh, Brown waits for the sequence to develop. Once Taphorn pops free, Brown hits him with a crisp pass, leading to a three.

Here’s another example of Brown’s patience paying off:

Brown drives baseline, attracting the attention of Sanjay Lumpkin’s man. He keeps the ball until Lumpkin’s defender is right in his grill before throwing a bounce pass to Lumpkin for the easy score.

He’s even begun to use his dribble to lull defenders to sleep, freeing his teammates:

When Skelly’s defender jumps out on him in the pick and roll, Brown takes a couple dribbles to survey the floor, bit still keep both his and Skelly’s man’s attention. As he does this, Skelly darts to the rim, giving Brown an easy outlet.

“He’s slowing down a little bit now,” Collins said after the team’s victory against IUPUI, a game in Brown scored a career-high 15. “I didn’t want to rob him of his aggressiveness because that’s who he is.”

Brown’s development will be put to the test as the team enters conference play. Going up against better defenses should make Brown better in the long run, but it shouldn’t be surprising if his shooting numbers remain ugly. Regardless, Collins believes in Brown, who many on the team refer to as a “sparkplug.”

“If you can play, you can play,” Collins said after the team’s win over Mississippi Valley State. “And that kid can play, and I’m glad he’s on our team.”

Nate Taphorn

In his fourth season at Northwestern, Taphorn is enjoying a career year. He’s been lights-out from three-point range, leading the team in percentage from that distance. His production has been especially important, with Falzon being ruled out for the season after knee surgery.

“With Aaron now being out, that’s Tap’s role,” Collins said after the win against New Orleans in which Taphorn scored a career-high 18 points. “He knows whether it’s to come in as a big wing or come in as a stretch four.”

To classify Taphorn as strictly a jump shooter would be a mistake. When he’s on the floor, the Wildcats crush opponents on the offensive glass; they’re a plus-18 in that category when he plays and a minus-18 when he doesn’t.

There isn’t much of an explanation behind why that is, but maybe that’s all there is to say about Taphorn’s performance this season. When looking at the numbers, the team shoots better percentages when he’s sitting, so it’s not like his floor spacing makes a huge difference. Offensive rebounding is the only area where there’s a considerable discrepancy. He presents a major matchup issue, forcing typical power forwards to extend out.

Regardless, Northwestern outscores its opponents by 54 points when Taphorn is on the floor, so clearly something is working. Perhaps it’s the fact that only 45 percent of the Wildcats’ turnovers are live-ball turnovers when Taphorn plays, as opposed to 57.4 percent when he sits. As mentioned above, there’s a certain advantage to committing dead-ball turnovers instead of live-ball ones.

Maybe it has to do with Taphorn having a more defined role. As the only wing on the bench, Taphorn knows he’s going to get minutes. Collins believes that’s good for a reserve player’s psyche.

“Sometimes that helps you, too, when you know you have a defined role, where your minutes are coming from,” he said after the win over New Orleans. “I think it helps you relax and settle into what you need to do.”

Taphorn has certainly settled into a few games this year. His 12 points against Notre Dame were critical to Northwestern having the lead with less than 25 seconds to go. Then, this happened:

Despite playing well, that turnover stuck with Taphorn, as it’s what ultimately led to the Wildcats’ loss.

“I think after that Notre Dame game I kinda got down on myself, and I can’t do that,” Taphorn said after the win over New Orleans. “Like coach said, I gotta be confident in myself and play within myself and just do what I have the ability to do.”

Plus, he’s sneakily a very good athlete vertically. He’s had his share of eye-popping moments, including a dunk over Frank Kaminsky two years ago and this ridiculous put-back dunk this year:

That’s one of the seven offensive rebounds Taphorn has grabbed this year. Again, it’s hard to explain why the team has played so well when he’s on the court. But his incredible efficiency is a start.

After putting together two strong outings against Dayton and IUPUI, Taphorn seems primed for a strong performance in the Big Ten. According to him, “just seeing the ball go in really helps.”

Skelly, Brown and Taphorn are three incredibly different players, but it’s fair to wonder how their unique skill sets would mesh. The trio have shared the floor for just 45 minutes so far this season, but during that time, Northwestern has outscored its opponents by 20 points. The Wildcats also shoot a better percentage from the field and get to the free throw line more than their opposition does.

“We’ve definitely tried to make an effort to establish that group as [a unit] that comes in and gives production,” Brown said after the win over Houston Baptist. “Depending on how the game is going, we want to make an impact.”

With Skelly’s playmaking, Brown’s rim attacks and Taphorn’s floor spacing, the Wildcats have a plethora of offensive weapons. The fact that all three are net-positives when each is on the floor is a testament to just how deep this year’s team is.

“I think all eight of us could start on this team,” Skelly said after the win over IUPUI, regarding the team’s depth. “Teams don’t really prepare for that, guys coming off the bench and being high-level players and being able to score and make plays.”

Northwestern is going to need as much help as it can get as Big Ten play begins. Last year, the Wildcats finished ninth in the conference with an unimpressive, up-and-down 8-10 record. Now on an eight-game winning streak, the team seems to be peaking at just the right time, and the bench has been a big part of that.

“Over the past couple of games we’ve started to hit a little groove in production,” Brown said of the bench players after the team’s win against Houston Baptist. “It’s helped our confidence as a group and as a team and hopefully we’ll be able to keep that going heading into the Big Ten season.”

Before the season began, Collins said, “The best teams are the ones where everybody embraces their role and understands what they do can be as instrumental to you winning as what anyone on the team does.”

Skelly, who Collins thinks should be the Big Ten’s sixth man of the year, has taken this to heart more than anyone else. His willingness to come off the bench, even as Pardon has missed time, shows his commitment to the team’s success.

“I love coming off the bench,” Skelly said with a smile, after the win over IUPUI. “It’s awesome.”