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Northwestern’s Scottie Lindsey is a star

And his development has been the single biggest catalyst for the Wildcats’ improvement this season.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

During his first two seasons at Northwestern, the mention of Scottie Lindsey’s name often coupled with the idea of inconsistency. The slender guard from the Chicago area could score; that much was clear. And when he did, it was beautiful and seemingly effortless.

Yet those moments of brilliance were frustratingly few and far between. A 26-point masterpiece against New Orleans in December of 2015 preceded a stretch of five-straight non-conference games in which he scored fewer than five points in each. Then, after back-to-back games in which he finished in double figures to end in the non-conference slate, he went the first nine Big Ten games without cracking 10 points, which included three games in which he played but failed to score and one game where he didn’t play at all, a brutal 76-45 loss to Michigan State.

His response to that DNP-CD: a stretch of four games where he averaged 12.25 points per game and played a major role in Northwestern’s offense. But Lindsey finished his sophomore season scoring more than four points just once in his final six contests.

So as the 2016-17 season rolled around, it was clear Lindsey’s role would increase with Tre Demps graduated, but it was fundamentally unclear what Lindsey would produce with the added opportunities.

And what began as a nice start to his junior campaign, then turned into a hot stretch, has become Scottie Lindsey’s new normal. The 6-foot-5 guard is scoring a team-high 15.6 points per game. And, more impressively, in Northwestern’s 17 games through Jan. 8, Lindsey has scored in double figures in each of them, closing on an impressive mark of game-to-game consistency, according to Northwestern men’s basketball SID Nick Brilowski:

But while Lindsey’s game-to-game scoring numbers have been both consistent and impressive, his performance within games can still ebb and flow. He can still disappear offensively for stretches, only to pour in spurts of 5, 6 or 8 straight points in the blink of an eye.

For example, in Northwestern’s 74-66 win at Nebraska on Sunday, Lindsey was quiet and held in check offensively through about seven-and-a-half minutes into the second half. But on three consecutive possessions, Lindsey hit a three in transition, used a Gavin Skelly screen to connect on an off-the-dribble jumper, and spaced the floor to knock down an open three against Nebraska’s zone on his way to a game-high 19 points. Of those 19, 15 came in the second half.

While point guard Bryant McIntosh may very well still be Northwestern’s most important player and swingman Vic Law Jr. is probably the team’s best overall player, it’s Lindsey’s unique offensive qualities that make him the closest thing Northwestern has to a “star.”

Lindsey is Northwestern’s most dangerous offensive threat, capable of putting an opponent out of reach or bringing Northwestern back into a game in a just handful of possessions.

Even in tough shooting displays like his 3-of-11 outing in Northwestern’s 61-52 loss at Michigan State, it was his back-to-back three pointers that ended a five-or-so-minute-long scoring drought for the Wildcats as the Spartans’ lead ballooned to 23-9. Shortly after, he stole the ball twice, once leading to a Vic Law three and then leading to a Nathan Taphorn layup, bringing Northwestern squarely back into a game that could have easily gotten away early.

In those fleeting moments, Lindsey can consume a game. Now, it’s up to him and Northwestern’s coaching staff to figure out how to turn those moments from fleeting to lasting.

In his fourth season at the helm, Chris Collins’ core offensive principles haven’t changed much from his third season. Without Alex Olah, there are fewer post touches per game. But with more athletic and better shooting lineups on the floor, Northwestern’s spacing seems better. This year, more than the last few, the offense seems perimeter-dominated, relying on the driving ability of McIntosh, Law and Lindsey to get into the lane to distribute and score. But even last season, McIntosh and Demps were relied on heavily to create off of screens and dribble handoffs. And, through early January, Northwestern’s offensive is still extremely reliant on McIntosh’s ability to probe defenses and set up both Lindsey and Law.

Looking closely at Lindsey’s game, it doesn’t seem like there have been any major changes to his offensive skill set. He’s not really shooting any better percentage-wise from three than he did last season, for example. But, he’s become a more efficient offensive player as his usage has grown tremendously. He’s on pace to shoot well over twice as many shots as he did as a sophomore and his offensive efficiency rating, according to KenPom, has risen to 115.7, the highest on the team among players whose usage rates are over 20 percent (McIntosh, Law and Isiah Brown). Basically, he’s filled Demps’s usage, while being better than the former Wildcat.

And even with this rise in usage, the types of shots Lindsey’s taking haven’t changed much from his freshman and sophomore years.

Most of that is probably because, as mentioned earlier, Northwestern’s offense hasn’t changed much. But more and more, Collins is calling sets to use Lindsey’s unique skills. Lindsey will often run through a gauntlet of down screens to free him up for a wing three, a deadly proposition for opponents.

But, as a counter, Lindsey will also occasionally play out of the post, where his height allows him to see over the defense and make impressive passes to waiting shooters.

The biggest area, though, where Lindsey has made impressive strides is in getting to the free throw line. Through just 17 games, Lindsey has taken twice as many free throws (46) as he took during the entirety of his sophomore year (23). And his proficiency at getting to the line has also improved immensely as his free-throw rate has grown from just over 14 percent to over 22 percent. Those figures, regardless of his actually ability to make free throws, are impressive. But add in his 91 percent mark from the charity stripe and Lindsey’s game has clearly taken a next step.

His athleticism, size, speed, length, cutting ability and scoring sense that could be seen in glimpses over the past two seasons has combined with a more aggressive mindset to create a full-force offensive star. And it’s this growth that has catalyzed a Northwestern team that looks poised to challenge for a spot in the top half of the Big Ten.