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Northwestern basketball player previews: PF/C Gavin Skelly

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The Wildcats’ sixth man (or...fifth starter?) gives Northwestern infectious energy.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Northwestern vs Vanderbilt Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball season is just around the corner. To get ready for the season, we will bring you in-depth player previews for every scholarship member of the 2017-18 Northwestern Wildcats. First up is Gavin Skelly, a big man who has seen his role grow in each of his three years at NU.

Who he is:

Senior; power forward/center; 6-foot-3; 200 pounds; Bolingbrook, IL

The numbers:

5.9 points; 17.7 minutes; 3.7 rebounds; 1.3 assists; 1.2 blocks; .465 FG%; .300 3pt FG%

The basics:

Skelly was Northwestern’s sixth man last season, providing the Wildcats with playmaking at power forward and center. While he’s a skilled passer, Skelly is also turnover-prone; he was the team’s only player who had more turnovers than assists last year. On the other end, Skelly proved to be a capable defender, finishing second on the team in blocks.

Strengths:

Skelly is an above-average passer for a big man, and that quality is amplified when he’s the only big man on the floor. When Skelly played center, Northwestern’s offense thrived; the Wildcats shot 39.5 percent from deep and assisted on 68.7 percent of their field goals. When surrounded by four shooters, Skelly has much more room to operate and as a result, Northwestern is able to rain fire from deep. Adding redshirt sophomore Aaron Falzon to the mix should make these lineups even more dangerous.

Defensively, those lineups held opponents to 39.4 percent shooting from the field and 32.1 percent shooting from deep. Opponents also recorded more turnovers than assists. It should be mentioned that a lot of Skelly’s minutes at center came during the Wildcats’ nonconference season, when the team was playing easier opponents. Even still, Northwestern still outscored Big Ten opponents by a comfortable margin when Skelly played center, although those lineups weren’t quite as stingy defensively.

Weaknesses:

Skelly isn’t a great jump shooter. According to hoop-math.com, he shot 40.6 percent on two-point jumpers and 30 percent on three-point shots. What’s concerning is that those two types of shots accounted for 59.3 percent of his field goal attempts. Skelly’s proficiency on jump shots didn’t justify the alarming rate at which he took them.

His erratic shooting took a turn for the worse during conference play, when he shot 37.5 percent from the field. If Skelly can stabilize his shooting percentages over the course of an entire season, he’ll be a more effective contributor offensively. Skelly acknowledges this and has been in the gym this summer to improve his shooting.

“One thing I’ve been working on this preseason is shooting the three ball consistently,” Skelly said at Northwestern’s media day a couple weeks ago.

Playing next to another big man (usually Dererk Pardon) forced Skelly out of the paint, which didn’t help his shooting percentages. Skelly played the majority of his minutes at power forward last season. When he was paired with another big, Northwestern struggled to score efficiently. The Wildcats shot just 40.3 percent from the field and 30.9 percent from deep. The team also recorded more turnovers than assists when Skelly played power forward. Skelly just isn’t quite as impactful if he’s out on the perimeter. He doesn’t have the space to thread passes to open shooters and he’s more likely to take jump shots when he’s playing power forward.

Skelly also has to guard more perimeter-oriented players when he’s next to another big, which exposes his lack of lateral quickness. When he played power forward, Northwestern allowed opponents to shoot 37 percent from deep. Last season, power forward Sanjay Lumpkin was able to switch seamlessly onto all five positions, giving the Wildcats an edge defensively. Skelly proved incapable of emulating Lumpkin’s defensive versatility, and as a result, opponents burned Northwestern when he played power forward. We’ve covered Skelly’s inability to guard out on the perimeter before. You can read more about it here and here.

Collins and his staff aren’t going to adjust their defensive scheme to accommodate for Skelly’s shortcomings, so he’s got to improve on that end to justify giving him minutes at power forward.

“As a four man, sometimes we switch one through four, so I need to be able to guard guys like Bryant McIntosh and Isiah Brown,” Skelly said.

Expectations:

Sophomore Barret Benson will probably receive consistent minutes behind junior Dererk Pardon at the center position, leaving Skelly to operate primarily at power forward. If last season’s trends continue, the team will struggle at times when Skelly is on the floor. He has gotten better every year he’s been in Evanston, though, so if his outside shot and perimeter defense have improved, Skelly could be a dynamic role player for the Wildcats.