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FILM ROOM: Barret Benson’s offensive game shows signs of progress, promise

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The freshman center has re-emerged as an important piece in Northwestern’s last two games.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

When Dererk Pardon went down with a hand injury at the end of November, Barret Benson was thrown into the fire.

For the true freshman with just 15 career minutes under his belt, that meant starting and playing double-digit minutes in all eight games Pardon missed. Benson filled in admirably, but the majority of those games came against weak opposition toward the end of non-conference play. His highlights included six rebounds against Houston Baptist and five blocks against IUPUI.

Benson was mostly a non-factor on offense during that stretch, averaging just over three points per game. In his two starts against KenPom top-90 opponents (Dayton and Michigan State), Benson was completely invisible, failing to score while taking just two shots in 26 minutes.

His offensive struggles weren’t all that surprising, though. The 6-foot-10, 240-pound Benson was brought to Evanston primarily because of size, athleticism and raw ability. He showed signs of being a skilled big man in high school, but scoring against college opponents — who he didn’t tower over — was going to take some work.

On January 3, Pardon came back against Minnesota and Benson was relegated to the bench once again. He failed to crack five minutes of playing time in any of the first six games of 2017, including a DNP against Nebraska.

However, due to a combination of injuries and tough frontcourt matchups, the big man’s presence has been in greater demand over Northwestern’s last two games. Benson has responded to the call with arguably the two most encouraging offensive performances of his young career.

Against Indiana, he went 2 of 3 from the field and dished out a pair of assists in an efficient 13 minutes. Then, in a daunting matchup with Purdue behemoth Isaac Haas, Benson set a career high with eight points in just 11 minutes. Let’s hit the film to see how he did it.

(Note: All video courtesy of BTN2Go)

Shortly after checking in against the Hoosiers, Benson made his presence felt on offense with a nice hook shot out of the post. Notice how Benson uses a shoulder fake to create space against fellow 6-foot-10 freshman De’Ron Davis.

Later in the half, Benson makes another nice play on the block, this time recognizing a double-team and kicking the ball to Vic Law for a wide open three. Why Devonte Green left Law open to double Benson I’ll never know, but give credit to the freshman for calmly making the correct decision to pass.

It was encouraging to see multiple nice plays from Benson out of the post because he hasn’t been utilized much in that area so far this season.

Benson also scored on an easy dunk when Indiana completely forgot to cover him. Following his one missed shot, Benson showed off the athleticism and defense he’s brought all season long, hustling back and stopping an Indiana fastbreak with one of his two blocks on the game. Benson is third on the team with 16 blocks, but leads Northwestern with a 9.5 block percentage and 3.66 blocks per 40 minutes. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but that’s impressive nonetheless.

But back to Benson’s offense. He finished the Indiana game with an offensive rating of 153, his best figure this year against top-100 competition and second-best overall (157 against Chicago St.).

Somehow, he was even better against Purdue. Despite being guarded by the 7-foot-2, 290-pound Haas, Benson had the best offensive game of his career.

Benson checked in earlier than usual after Pardon picked up a quick foul, and right away found himself involved on offense. After setting a pick at the top of the key and allowing Bryant McIntosh to draw Haas with him, Benson is wide open for a mid-range jumper.

He hit the back iron on this one, but that’s a shot Benson has shown the ability to hit all season long. Per hoop-math.com, he’s shooting 52.6 percent on two-point jumpers, which make up almost 60 percent of his attempts.

A couple of possessions later, Benson did something very encouraging. Again, he gets the ball on a pick-and-pop above the free-throw line. This time, Haas closes out harder on the jumper, perhaps now aware that Benson will take it. Recognizing this, Benson gives him a pump fake and drives hard to the basket, drawing a foul in the process.

Benson came into the game shooting just 8-of-17 from the charity stripe, but went 4 of 4 against Purdue, which was a big reason why he scored a career-high 8 points. His stroke was smooth and pure on all four, and there’s no reason why Benson can’t continue to improve his free-throw percentage.

In his second appearance of the first half, Benson showed off excellent activity on the offensive glass. In this example, he gets the ball in the same area, but with Haas in much better position, gives it to McIntosh. Then, he cuts to the basket, seals off his man for a second and corrals the rebound after Haas manages to get a piece of the shot. Instead of rushing things, Benson settles himself with a power dribble and some impressive patience before finishing nicely.

Benson’s offensive rebounding has been strong all season. Of his 37 total rebounds, 17 have come on that end of the floor.

Here’s another example of his work on that end from the second half, albeit one that doesn’t end with an offensive rebound for Benson. He gets solid inside position on Caleb Swanigan as Gavin Skelly launches a three. When the long rebound ends up back in Skelly’s hands, Benson backs up and makes himself available for a short wing jumper, which he drains.

Benson finished the game with a 147 offensive rating and used a career-high 29 percent of Northwestern’s possessions when he was on the floor.

Conclusions

Benson’s last two offensive performances have been encouraging, especially in the context of the opponents they have come against. They also don’t change the fact that the freshman is a work in progress on both ends of the floor. Benson needs to improve his 53.8 shooting percentage on shots at the rim, and the fact that he has committed 38 fouls and grabbed 37 rebounds is less than ideal.

Still, there are plenty of positives to take from Benson’s recent play. His primary role will still be as a big, strong body in the defensive paint, but Benson continuing to be a more diverse weapon on offense would be a major benefit for Chris Collins. It’s anyone’s guess as to how much he will play in the Wildcats’ final nine-plus games, but regardless, his development is an encouraging sign for the future.