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Film room: Breaking down Aaron Falzon’s game

Falzon can shoot it from deep but is a bit of a question mark on the defensive end.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Falzon’s sophomore season got its legs ripped out from under it before it really ever began. A knee injury forced Falzon to undergo season-ending surgery after playing in just three games. Northwestern was able to have a historic season without the Newton, Massachusetts native, but he’ll certainly be a welcome addition to the rotation — and quite possibly the starting lineup — next season, with Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn graduating.

Playing as a starter wouldn’t be new for Falzon, though. He started 29 out of 32 games in his true freshman season in 2015-2016 and averaged nearly 25 minutes and 8.4 points per game, about on par with the 27.8 minutes and six points per game Lumpkin contributed this past season. But Falzon is a vastly different player than Lumpkin; he’s a far better outside shooter but a worse defender, especially in the post. In those ways, Falzon’s style of play more closely resembles Taphorn’s than Lumpkin’s.

Considering the makeup of the Northwestern roster, Falzon’s positional role on the team will also probably be slightly different come 2017-2018 than what it was two seasons ago. That 2015-2016 team was a bigger and less mobile one with Alex Olah and Joey van Zegeren logging minutes on the inside, plus Lumpkin often guarded bigger players on defense. Next season’s team will feature more quickness and general athleticism with a mobile Dererk Pardon — who, like Falzon, is listed at 6-foot-8 — at the center spot and dynamic athletes in Vic Law Jr. and Scottie Lindsey on the wings. Because the team will be smaller in stature than it was when Falzon was a freshman, Falzon will likely have to guard power forwards and bigs at times, which isn’t ideal given his thinner frame.

Regardless of the exact position Falzon plays in, he’ll bring a new skill set to the Wildcats’ lineup. Here’s a reminder on what Falzon does and doesn’t do well, and how he’ll affect the game when he’s on the floor next season.

Shooting, shooting, shooting

The most valuable skill Falzon possesses is his three-point shot. Of his 87 made field goals his freshman year, 63 of them were threes. At 6-foot-8, he presents a matchup problem for most bigs and can shoot over smaller wings and guards. Because he was playing with two ball-dominant guards in Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps two seasons ago, Falzon mostly operated off the ball on the perimeter, which played to his shooting ability.

In the clip below from a 2016 game against Minnesota, you’ll see Falzon start just to the right of the top of the key before cutting down after Sanjay Lumpkin sets a UCLA screen. Falzon doesn’t come open on the initial dive, so he cuts through and sets up on the opposite wing. After the ball is reversed and Demps sets a down screen, Falzon comes wide open and drains the three.

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This play came against a zone, and the defense was soft — it took just two passes on the perimeter to get a wide open look — but it shows how Falzon can stretch the floor when teams key onto other players or just lose track of his off-ball movement. The floor is more spaced and open with a shooter like Falzon on the court, making it easier for the ballhandlers to get into offensive sets and find driving lanes.

Falzon also creates matchup issues in transition. A lot of bigger players aren’t used to having to defend the three-point line when possession changes, which gives Falzon a distinct advantage. On the following two clips, McIntosh finds Falzon for easy looks after stops on the defensive end, and he cans two more open threes.

Teams have to account for Falzon on the wing in transition, leaving less help at the rim and creating more space for drivers to attack the paint.

The pump fake and drive

With such a prolific stroke from deep, Falzon has success using the shot fake, though he didn’t do it all that often in his freshman season.

In the video below from a January 2016 game against Maryland, Falzon runs to the wing in transition — as he did in the clips above — but this time fakes a shot and drives to the rim. The ref probably misses a travel on the play, but Falzon shows the ability to use the threat of his long-range accuracy to drive past a quicker player in Melo Trimble and finish at the rim.

The next clip shows Falzon benefitting from a van Zegeren screen that forces Damonte Dodd to hedge on the perimeter and makes Falzon’s man, Jake Layman, help down in the paint. Layman then has to make up a lot of ground to close out to Falzon. Falzon alertly sees Layman closing out and calmly fakes and drives past him before hitting a floater in the lane.

One area in which Falzon struggles is getting into the middle of the lane and dishing to an open player when the defense collapses. There were flashes of this during his freshman year, but it didn’t happen a whole lot — he averaged just 0.9 assists per game.

The following clip is an example of this kind of drive-and-kick play. Granted, this play comes after a McIntosh drive off of a pick and roll, so the offense isn’t being run through Falzon, but the freshman forward makes a good pass after freezing his defender with a fake and penetrating in the lane.

If Falzon can show improved playmaking ability from a frontcourt position, he could give the Wildcats a major punch offensively that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Gavin Skelly is a adept passer as a big, but he doesn’t shoot the three nearly as well as Falzon, so the shot fake isn’t as effective in manipulating defenders in order to get into the lane.

Falzon with the ball in his hands offensively

Another element we didn’t get to see a whole lot of two seasons ago was Falzon creating his own offense. That’s not necessarily going to change next season with McIntosh, Lindsey and Law Jr. all being capable ball handlers and playmakers in the starting lineup, but it’s still interesting to think about how Falzon could shoulder some of the offense-creating responsibilities, especially in times when McIntosh goes to the bench.

An underrated part of Falzon’s game is his ability to see over smaller defenders on the perimeter and make a penetrating pass into the post or the teeth of a defense. In the following clip, Falzon gets the ball at the top of the key and finds van Zegeren inside for a dunk.

Falzon shows great vision on this play because he hits van Zegeren right as the senior center gets open. His height advantage over Jordan Murphy lets him dump the ball in easily right to van Zegeren’s left hand, which leads van Zegeren away from the defender and toward the basket. If Falzon and Dererk Pardon can form any sort of dangerous high-low partnership, Northwestern could become lethal offensively.

The next video shows Falzon catching the ball on the outside, reading the defense, and finding Sanjay Lumpkin open in the middle.

Lumpkin dropped the pass, but it did hit him in the hands. Also, the gap in the defense was about as big as the entire Midwest, so it wasn’t the hardest pass to see or make. Still, Falzon’s passing could be an asset for Chris Collins to play with going forward, and could dictate whether or not Falzon stays on the floor when McIntosh rests.

The defensive end

If Falzon does start, he’ll be an offensive improvement over Lumpkin, but a step down defensively (though he’s probably an upgrade over Taphorn defensively). The problem Falzon has is that he isn’t quick enough to stay in front of guards and athletic wings, but he also isn’t really big enough to bang with true centers and power forwards in the paint. His individual defensive shortcomings were partly masked by the matchup zone defense that Northwestern played in 2015-2016, but he still proved solid in that role.

When he’s playing at the three position, like he is in the clips below with Skelly plus a center also on the court, he takes poor starting angles and struggles to contain smaller players off the dribble.

These plays are both in zone defense, so his poor starting angles are partly because of other breakdowns that force Falzon to help. Still, he gets beat relatively easily on these plays, albeit against talented offensive players in Jake Layman and Jared Nickens.

Down low, Falzon has trouble guarding back-to-the-basket players who overpower him in the paint. In the play below, Falzon is forced to guard Damonte Dodd after Alex Olah steps up in the zone, and he gets bullied on the block.

Law Jr. will play a lot, Rapolas Ivanauskas should fight for minutes, and Lindsey could even be a candidate to play at the wing with two other guards, so Falzon will likely be primarily a four. Teams that play with two true bigs will give Northwestern trouble when Falzon is on the floor, which may force Chris Collins to play Skelly more and slide Falzon down to the three or just take him off the court.

Falzon can compete inside, but he does it with length, not muscle.

In the above play, Falzon slides over and provides great help, staying straight up and holding his ground to make a great block on Diamond Stone. As a help defender, Falzon can be a solid interior presence. Because of this off-ball ability and Law Jr.’s rebounding prowess, lineups with Falzon at the four can work. Though he doesn’t have enough foot speed to stick with guards and quick wings, the lineup with him at the four is an incredibly quick lineup to begin with, and Pardon can erase mistakes with his rim-protecting ability.

Ultimately, we won’t be able to fully project Falzon’s role until we know what Chris Collins does with his two remaining scholarships. Still, the bottom line is that his shooting and athleticism will be a major boost for the team in 2017-18. The future is bright for Falzon and Northwestern.