Chris Collins took a gamble last year when he offered Pat Spencer a scholarship. It had been four years since he played competitive basketball, as he spent his undergraduate days as a lacrosse star at Loyola Maryland, even winning the Tewaaraton Award in 2019. Yet Collins saw something in Spencer, whose first love was actually basketball, not lacrosse.
Northwestern needed a second ball handler this year in addition to Boo Buie, and Spencer proved to fill that role and then some. The gamble was well worth it: the grad transfer was one of the more consistent pieces on this struggling team and was oftentimes the most effective creator on the floor. In hindsight, it is scary to think about what could have been, on an already limited offensive team, had Spencer not headed to Evanston this year.
As a 6-3 guard that played on and off the ball as Northwestern experimented throughout the year, Spencer did a little bit of everything, finishing with 10.4 points, 3.9 assists, 4.1 rebounds, and 0.8 steals per game. He was third on the team in rebounds, beating out Robbie Beran, while also leading the team in steals at 24 on the year (which really says something about Northwestern’s overall inability to create defensive havoc). Most importantly, he was far and away the best distributor on the team.
As a lead guard, his assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.7 was rock-solid, good for second on the team. On the whole, these per-game numbers showcase his elite versatility and his ability to contribute on both sides of the floor.
Spencer’s shooting numbers don’t particularly jump off the page, but he was third on the team in field goal percentage at .436 despite hitting a disappointing 23.5 percent of his triples. On a team that sorely lacked the ability to space the floor, it would have been beneficial to get consistent shooting from one of its lead guards to create some space inside.
Spencer’s midrange jumper could’ve used some improvement, as he only converted at a 36.4% clip from that area. His pull-up jumper and three-pointer were largely inefficient shots but as bad as Spencer’s percentage from outside was, he made up for it by simply not taking many shots outside the paint.
Being the high IQ basketball player that Spencer is, he picked his spots effectively, as 81.8% of his field goal attempts came either at the rim or in the midrange game. In addition to mainly taking two point shots, he was extremely effective going towards the basket, converting 60.4% of his shots at the rim. Even more impressive is that he was able to take the second most free throws on the team for the year and hit at a 81.5% clip.
Spencer finished with 22 points, eight assists, four rebounds, and two steals in an overall tough team performance against Minnesota. En route to shooting 50% from the floor, he played all but one minute, doing his best to keep the ‘Cats in it all the way to the bitter end.
At any given point in time, it was evident that Spencer was willing to do anything necessary to help his team win. From rebounding consistently, even as a 6’3” guard, to defending bigger players, he did plenty of the dirty work. As arguably the most consistent piece on the offensive end this year, he played on and off the ball. Due to his inability to knock down threes, he was more effective as the primary ball handler initiating pick-and-rolls and driving down the lane.
Spencer has an innate feel about whether to kick to a relocating Miller Kopp or throw a beautiful pocket pass to a cutting Ryan Young. Although he lacks an elite first step — which allowed him to truly blow by his defender only rarely — he is a crafty player who understands how to use his sturdy frame to create angles for himself. Going along the theme of his frame, Spencer is exceptional at keeping his defender on his hip to either create space for himself or to draw the second defender for a dump down.
As his stats have proven, Spencer is efficient going towards the rim. His strength allows him take hits from defenders and finish over, or through, contact, scoring capably with either hand while utilizing savvy pump fakes and patience to create space.
An underrated part of Spencer’s game is his ability to turn defense into offense. He has great anticipation and as a result, has a knack for jumping passing lanes and getting deflections. Even more impressive is his explosiveness in transition: he threw down multiple thunderous dunks on the break this season, and his leaping ability is something to behold.
It seems Pat Spencer is still getting his hoops legs back...— Travis Eldridge (@tgeldrid) December 5, 2019
I’ll give the dunk an 8 out of 10.
We’re still working on the landing part. ♂️ pic.twitter.com/8Imm6U9we8
Although I have already touched on this, his inability to hit threes hurt the Wildcats tremendously. Defenders could often sag off Spencer without being punished as his slower first step did not allow him to attack closeouts as effectively. Adding onto this, defenders would often go under screens which limited his ability to attack and dish, one of the areas that he thrived in.
Defense is where he struggled the most, as quick offensive players consistently blew by him on closeouts. When Spencer was in a help position and had to recover, he often either bit on a pump fake by the perimeter player or did not have the lateral foot speed to stay connected to the offensive player.
Often, when the ball was thrown to the post, Spencer would dig a little more than he should have, as he was consistently slow getting back to the perimeter to guard the three or drive. Another area that Spencer struggled in when the ball was thrown to the post was that he would often lose his man on the perimeter. He fell asleep much too often which allowed shooters to relocate for the open three.
This next area is one that I hate to harp on: his attempts to take charges. Coaches love charges and one can only respect Spencer’s willingness to lay it on the line to risk getting trampled by elite athletes. However, too often he set up too early on the drive which allowed offensive players to easily sidestep him for an easy two. This caused the defensive rotation to be one step too slow, allowing for easy buckets.
Who knows what Spencer will do now. Whether he takes his talents to professional lacrosse or tries to play basketball overseas remains to be seen, but whatever he chooses, he will have all of the Northwestern faithful behind him.
The Bottom Line
Spencer is a natural basketball player with a gift for seeing the game one step ahead of the defense. In a year plagued by struggles and inconsistency from the team, Spencer was a bright spot and showed fans Collins made a good gamble last summer, though it ultimately didn’t have much impact on the program as a whole.
More importantly, the point guard proved his value as a world-class athlete by even coming to play basketball in the stacked Big 10 in the first place. To be quite frank, he easily surpassed my expectations. We should be thankful for the season and positive national attention that he gave Northwestern. We will truly never see another Pat Spencer.