Northwestern has never been thought of as a “sports school”. Shocking, I know.
Now NU isn’t some bottomless pit devoid of hope and success. Just look at the lacrosse program from 2005 through 2012, where they dominated the sport to a degree near akin to the Boston Celtics in the 1960s. Of course, that still hasn’t changed the reputation that you should go to Northwestern for a degree rather than the athletic atmosphere. It sucks, but non-revenue sports just don’t garner the attention the same way football and basketball do, and those are the sports that NU has historically struggled at.
Yet, even those labels have been shed for the football and women’s basketball programs. Sure, the ‘Cats were the center of every CFB joke prior to 1995, but two decades of consistent winning under Fitz and having NFL Hall of Famers in Otto Graham and Chris Hinton had helped wipe away that image.
Meanwhile, the women’s basketball team now has two Big Ten crowns following their historic 2019-20 season, and recently had their own Nia Coffey taken fifth overall in the 2017 WNBA Draft, not to mention an already historical great in Anucha Browne Sanders.
But then, there’s the men’s basketball program. The never making the tournament jokes finally subsided in 2017, but the program’s reputation for futility has not. It’s not the end all be all, but producing players that succeed as professionals in that sport matters. NU has had a grand total of 18 players suit up for an NBA game throughout all history, and only one of those players has even finished his career averaging over 10 points per game — Max Morris, who averaged 12.6 points in 62 appearances for the Sheboygan franchise back in 1950.
Even guys who achieved great acclaim in college like Evan Eschmeyer and “The Crazed Hummingbird” Billy McKinney didn’t amount to much (Eschmeyer flamed out after four years, while McKinney scraped out a seven-year tenure and was able to average over 10 points per game in the 1981-82 season).
All this to say, if the Northwestern men’s basketball program wants to distance themselves from all the jokes and ridicule, they need Vic Law to fully make the NBA as a member of the Orlando Magic.
How realistic is this?
Well, Law already did enough to make himself stand out with Orlando’s G-League affiliate, the Lakeland Magic, and secured a two-way contract with their NBA team. As you might expect, the best archetype for the lanky 6-foot-7 shooting guard to follow is that of a three-and-D wing. In 33 games with Lakeland, Law averaged 19.7 points per game and 27.1 points per 48 minutes, good for the 21st and 19th best marks in the G-league respectively. He shot 40.3 percent from behind the arc on 5.6 attempts per game, as his high release point allows him combined with his pogo-stick like jumping ability allows him to get off his shot over the contests of scrambling defenders.
Law is not necessarily open on that second spot up, but he’s so high off the ground that he’s practically floating above his defender, rendering that outstretched hand pointless.
Not only can Law get his jumper off no matter the defense, but he has just been flat out stroking it from every area on the court. As you can see in the two heat maps down below, Law shot over three percentage points above average from every single zone behind the three point line, including a ridiculous 19-for-41 performance on corner triples.
In addition to his shooting acumen, Law has put that same springy athleticism he displayed in four years at NU to use in the professional ranks by often out hustling opponents, as he does in this play, surging past the defense for the fast break dunk.
It’s a simple equation. If you try to run faster than the other guys, you are more likely to do well. Law (No. 23, middle of the screen) is behind his defender when point guard Josh Maggette first gets the ball.
Then ends up here once the pass has been thrown.
As of January 23, Law had shot a ridiculous 73 percent on 78 attempts in the restricted area, and this wild success is all likely due to his athletic pop that allows him so sky over defenders, helping him compensate for any lack of finishing skill.
Start to add it all up, and it becomes clear that Law was one of the best players in the G League this year. And before you think he was simply a stat monger on a bad team that didn’t truly impact winning, Dakota Schmidt — SB Nation’s official G League expert and sole operator the incredible Ridiculous Upside website — detailed the underlying statistics that reveal Law’s positive impact in an in depth piece that I couldn’t recommend enough.
The Lakeland Magic scored 11.4 more points per 100 possessions with Law on the court (106.6 compared to 95.2), which equates to them being the 15th best G-league offense i.e. the Magic were an average G League offense when Law was playing. Okay, but nothing too great, right?
Well, then you learn that Lakeland was a gargantuan seven whole points worse than the worst overall offense in the entire G League (the Windy City Bulls, go figure) whenever Law took a seat on the bench. The Magic could have purposely taken shot clock violations when Law was off the court and the damage would have been roughly the same.
More interesting observations from Schimdt:
Schmidt concludes his article saying that he believes in Law making a permanent NBA roster moving forward. Fantastic, one of the most devout G-League watchers on the planet is all-in on Law. So how is this a question?
Well, if you were fortunate enough to read the amazing first edition of the Inside NUsletter, you saw that Law is currently in the Disney World bubble with the real Orlando Magic, and actually got some run in the final five minutes of the NBA’s first official return to normalcy in a scrimmage against the Los Angeles Clippers.
But in short, Law struggled in his few moments of action, shooting 1-for-4 from the field and having a couple moments of, “Crap, these guys are more athletic than I’m used to” moments. That’s to be expected when you make the jump to the best basketball league earth, but it was a little concerning nonetheless.
One thing that’s become clear to me is that any type of creation/off the dribble role for Law is not in his future. He doesn’t have the handles to get defenders off balance and scoot by them, and that high release point off his right shoulder is not conducive to a functional pull-up jumper. Not to mention Law’s narrow stance, two-foot jumping style make it difficult for him to gather himself in the highly variable situations of an NBA offense.
Law’s second Disney bubble appearance went even worse. The Magic took on the LA’s other team in the Lakers, and Law went a pitiful 0-for-4 in his eight minutes of play in the fourth quarter.
Three of those four misses were off the dribble shots that occurred outside the paint, and in each one you can see just how awkward Law looks when gathering the ball as he goes airborne for an attempt.
Law needs to eradicate these 10-to-15 footers from his shooting profile. He is a three-and-D wing that should a) shoot the three without hesitation when it gets swung to him in the corner, and b) take open layups if he gets them off a cut or attacking a closeout with an open lane.
The only way for a role player to justify ventures inside the arc by their own accord is to pass like a savant (think Andre Igoudala). Watch those three shots again, and you can see that Law missed an open man on each and had plenty of time left on the shot clock that he should have given up the rock.
That last one might seem like a nitpick, and it’s an admittedly hard pass that I probably couldn’t make myself. But there’s a reason why I don’t get paid money to play basketball. Rotation NBA players see that opening and dump the ball off in the right place for an assist.
But, to close on a positive note, Law did have this awesome defensive possession near the end of the contest, chasing Dion Waiters all over the court and finishing the play with an in-your-face challenge.
Yes, that shot went in. Nothing anyone can do about that — sometimes you just get stuck on Waiters island.
The league has a place for guys that grind on defense, and Law’s consistent effort combined with his springy style give the projection of a dangerous perimeter defender should he put on more weight in order to avoid getting bullied underneath.
He also needs to start shooting those corner threes with zero abandon. Despite finishing 22nd in the G League in three point percentage, he only finished 42nd in the league in three point attempts per 48 minutes. To be a true floor spacer, you have to be willing to shoot even when the shot isn’t necessarily open, as the constant threat of a three pointer being made in spite of good defense bends the opponents to a point that opens up the rest of the court for the stars of the offense.
So in the end, things aren’t looking too good for Law with all his recent struggles, but the pathway to his success is clear — embrace the three-and-D role. It’s going to take some time, but Law could be the first representative of NU in the NBA in a long time.