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The 2020-21 Jeremy Nash All-Stars

Let’s get weird.

If you clicked on this headline wondering what the heck could this be about, don’t worry, you’re not alone. I myself don’t truly know what I’ve crafted here, but I do know what the impetus was for this wacky 3,000-word compilation.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe writes a column called “The Luke Walton All-Stars” at the end of every NBA regular season, which, for my money, is one of the best annual pieces in all of sports media. You can read the full backstory behind Lowe’s wonderful idea here, but the basic gist is to celebrate role players who will most likely never be stars in any sense but have found a niche on their team and have served it in both memorable and beneficial ways. It’s a compilation of “role players thriving in unexpected ways.”

The Jeremy Nash All-Star team is slightly different. It celebrates many of the lesser-known players in the Big Ten, but a player doesn’t even have to be good so long as he is fun and cool to qualify. Basketball is an art form that I love to dissect on a deep level, but at the end of the day, it’s 10 humans throwing an orange ball around for 40 minutes while many of us scream at the screen. We don’t do it because it makes sense. We do it because the game is fun, and any player who makes the watching experience more enjoyable is deserving of recognition.

Now, why is this team named after Jeremy Nash? I haven’t had a lifetime of experience with the self-torture that is Northwestern men’s basketball, thus I enlisted the one and only Ben Goren a.k.a. beng a.k.a. beng 2 beng reloaded for the NU player worthy of this honor, and he recommended the 6-foot-4 guard who wore the purple and white from 2007-2010.

A defensive specialist on the top of a 1-3-1 zone. Mega athletic guard with crazy good defensive instincts. Ruined people. Only learned to shoot when he turned 22,” was the explanation I received from Ben. Following a brief Nash highlight binge, I can concur with the belief that he was fun and cool (and in 2009 recorded the highest season steal rate in Northwestern history, per BartTorvik).

The Jeremy Nash All-Stars run eight deep, filled with fine fellas who were not named to the Big Ten’s First, Second or Third All-Conference teams save for one exception because said player was simply too fun. If that seems weird and unfair, it probably is. To quote Ben one last time, “I don’t make the rules, but these are the rules.”

Without further ado, your inaugural 2020-21 Jeremy Nash All-Star team.

Keegan Murray, F, Iowa Hawkeyes: An undisputed captain of the squad, the 6-foot-8 freshman is a bouncy forward with long arms, skilled enough to earn productive on-ball reps and has a knack for making the exact play Iowa needs on a consistent basis.

He was quite literally the only cool player in the dreadfully boring bouts between Wisconsin and Iowa that recently took place. In the Hawkeyes’ first win, he came through in incredible fashion with 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting from the field and posted an out-of-this-world offensive rating of 169.8 points per 100 possessions (which is a team stat that shouldn’t be used to judge individual players but also holy crap). He’s just such a nice change of pace from the copy-and-paste offense of Iowa, throwing in an off-balance lefty hook shot and weaponizing his freaky long arms to swallow up two offensive rebounds that all but saved the game for Fran McCaffrey’s squad.

Luka Garza is undisputedly the Hawkeyes’ best player, let alone the best player in college basketball this year. Murray, though, has the brightest future as a professional of anyone on Iowa. Garza will get picked in the second round to serve as a Nikola Vucevic-lite drop killer, only he’s 2.5 times slower than Vuc and will get emasculated on defense. Murray has plus size, awesome movement skills and a workable stroke as he finished in the 89th percentile on spot-up jumpers this season, per Synergy. I.e. he’s exactly what the modern NBA wants.

I’m so glad he’ll be back in the Big Ten next year as he continues to jaunt around the court at breakneck speed while also shocking opponents with his always improving ball skills.

CJ Walker, PG, Ohio State Buckeyes: A senior point guard who stands at 6-foot-1 on a good day and has at times old-man-at-the-Y-level vertical bounce, Walker still managed to dominate exactly as you’d expect him to. Veteran guards are an advanced cheat code in what NBA Draft Guru PD Web describes as “advanced dog——”, meaning he has every single trick in the book and makes underclassmen with better quick-twitch athleticism look foolish on a regular basis. You need that game-breaking guile to thrive as a ground-bound 27.2% three-point shooter, and Walker manages to do it by hammering teams with his strong body and heady hesitation dribbles.

In his second year at Florida State during the 2017-18 season, Walker started 34 of 35 potential games. Last season as a junior at Ohio State, he started 29 of 31. But this season following an injury that had him miss four games, Chris Holtmann inserted sharpshooter Justin Ahrens into the starting five and stuck with it, turning Walker into a sixth man who started only 12 of 26 games. All Walker did was turn up his senior mastermind style of play, turning into an isolation monster ready to roast any on-ball defender with a quick move to get leverage before using his gigantic shoulder to hold the advantage. See how he perfectly reacts to every Michigan mistake — Chaundee Brown is in “Ice” defense and Walker attacks to that side because Hunter Dickinson shows to the wrong side. Then with Brandon Johns loading up too early for the block, Walker hits him with a hellacious pro-hop move for the and-one.

How about this play in the Big Ten Tournament title game in which Walker counters Andre Curbelo going under EJ Liddell’s ball screen by using the given cushion to get into the paint. He then directs his eyes to Kofi Cockburn, and upon seeing him vacate the rim to stay with Liddell, Walker uses his roughly 20-pound advantage to glide past Curbelo for the inside hand finish.

Walker also has some worse-shooting-Jalen-Brunson in him, as he loves to knife into the 10-to-15 foot range, spin around and hit a fading lefty moon ball to break the heart of his defender. Add it all up and Walker finished the season as a 70th percentile scorer out of pick and rolls and a 92nd percentile isolation scorer, according to Synergy. He mashes second units and makes frustratingly difficult buckets and I absolutely love all of it.

Trevion Williams, C, Purdue Boilermakers: The Jeremy Nash All-Star rulebreaker as he was selected to First Team All-Big Ten, but it makes sense once you truly embrace the Tre Will experience. There are big guys who can make acceptable decisions on the short roll and out of the post (see Hunter Dickinson). There are big guys who can facilitate to shooters, cutters and even occasionally initiate sets with their decision-making (see early season Pete Nance). But then, then there are THE passing big men who make you (or at least me) salivate as they pick apart hapless defenses with no-look and overhead quick flips. Williams is that last kind of big man.

What I love about Williams is he’ll put unnecessary sauce on some of his dishes just to keep things spicy. The weird position wrist flick in the above play doesn’t need to be that dramatic, but Williams does it anyways. Other times Tre Will will get doubled on the interior and see a shooter standing with enough space that any non-horrid skip will generate the open look, yet he’ll stop and look off to another read while whipping the ball at a weird angle with the sole intention of embarrassing those who guard him. There’s something to admire in one of the best players in the country’s best conference not being a make-the-right-play robot and instead following a pursuit of being both effective and stylish.

Those delightful finds of his are often opened up because teams are scared of his post-up scoring. Williams can make jump hooks, drop steps and reverse layups feel unstoppable in the moments they’re happening. His efficiency numbers aren’t quite good enough to insist that opponents actually shouldn’t be doubling him (as sending that extra defense forces tougher rotations on the defense and leads to higher percentage shots at the rim and from three), but his buckets inside look so good that defenders fall for the Tre Will trap anyways.

Northwestern certainly fell for it a few times in its loss at Purdue, but watch Williams nearly take down Ohio State in the Big Ten tourney by absolutely owning Liddell and Zed Key on the interior, and you understand the problem that he poses to defenses. His 2.1 assists per game don’t scream dynamic playmaker (which is more about assists being arbitrary, subjective and overall just a horrible stat for player evaluation, I digress) but trust me, good passing big men are a guarantee to be fun basketball watches, and no center in the Big Ten this season passed better than Trevion Williams.

Dalano Banton, F, Nebraska Cornhuskers: I’m convinced I was put on this earth to stan three things with indefatigable determination — the first three seasons of SpongeBob, long distance running as a replacement for salad and slow-footed forwards who make up for their cement feet with ludicrous change of pace skills and passing chops. Enter Dalano Banton.

Believe it or not, he’s a real NBA Draft prospect despite playing for very much the worst team in the conference.

Look at that defensive manipulation! Feigning a jump shot and instead of hitting the roller for an open layup is a 10/10 in basketball aesthetics. Same thing for bounce passes that split the two defenders in a pick and roll, with the ball finding the sliver of available space presented to him.

Banton certainly has his weak spots. He clanked threes to the tune of 24.7% with his awkward set and hitch release, and you or I might be able to beat him in a shuttle run. The dude covers ground due to his loping strides, but his acceleration switch has been permanently taped down on the offsides. It’s what made me previously comp him to NBAer Kyle “Slo-Mo” Anderson, a man who moves in such molasses fashion that defenders throw their hands up in disgust not knowing what to do when he still manages to score on them. Banton isn’t at quite that status, but his half-speed hesitation moves are still a joy to watch, and he can flash an awesome defensive possession due to his insane wingspan and basketball intelligence.

That top-locking ball denial of his blows up Penn State’s initial offense, and he finishes it off with a weak side rotation and deflection. In a calendar sports year that has been less than kind to the Huskers, Banton was a bright spot for all who watched.

Jacob Young, G, Rutgers Scarlet Knights: I saw only one Northwestern men’s basketball game in person this season, that being the Wildcats’ 64-56 loss at home against Rutgers. Of all the things I remember from that night, it was the unreal quickness of point guard Jacob Young. Just about 99.9% of all DI basketball players are drop-your-jaw athletes if you observe them in person close enough, but Young is the rare dude who makes other athletic outliers look like they’re normal dudes as he sprints by them like Sonic the Hedgehog.

Add on to that a fearless mindset that borders on being downright crazy, and you get a chaotic ball of fire who creates wild events that can both help and damage his team. Check these plays where the second Hakim Hart turns his back to the baseline, Young hits the nitrous booster while going for the steal, and then flat out rips Eric Ayala with his tenacious point of attack defense.

Horizontally he’s a firecracker, but what first made him catch my eye this season was in the vertical game, as he has a Ja Morant-like desire to try to destroy every college big man that has ever lived, including human Goliath Kofi Cockburn.

The amount of swag and confidence you have to have in your own hops to challenge Kofi is unfathomable. Young tried a similar jam against Ohio State and came close to seriously hurting himself, which is a bit emblematic of who he is. He’s an athletic dynamo who wants to cause an explosion every other play, and sometimes you stare at the screen and say, “My guy, just calm down for a second.” But regardless, on a Rutgers team that produced slow, brick-laden contests on the regular, Young was a wildcard bound to do something that made you get up out of your seat at least once every night.

Marcus Bingham, C, Michigan State Spartans:

Now we’re getting into the really wacky dudes. Bingham’s selection is more due to how strange he is to the eyes more than the style with which he plays. The junior stands at just under 7-feet yet weighs a mere 225 pounds, whose stretchy limbs flail all over the place with reckless abandon, making himself a physical danger to everybody on the court including himself.

That dude is way above the rim and should be in line for a monster dunk, yet watching it for the first time, I was 100% confident he wasn’t finishing this. He often plays as if his hands were greased with oil, dropping lobs and fumbling over himself, yet his arms and bounce cover so much vertical space that opponents still fear him in some fashion. One can only imagine what was going through poor Austin Davis’s head in this screenshot below as the uncoordinated plastic man Bingham tried to baptize him.

And somehow, despite taking only 2.4 field goal attempts per game and being a complete non-shooter in every way, he still goes for stuff like this and occasionally pulls through.

A Dirk-leg fadeaway from a guy who attempted 22 shots out of the post all season and finished in the 31st percentile as a post-up scorer? What on earth is that?

Bingham is an enigma that I don’t understand, but every time I turned on an MSU game my eyes were drawn to him and him alone. Rock on you Edward Scissor Hands Plastic Man.

Chaundee Brown Jr, G, Michigan Wolverines:

Michigan posed a hard choice because they have a lot of cool, weird players, but most of them are also stars. Franz Wagner is the chief example, seeing that he’s a projected NBA lottery pick who was also quite wrongly under-appreciated by the Big Ten media and robbed of a first-team All-Conference selection despite being far a 6-foot-9 defensive mastermind with a great drive-and-pass game plus a jump shot that had to be respected by defenders.

But never fear, the sixth man Chaundee Brown is here. The senior guard is similar to Walker in that he schools underclassmen in hilarious ways, though his style relies on jump shooting and vertical bounce as opposed to Walker’s favoring of slick handles and overwhelming upper body strength. Michigan’s beating the living crap out of almost every team they faced prior to the saddening Isaiah Livers injury makes more sense when you realize that a guy who can’t start for them is still capable of bailing them out of possessions like this.

Can anyone on Northwestern hit that shot? A close contest and shade to the left side would wipe out any chance for Miller Kopp, and Chase Audige prefers step backs from the very top of the key rather than the wing, yet Chaundee can take one quick rhythm dribble and splash a jumper that looked good the moment it left his hands.

Brown is also a terrorizing defender with his lateral quickness, adequate size at 6-foot-5 and willingness to get into the jersey of his opponent.

The kicker is his bizarro Synergy profile, as 98 of his 121 field goal attempts in Michigan’s half-court offense were either spot-up jumpers or putbacks on offensive rebounds. He finished in the 89th percentile and 98th percentile in those shot types nationally. Not just for a guard, 6-foot-5 Chaundee Brown was a 98th percentile finisher on offensive putbacks among all DI players. That’s insanely cool and weird.

Andre Curbelo, PG, Illinois Fighting Illini:

If you’ve watched the Illinios basketball team for more than 10 seconds this year, you had to know this one is coming. There might not be a single player in college basketball with a higher approval rating. How can you not love a short, slim point guard who doesn’t take threes but still is an undisputed positive on the court? Curbelo has S-Tier level handles, especially when it comes to splitting desires in tough spaces, and he maps the floor with the best of them, especially in pick and roll actions.

I honestly don’t know how Curbelo spots the pathways for passes that he does. The crevice will open to the slightest degree and Curbelo will then bend his body to a nonsensical angle to curve the basketball exactly where he wants it to go. It’s all enhanced by his unwavering self-belief, never afraid to try anything because he always thinks he’s the smartest guy on the floor. He’s got Jacob Young’s confidence but with the dial properly toned down to the point where he isn’t an always present injury risk.

A theme that I noticed while composing this piece is how I favor guys with an exaggerated level of skill in one area that compensates for a complete deficiency in another area. CJ Walker compensates for his lack of athleticism by roasting other small guards off the dribble. Jacob Young makes up for a lack of feel with jaw-dropping athletic bursts that can simply overwhelm opponents. Marcus Bingham makes up for not knowing what he’s doing by shocking opponents with his willingness to try stuff he isn’t good at.

Curbelo finished in the 15th percentile on jump shots and could get burnt by bigger dudes. Yet he finished in the 87th percentile on runners/floaters, annoyed opponents to no end on defense with his foot speed and picked apart poor defensive rotations with nasty passes all while keeping the same smile on his face. Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier are the heart and soul of that Illinois team. Cockburn is the rock inside that reminds everybody that they’re not to be messed with. Curbelo is the pure joy, a little guy who shot game icing free throws in the Big Ten Championship while he hung his mouth guard around his ear and chirped delightfully to the other players on the court.

Curbelo rules.