With the men’s NCAA Tournament underway and Northwestern’s season officially over, it’s time to break down the 9-15 rollercoaster season from the Wildcats and the performances of each individual player. First up is the team’s best defender, redshirt junior guard Anthony Gaines.
After playing only 10 games last year, Anthony Gaines sustained a shoulder injury that required surgery and put a quick end to his third season as a Wildcat. Having missed the better part of Northwestern’s abysmal 2020 campaign, his explosive play and veteran leadership were much needed heading into this season.
Gaines’ defensive prowess was certainly an asset for Chris Collins. In a conference where Northwestern faced high-level guard play every game, he proved to be an elite on-ball defender. On the offensive end, however, Gaines was less impactful. Not only were his numbers subpar, but at times, it seemed as if he wasn’t involved in the offensive game plan at all.
The following numbers are taken from KenPom.com.
At first glance, the Kingston, New York, native’s numbers look pretty typical of the first man off the bench. At 52% from inside the arc and 32% from three, his field goal efficiencies were much improved from his last full season in 2019, when he shot 39% and 26%, respectively. And at nearly 55%, his true shooting percentage was second highest in the backcourt, trailing only Ryan Greer.
But the deficiencies in his offensive output become clear when analyzing his usage stats. Gaines only took 10% of the team’s shots while on the floor, which was by far the lowest on the team. This number can partially be attributed to the relatively high usage of players like Boo Buie and Chase Audige, who were often relied on to score late in the shot clock, outside of the flow of the offense. However, Gaines rarely asserted himself as a scoring option, even in stretches where Northwestern struggled to produce any offense. As a senior, he needs to be more aggressive attacking the paint and creating his own shot.
The following numbers come from hoop-math.com.
Although he didn’t do it often, when Gaines attacked the rim, he got to the free-throw line at a high percentage. Only he and Ryan Young had free throw per field goal attempt percentages above 30%. Combined with a shooting percentage of 65% at the rim, it’s clear Gaines was at his best when driving.
All of Gaines’s three-pointers came from assists, which isn’t surprising considering that he was mostly a catch-and-shoot player on the perimeter. It’s inside the paint where he needed to be more assertive and create his own shot.
There aren’t many stats that convey just how impactful Gaines was on defense. He drew the toughest perimeter defensive assignments and often shut down (to a degree) the Big Ten’s most lethal scorers. In Northwestern’s second matchup with Illinois, Gaines frustrated Ayo Dosumnu all night, holding him to just seven points on 1-of-9 shooting through the first 38 minutes. And in NU’s Big Ten Tournament loss, he held Marcus Carr to just 10 points, despite Carr playing nearly the entire game. While Northwestern’s improved defense was certainly a team effort, Gaines’ ability to guard the opponent’s most dangerous player was a key difference between last year’s team and this year’s.
Gaines’ rebounding ability flies under the radar as well. Outside of Pete Nance and Ryan Young, who are both 6-foot-10, Gaines led the team in rebounds. In fact, he had more defensive rebounds than anyone except Nance.
In terms of playmaking, defense and athleticism, Gaines is perhaps one of the most well-rounded players on the team. What he’s lacking are consistency and confidence. In Northwestern’s loss to Rutgers, Gaines made an appearance in the starting lineup and led the team with a season-high 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting. Having proven he could handle a high-volume workload and shoulder the defensive responsibilities as well, fans thought he could repeat this performance down the stretch. But for the rest of the year, Gaines never eclipsed more than five points or took more than five shots in a single game. As a likely team captain next year, Gaines needs to be ready to embrace a bigger role on offense.
Part of the blame may lie with the coaching. When Gaines has success guarding high-volume scorers, he’s often substituted out of the game, or the team switches to zone. In addition, very few offensive sets seemed to involve Gaines. Too much of his offensive movement comprised of quick cuts and stagnation at the three-point line. More minutes and better coaching adjustments may serve Gaines well on both ends of the court.
The Bottom Line
If Chris Collins is going to give Gaines more minutes or perhaps even the starting role next season, he needs to know the redshirt senior can become more of a weapon on offense. While that may mean putting up more shots or becoming a better ball handler for most players, for Gaines it may mean simply becoming more aggressive and driving to the basket with more consistency. He’ll again be Collins’ go-to defender, so if he can also become a more dangerous scorer, the team will see a drastic improvement.