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Jalen Harris’ departure poses another challenging offseason ahead for Steve Alford

NCAA Basketball: San Diego State at Nevada David Calvert-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Nevada’s leading scorer Jalen Harris elected to stay for the 2020 NBA Draft, forgoing his senior season of eligibility.

Harris, in his lone season with Nevada, had one of the most productive seasons in school history. The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 21.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.1 steals per game. He shot 44.6 percent from the floor and 36.2 percent from 3-point range. He finished second in the running for Mountain West Player of the Year and made All-Mountain West first team.

Even though Alford is entering his second season with the program, Harris’ departure alone gives Nevada head coach Steve Alford arguably his toughest offseason with Nevada to date.

Nevada v New Mexico
Nevada head coach Steve Alford looks on during his team’s game against the New Mexico Lobos.
Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

Heading into the 2020-21 season, Nevada will be without four of its five starters from the 2019-20 team, with forward Robby Robinson (2.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game in 31 starts) as the lone returning starter.

Nevada also loses its top four scorers and five of its top six scorers. The Pack will lose 79.9 percent of their point production (1,911 of the 2,391 total points) and 82.5 percent of their 3-point production (255 of its 309 3-point makes). That’s a substantial loss to an offense that finished 33rd nationally in scoring (77.1 ppg) and 3-point makes (309) — which ranked atop the Mountain West in both categories.

To complicate things offensively, Nevada loses 83.1 percent of its field goal production (666 of its 801 field goal makes), 79.2 percent of its assists (366 of its 462 total assists) and 46.3 percent of its offensive rebounds (126 of its 272 total offensive rebounds).

Defensively, the Pack lost 78 percent of its steals and 53.2 percent of its block production. It’s never easy to undergo these types of losses.

Succeeding under a large roster transition is a tall task that Alford has accomplished before. Last year was no cake walk with Nevada — who lost all five starters from its 2018-19 team — but still finished 19-12 and was one win away from its fifth consecutive 20-win season (without the chance to add to the win total in a postseason tournament due to COVID-19).

But how similar are the transitions from last offseason and this current offseason?

Similarly in comparison, both teams lost substantial amount of production. Heading into last year with losing all five starters, Nevada lost its top three scorers and seven of its top eight scorers. Let’s look at the comparison of production lost between the two offseasons.

Production Nevada has lost

Entering the.... Points FG 3PFG Offensive rebounding Total rebounding Steals Blocks
Entering the.... Points FG 3PFG Offensive rebounding Total rebounding Steals Blocks
2019-20 season 85.7 percent (2,334-of-2,723 PTS) 86.6 percent (800-of-924 FG's) 75.1 percent (223-of-297 3PM's) 83.1 percent (271-of-325 ORB's) 86.3 percent (1100-of-1274 REBS) 90.5 percent (191-of-211 STLS 97 percent (130-of-134 BLKS)
2020-21 season 79.9 percent (1,911-of- 2,391 PTS) 83.1 percent (666-of-801 FG's) 82.5 percent (255 of 309 3PM's) 46.3 percent (126-of-272 ORB's) 59 percent (701-of-1,188 REBS) 78 percent (124-of-159 STLS) 53.2 percent (58-of-109 BLKS)

In comparison, Nevada took a more substantial hit to its scoring, rebounding and defensive production heading into last year than it is this year.

Now, let’s look at a key difference between the two offseasons.

Nevada, while finishing with 19 wins last year following four consecutive 24-plus win seasons, still inherited more talent entering last season.

Heading into the 2019-20 season, Nevada returned three of arguably the Mountain West’s top-25 players: Harris, Lindsey Drew and Jazz Johnson.

Drew, a fifth-year senior who missed the 2018-19 season due to multiple injuries, was an integral part of the team in its previous three seasons. Johnson was coming off a season where he averaged 11 points per game (which was 15th among returning MWC players heading into the 2019-20 season), earning the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Harris, who sat out in 2018-19 due to NCAA’s transfer policy, combined to average 12.2 points per contest in two seasons at Louisiana Tech.

You could also make a case for a fourth: Nisre Zouzoua. Zouzoua struggled mightily (averaged 1.3 points on 22 percent shooting) in the 2018-19 season, but was a highly-productive scorer at Bryant (averaged 16.5 points on 40.9 percent shooting in two seasons) that was going to get considerably more playing time entering last season.

Next year, Nevada doesn’t return that same caliber of talent.

Its leading scorer from last year’s team, Zane Meeks, averaged 6.4 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-10 stretch forward will likely be expected to produce double digit scoring. Meeks, who took over 50 percent of his shots from deep, hit 36.4 percent of his 3-point attempts. His production will fill some of the need in the 3-point department.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 18 Nevada at San Diego State
Nevada forward Zane Meeks (15) shoots a three point shot versus San Diego State.
Photo by Justin Fine/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Meeks is the only returning player with at least 15 made 3-point baskets. The only other player who hit double-digit 3-pointers is Kane Milling, who canned 12 on 45 attempts (26.7 percent).

The Wolf Pack have a crop of transfers — Warren Washington, Khristion Courseault and Desmond Cambridge — who will have large shoes to fill after sitting out last season.

Cambridge, a transfer from Brown, will likely be Nevada’s best player heading into next season. He averaged 16.5 points, 4,2 rebounds, 1.1 assists, one steal and 1.4 blocks per game on 38.6 percent shooting from the floor and 32.6 percent from beyond the arc in two seasons with the Bears. Cambridge won the Ivy League’s Rookie of the Year award as a freshman plus earning second-team All-Ivy League honors. He averaged 17.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.1 steals and one block as a freshman — setting Brown’s freshman school record for most points in a single season with 468.

NCAA Basketball: Brown at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Washington, a transfer from Oregon State and the Nevada’s tallest player at 7-foot, will provide quality rebounding and defensive to the frontcourt. Courseault, a transfer from Pasadena City College, is a scoring guard that averaged 11 points on 39.2 percent shooting in his only season at PCC.

Alford is expected to ask for production from the incoming freshmen class: Tre Coleman, Je’Lani Clark, De’Andre Henry, Daniel Foster and Alem Huseinovic. The Wolf Pack saw three freshmen (Meeks, Kane Milling and K.J. Hymes) see over 11 minutes per game last year. This freshmen core could see the floor just as often — if not more — than last year’s did.

There is no doubt that this is a young Wolf Pack squad. They currently have zero scholarship seniors and just two scholarship juniors (Cambridge and Robinson). With the youth of this roster — barring a transfer or a player turning pro — Nevada possesses personnel continuity for the next few seasons that has been missing the last two years.

With one scholarship available, The Pack could potentially acquire a graduate transfer that can make an immediate impact. Most recently, they have been linked to have interest in Indiana grad transfer Justin Smith.

Smith, a 6-foot-7 forward, averaged 10.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 0.9 assists with the Hoosiers last season. he shot 49.2 percent from the floor and 26.3 percent from 3-point range. Just because of Alford’s connection with Indiana, that is a name to keep a close eye on (even though he has several other good offers).

The Pack also have interest in Both Gach, who has two years of eligibility remaining.

Gach is a 6-foot-6 wing that brings a two-way presence. He averaged 10.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists, shooting 39.7 percent from the floor and 25 percent from deep. Gach played in Reno, Nev. against Nevada in its season-opener last year. He dropped 22 points — his third-highest scoring total on the season — on 8-of-15 shooting, including 3-of-8 from deep.

If Nevada elects to add another transfer with their remaining scholarship, that can help fill some of the key production lost by Harris, Drew, Johnson and Zouzoua.

It’s hard to project a concrete win total with and without Harris because the non-conference schedule is not fully known yet. But the Pack would be certainly hunting for their fifth 20-win season in the last six years with Harris on the roster.

Harris had a 5.0 win share season last year, per College Basketball Reference. What that means is that Harris’ overall production (both offensively and defensively) contributed to five extra wins. His 5.0 win shares were the fifth-most in the Mountain West.

If Harris decided to return, he would almost certainly be the favorite to win the Mountain West Player of the Year. It would be hard to replicate the remarkable year that he had last year, but it is fair to assume he would have sustained All-Conference level production.

In terms of win shares, if Harris were to hypothetically manufacture even 80 percent of last year’s productivity, he would be worth four wins. That’s the difference between barely a .500 team and a 20-win team. That’s a drastic difference.

Alford is a good coach. He has had a track record of succeeding for multiple different schools at different levels, but this will certainly be a more challenging road than last year. This definitely isn’t his first major transition he has undergone with a program, and it probably won’t be his last.

With that said, there is certainly the case that this upcoming season will be more challenging of the two seasons he has spent with the program. If Alford can work some magic behind closed doors, Nevada could compete be on its way to another postseason tournament next March.