We’re officially three games into the 2022-23 Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball season. Small sample size, I know.
Nevada has won all three of its contests, beginning with downing two WAC foes in the process. It beat Utah Tech in the season opener, 84-71, while styming the Grand Canyon Antelopes, won 23 games last year, 59-46, at home in Lawlor Events Center! It capped-off its three-game home stretch with a 98-54 win over NAIA program, William Jessup.
There’s still room for good and bad, with it facing UT Arlington, Tulane and Kansas State/Rhode Island over the next two weeks, but this three-game start felt more inspiring start than 2021-22, when it started 1-4 despite returning its three top players and adding a bevy of transfers from the portal. Why is that?
Let’s dive into some film and find out!
1. Kenan Blackshear’s offensive improvement appears evident.
There’s not a whole lot you can take away from just three games, but one thing is that Kenan Blackshear has taken a leap commanding the Pack offense. We know how versatile and instinctual the 6-foot-6 wing is at the point-of-attack defensively, but his offensive growth since arriving in Reno has been evident.
Last season, Blackshear did most of his scoring damage inside of the paint and on above-the-break 3s, where he converted 49.5 and 38.0 percent of his shots, respectively. So far through three games — albeit a small sample — he’s made 10 of his 13 paint attempts and two of his five mid-range shots (he shot 7-of-28 in MRA in ‘21-22), though he’s connected on two of his eight triples.
Kenan Blackshear’s 2021-22 shot chart:
His 2022-23 shot chart thru three games:
Over his first three games, he’s posted averages of 13.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 2.3 steals on higher usage (17.1 to 22.3 percent). His PER has spiked from 12.0 to 25.7 — which likely won’t sustain, but is encouraging nonetheless — while his win-shares per 40 has increased from .076 to .313.
His increased role within the offense has allowed him to play more freely as a primary creator.
Another reason for Blackshear’s offensive outburst was taking advantage when Nevada’s in transition and semi-transition — especially against William Jessup, when he logged triple-digit assist numbers for the first time in his collegiate career, surpassing his previous high of eight.
With Hunter McIntosh’s injury, Blackshear will continually earn opportunities as a lead/secondary shot creator. If he’s able to sustain this level of production, Nevada will be in a much better spot than they were last year when Grant Sherfield — who transferred to Oklahoma this offseason — was inactive.
2. Darrion Williams isn’t playing like a freshman.
For all the veterans on the roster — Blackshear, K.J. Hymes, Jarod Lucas, Hunter McIntosh (injured) — fourth-year head coach Steve Alford has a litany of youth — forming perhaps his youngest roster that he’s had since coming to Reno. Though the youth has been one of Alford’s foremost strongholds, specifically freshman wing Darrion Williams.
He might’ve had a couple hiccups — similarly to most young players — but his collective body of work suggests he does not play like a freshman.
Williams posted 15 points, nine rebounds and three assists in the season-opener against Utah Tech, draining three triples. His numbers in the last two games weren’t as outstanding — 6.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 steals — but the residual impact is greater than what the box score indicated.
Williams has been one of Nevada’s most active rebounders, on both the offensive and defensive end. He’s seldomly caught out of position defensively — especially off the ball, helping facilitate Nevada’s back-line alongside its other wings/bigs.
Below is a perfect example of that:
In the clip above, guard Javon Blacksher and Yvan Ouedraogo initiate an empty corner 1-5 pick-and-roll, but with Ouedraogo rolling towards the middle. Williams is the primary tag defender with Kenan Blackshear as the secondary help defender on the opposite wing — Williams and Blackshear are forced to split the difference between the Antelope triumvirate of Ouedraogo, Gabe McGlothlan (opposite short corner) and Ray Harrison (opposite corner).
Blacksher fails to turn the corner around the hedging K.J. Hymes, delaying any delivery towards Ouedraogo or McGlothlan. Williams, in perfect position, intercepts the pass for a pick-six.
In this second clip, Williams is the tag defender in another pick-and-roll initiated ATB. He tags Ouedraogo well because he prevents an accelarated roll with Hymes in the drop, but is forced into a long closeout, where Chance McMillan blows by him. Nevertheless, Tre Coleman’s stunt from the corner plus Hymes thwarts the drive. Ouedraogo tries to establish positioning at the rim after receiving the pass, but Williams keenly helps and blocks the shot.
That’s next-level instincts — one you don’t typically see from a freshman that swiftly.
Here, Williams is the back-line of Nevada’s 1-3-1 zone. He’s having to split the difference between Trey Edmonds, who’s establishing positioning on Lucas, and Frank Staine spaced out at the corner. Cameron Gooden overshoots Edmonds — Williams instictually reads the pass, keeps the ball in-bounds, goes coast-to-coast before dishing off a no-look assist to the trailing Hymes for the two-handed slam.
Offensively, he’s been just as impressive.
He doesn’t possess the greatest source of athleticism, but has enough wiggle with just enough wiggle to knife open gaps. Though perhaps his biggest strength offensively has the potential to be his passing and feel offensively.
Just look at this three play sequence.
I won’t go through the nitty-gritty of everything — but he’s in-line to be arguably Nevada’s top freshman in the Steve Alford era.
3. Could KJ Hymes be Nevada’s most impactful big?
Multiple injuries held back Hymes’ production and availability last year, limiting him to just 3.1 points and 2.3 rebounds in 11.7 minutes per game across 22 contests.
In Nevada’s opener against Utah Tech, Hymes added eight points with five boards and one assist, but rejected a career-high five shots — putting his body in proper position at the rim as a weakside roamer combined with timing the opposing shot attempts exceptionally.
Over the first three games, Hymes has given the Wolf Pack an immediate injection of energy, averaging 9.0 points and nien rebounds on 64.3 percent shooting, including 58.3 percent in the paint. In Will Baker’s absence (foot injection) on Monday, he had 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting, knocking down both of his 3s with four rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block in 22 minutes.
K.J. Hymes’ 2022-23 shot chart:
Hymes and Will Baker are Nevada’s only true bigs on the roster that will regularly gain rotation minutes.
Should both be healthy, Baker will likely be starting ahead of Hymes, though I wouldn’t rule out Hymes making a greater impact because of his shot-blocking and rebounding ability. He’s also ventured out from shooting 3s from time-to-time, too. If he continues this pace, he will mitigate the loss of Warren Washington, who transferred to Arizona State this offseason.
Jarod Lucas’ shooting:
Lucas, a former Oregon State transfer, was one of the most lethal (outside) shooters in the Pac-12, combining to shoot 39.1 percent from the field — 41.1 percent on 2s (2.9 attempts) and 38.0 percent on 3s (4.9 attempts) — in addition to 88.2 percent on 2.7 free-throw attempts. In total, that equates to a 56.9 true-shooting percentage in 95 career games with the Beavers.
Against Utah Tech and Grand Canyon, Lucas was a combined 6-of-26 (23.1 percent), including 3-of-12 (25.0 percent) from 3-point range — two very uncharacteristic numbers from the 6-foot-3 guard. Those numbers corrected itself Tuesday, as he shot 5-of-10 from beyond the arc — 6-of-12 overall.
Expect those numbers to continue to correct itself as the season ages — he’s too good of a shooter for it not to. Sometimes all you need is to see one — or multiple — go through.
Best freshman class since _____________??
While I went in-depth about Williams’ play, it’s impossible to ignore the progression from Alford’s other freshman — Trey Pettigrew and Nick Davidson (redshirt) — too. Davidson leads the trio in scoring at 10.3 points, hauling in 4.3 rebounds per game on 61.5 percent shooting; Pettigrew, who’s only played in the last two games, has averaged 8.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and one assist on 42.9 percent shooting from distance.
The last time Nevada’s had multiple freshman average over seven points was in 2000-01 with Andre Hazel (8.9 ppg) and Garry Hill-Thomas (7.2). While a point-per-game isn’t indicative of sheer impact, it’s a means of production that matter at the collegiate level. In terms of player efficiency rating (PER) — a productivity metric — only Zane Meeks (15.6), Cameron Oliver (22.1) and Deonte Burton (19.5) had above a 15.0 as freshman (began tracking in 2009-10), which is considered average.
Williams, Davidson and Pettigrew have PER’s of 34.3, 27.3 and 22.3, respectively.
Not any single one stat defines all, and those aforementioned marks are certainly won’t sustain itself. But it’s not crazy to believe the collective sum of their on-court production could hold its own against some of Nevada’s top predecessing classes: Like Cameron Oliver and Lindsey Drew (2014-15), Deonte Burton or Jerry Evans (2010-11) or Luke Babbitt and Dario Hunt (2008-09).
Better defensive cohesion:
The Wolf Pack squared off against three top-50 defenses in across their opening five games last year — Santa Clara, San Francisco and South Dakota State. But against Eastern Washington (outside the top-160) and San Diego (barely inside the top-300), Nevada’s posted an adjusted defensive rating of 110.0, which ranked 285th, per Barttorvik.
Against two similarly ranked Division-I offenses this year — Utah Tech (No. 238 in Barttorvik, No. 257 in KenPom) and Grand Canyon (No. 138 in Barttorvik, No. 149 in KenPom) — the Pack conjured together a sub-100 defensive rating that places in the top-160 on both adjusted metric systems.
In addition, the Wolf Pack rank in the top-25 in opponents’ effective field goal percentage (.394; 23rd), opponents’ 2-point percentage (.368; 11th) and block percentage (20.7%; 7th). Again, these numbers likely won’t sustain themselves because they rarely do over the course of a 30-plus game regular season — but it’s an encouraging sign that the defense has coalesced into what looks to be a formidable unit, at least through these first three games.