Coming into the season, everyone thought the games between Oklahoma State vs. Kansas would revolve around the match-up between top-five draft prospects Marcus Smart and Andrew Wiggins. No one thought a 19-year old who first started playing basketball three years ago could put up 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks against a Top 10 team.
As it turns out, Joel Embiid had plans of his own. When he's going up against a combo forward like Kamari Murphy, who goes all of 6'8 and 220 pounds, he can pretty much do whatever he wants. College basketball teams just don't have an answer for a seven footer that can dominate the game on both ends of the floor.
From an NBA draft perspective, though, Joel Embiid doing Joel Embiid things isn't really news anymore. The interesting stuff on Saturday was happening on the perimeter, where the strengths and weaknesses of both Wiggins' and Smart's games were on full display.
Smart would have been a Top 5 pick last year, but he elected to come back to school, a move many questioned considering the strength of the 2014 class and the weakness of last year's crew. For statistically-minded observers, Smart's low shooting percentages are a major red flag when projecting him to the next level.
On Saturday, in a game Oklahoma State lost by only two points, Smart went 3-of-14. The hard part is figuring out how much of his inefficiency is a product of shot mechanics and how much of it is shot selection. Evidence of the latter includes this off-the-dribble 3 with two defenders on him and a seven-footer getting his hand in his face.
It's a wonder Smart even shoots 32 percent from 3 when he takes shots like that.
That said, Oklahoma State's offense puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Smart. He has to create shots for himself and for everyone else on the floor. He doesn't have a big man he can play off and he doesn't have another perimeter player who can create easy looks for him. Smart is sinking or swimming all on his own.
What makes him special isn't his ability to score, it's his ability to do everything else. Here he is turning over Kansas in the open floor and getting a wide-open 3 for Phil Forte, one of his shooters:
Smart is a 6'4, 225-pound floor general, in the sense that he is a coach on the floor who is always playing with his head up. Oklahoma State was down 47-30 at halftime, and Smart knew he had to get his teammates involved in the offense if they were going to get back in the game. Markel Brown, the Cowboys' second-leading scorer and an NBA prospect in his own right, had only three points in the first half. Knowing he needed to get Brown going, Smart called a play early in the second half to get him an open 3. Notice the direction he shows and the screen he sets to get Brown open.
Brown finished the game with 15 points, nine of them coming off assists from Smart. Smart, for his part, had 9 assists and four turnovers. For a guard who has the ball in his hands as much as Smart, that is an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio to walk out of Allen Fieldhouse with.
Whereas Smart may be carrying too heavy a load, Wiggins' share in the offense might be too light. The Kansas freshman played only 23 minutes on Saturday, as opposed to Smart's 39. Bill Self decided to go with a two-point guard lineup, which shrunk the amount of playing time available on the wings. It's easy to criticize Self for not using Wiggins' talent, but winning games is a head coach's first priority.
The problem with putting the ball in Wiggins hands is that he is, as the baseball folks would say, a three true-outcome player. Either he's putting up a shot, turning it over or passing the ball right back. Wiggins only took five shots against Oklahoma State, two of them 3s.
Wiggins is 6'8, 200-pound wing with a 7'0 wingspan and a vertical north of 40 inches. He can get that shot whenever he wants. Brown, the nearest defender on this play, is 6'3 and 190 pounds. He can't really bother Wiggins' shot; either "Maple Jordan" makes it or he doesn't.
For now, Big 12 defenses are mostly giving Wiggins open 3's. That allows them to cut off his drives and turn him into a one-dimensional player.
Many feel that Wiggins can be weak with the ball and has trouble finishing through contact, but that's not his real problem. His real problem is that he pre-determines drives without understanding that help defenders are coming. It's hard to beat double and triple-teams, no matter how athletic you are.
Against a set half-court defense, the best perimeter players don't worry about their own man. They are looking for the second and third defenders and trying to figure out where to move the ball and how to beat them to the spot. Right now, Wiggins doesn't know what he doesn't know. He is averaging 1.5 assists on 2.0 turnovers this season.
At lower levels, every game was like Monday's Iowa State game for Wiggins. Playing in transition against inferior athletes, Wiggins finished with 17 points and 19 rebounds. It's much harder for Wiggins to thrive in a game against Oklahoma State, where Wiggins can't dominate on athleticism alone. Good defenses can always take something away, and the best players have counter moves. At this stage, Wiggins doesn't have counter moves.
Like a lot of young players, Wiggins can check out when his offense isn't going well. Against the Cowboys, he had just three points and two rebounds, leaving a minuscule statistical footprint on the game. If Smart put up numbers like that, Oklahoma State would have lost by 25 points.
Right now Oklahoma State is probably asking Smart to do too much and Kansas is asking Wiggins to do too little. It's not about their individual development as much as it is the development of their teams, who are both gunning for a Big 12 championship and a No. 1 seed in March.
By then, we'll have a lot more data if we want to start jumping to conclusions about either.
Games of the Week
Kansas vs. Baylor, Monday
Embiid finally gets to play against guys his own size, as he will be matched up with two future NBA big men in Isaiah Austin (7'1, 225 pounds) and Cory Jefferson (6'9, 220). Scott Drew has reverted back to the 1-3-1 zone, with predictably disastrous results, but the Bears length and athleticism upfront should at least make it difficult to enter the ball into Embiid. Keep an eye out for Baylor point guard Kenny Cherry, a junior college transfer. If Baylor has any chance of pulling off the upset in Allen Fieldhouse, it's because he is dictating the tempo of the game.
UCLA vs. Stanford, Thursday
If you haven't seen Zach LaVine play yet, you should rectify that as soon as possible. This is a guy who makes windmill dunks look easy. He also plays on a fun, up-tempo UCLA team that wants nothing more than to hoist 3s and attack the rim. On the other side, Stanford probably doesn't have the athletes to keep up. However, it is a chance to see power forward Dwight Powell, one of the most underrated players in the country, go up against elite competition.
Michigan vs. Michigan State, Saturday
After a rough start to the non-conference season, is Michigan back? If they beat their arch rivals in East Lansing on national TV, you can probably assume they are. With Mitch McGary undergoing back surgery, the Wolverines have embraced their identity as a small-ball team. Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas both have a chance to make a lot of money if they can put up points against Branden Dawson and Gary Harris.