Illinois Basketball: What Nnanna Egwu Must Do to Meet Expectations as a Senior

Nnanna Egwu‘s freshman season stats: 1.9 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 0.2 APG, 0.6 BPG, 0.2 SPG, 9.8 MPG

Egwu‘s sophomore season stats: 6.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 0.5 APG, 1.4 BPG, 0.6 SPG, 25.4 MPG

Egwu‘s junior season stats: 6.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 0.4 APG, 2.1 BPG, 0.3 SPG, 29.7 MPG

Egwu‘s projected senior season stats: 10.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, 2.5 BPG, 0.5 SPG, 30.0 MPG

After backing up Meyers Leonard as a true freshman, Nnanna Egwu entered the starting lineup as a sophomore and hasn’t relinquished the center slot since. After an impressive sophomore season, Egwu‘s numbers remained similar as a junior.

In order for his senior season to be considered a success, he’ll need to make another leap in 2014-15. 

While Illinois’ backcourt players should remain its top offensive options, Egwu has the ability to average double-figure points as a senior. Egwu reached double-figure scoring 10 times a season ago, including a streak of scoring 10 points in each of the season’s first four games last November. 

Egwu also needs to hit the boards harder, which should open the opportunity for easy putback buckets. 

Egwu and 6’4″ Rayvonte Rice led the Illini in rebounds a season ago, as Egwu reached 10-plus rebounds on five occasions. By hitting the offensive boards, Egwu should also be able to dish out to a better outside shooting squad, with the additions of Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby, thus upping his assist numbers. 

Finally, we come upon Egwu‘s defense, the more refined part of his game. By improving upon his block and steal numbers, Egwu will contend for the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year award after being snubbed from the All-Defensive Team in 2013-14. 

Egwu‘s playing time should remain similar, assuming he can avoid the ticky-tack fouls and moving screens that plagued him as a sophomore.

Malcolm Hill and Leron Black will both join Egwu in the frontcourt at the power forward position while sophomore Maverick Morgan should continue to backup Egwu. Western Michigan transfer Darius Paul may have stolen some playing time up front, but Paul has gone the junior college route after a run-in with the law earlier this offseason. 

Because of Egwu‘s raw ability and lack of experience playing basketball, his upside led many to believe that he had NBA potential early on in his career. While that seems unlikely now given his inconsistent play, Egwu has shown flashes of greatness.

His double-double performance against a strong and veteran Miami frontcourt in the 2013 NCAA Tournament comes to mind, first. 

While it’d be hard to argue that Egwu is Illinois’ best player, it can be easily stated that he is their most important player.

Look for Egwu, Hill, Rice, Kendrick Nunn and Tracy Abrams to round out Illinois’ starting lineup, the same five starters during the second half of last season.

For Egwu, Rice, Abrams and Starks, this will be their final go-around. Rice and Starks have yet to play in an NCAA Tournament while Abrams and Egwu‘s career record in the Big Dance is 1-1. A top-quarter Big Ten finish, coupled with a deep NCAA Tournament run would do wonders for the state of Illinois basketball.

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What New York Knicks Must Do to Climb Back into 2015 Playoff Picture

Redemption is only a playoff berth away for the New York Knicks.

The stench of last season’s 37-win disaster still lingers. No amount of coaching, roster or systematic changes will erase the memory of a lottery-lost campaign that sent the Knicks and their fans into a panic-stricken frenzy.

What would happen next? What could Phil Jackson do without any cap space? Would Carmelo Anthony leave for the win-now Chicago Bulls?

Given what little resources the Knicks had, Jackson’s offseason activity—from acquiring Jose Calderon to drafting Cleanthony Early to re-signing Anthony–equates to him working small miracles. The Knicks are a deeper, more well-rounded team on paper, built to contend for the playoff spot they missed last year.

Only flirting with a postseason appearance won’t constitute success. Not after Anthony was overcome with enough optimism to guarantee one.

“Yeah, I think so for sure,” he said when asked if the Knicks would return to the playoffs next year, per the New York Post‘s Fred Kerber. “Absolutely.”

Making good on that promise is essential. It just won’t be easy.

 

Offensive Preeminence

There is only offense in New York. 

Next year’s Knicks aren’t built to defend. They flipped their best, albeit intermittently disinterested, defender in Tyson Chandler for a middling protector in Samuel Dalembert and a defensive liability in Calderon. Even when factoring in Raymond Felton’s departure, they didn’t upgrade defensively.

Such action invokes a new mandate: Score, score, score. 

Last season’s Knicks ranked 11th in offensive deficiency. That’s not going to be enough. They’re a group that needs to finish in the top seven or top five of offensive efficiency to really establish themselves as a threat.

To do that, the Knicks will turn to Jackson’s famed triangle offense—or some version of it. Derek Fisher was hired as Mike Woodson’s successor for that reason: to implement the system he won five NBA championships in.

Bits and pieces of what the Knicks need are already in place. Calderon is a triangle-ready floor general who can make an impact on or off the ball, they have a glut of wings ready to contribute and—most importantly—Anthony has slimmed down with the intention of taking his game to a different, more profound level.

“He wants to be as athletic as he was when he was a rookie,’’ an Anthony confidant told The New York Post‘s Marc Berman. “Plus he wants to be a facilitator in the triangle and speed will help that.’’

Grasping the intricacies of the triangle is paramount for everyone involved, and, incidentally, everyone must be involved. 

This is a system the Knicks are trying to install. They’re trying to be the San Antonio Spurs without actually being the Spurs.

Succeeding within the triangle demands players make reads and have foresight. It’s a cohesive ball of energy in which hero ball is embraced only as a bailout or last resort.

“It can be manipulated to run almost anything: low-post chances, elbow isolations, pick and rolls, spot-up threes, anything,” Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley wrote. “It’s all about reading and reacting to the defense, a process that ideally becomes organic over time.”

Time is something the Knicks won’t have if they wish to end their brief playoff sabbatical. They’ll need to excel in the system immediately.

Anthony will have to become a full-time facilitator and scorer. J.R. Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr., Andrea Bargnani, Calderon, Early and everyone else must become accustomed to moving and acting without the ball for stretches at a time the way New York’s “Summer Knicks” did.

The Knicks will need to resemble the offensive force they were during the final 30 games of last year, when they boasted the league’s sixth-best offense. Only they’ll have to match that potency from start to finish, for a full 82 contests, without games-long furloughs and deviations from what must be a new norm.

 

About That Defense…

Offensive perfection is impossible to reach and subsequently sustain.

For all the Knicks are built to do on offense, they’re not emblematic of the perfect triangle model. They lack one critical part of said system: a playmaking big man.

Unless Amar’e Stoudemire, Cole Aldrich, Jason Smith and Dalembert are poised for career passing years that see them steal Pau Gasol‘s court vision, there promises to be growing pains on the offensive end. To keep the good vibrations rolling, they’ll need to do what they couldn’t last season and hold their own defensively. 

And that won’t be easy. Or perhaps even possible.

Woodson’s switch-happy, “Who am I guarding again?” Knicks finished 24th in defensive efficiency last year. Matching that standing might wind up being an accomplishment worthy of fist- and chest-bumping parties. That’s how feeble they figure to be defensively.

Rim protection will come at a premium for a team that doesn’t have an established shot-blocker. Neither Stoudemire nor Dalembert has the lift left to consistently contest shots at the rim—not that Stoudemire ever partook in such activities—and Bargnani remains a defensive disaster. 

Smith should be able to provide situational minutes at the 5 and somewhat deter dribble drives and point-blank opportunities, but he’s not your ideal iron guardian, either. Aldrich is now the Knicks’ best interior presence, which Bleacher Report’s Fred Katz paints as a borderline good picture:

The four-year vet averaged 3.3 blocks per 36 minutes last season, and swatted 8.1 percent of two-point shot attempts while he was on the floor, a figure that would lead the league by a hefty margin if strung out over enough minutes. And on a team that has just one guy who consistently defends on the perimeter (the Knicks need you, Iman), rim protection is a skill Derek Fisher’s squad can’t take for granted.

If you’re not going to stay in front of ball-handlers, you better have someone behind them. And now, Aldrich can actually go out and attack offensive players.

While problematic, though, rim protection isn’t the Knicks’ greatest defensive issue. They ranked in the top 12 of field-goal percentage allowed within five feet of the basket last year, and the 39.5 points per game they permitted in the paint was sixth-best in the league, per TeamRankings.com.

That the Knicks were able to maintain a semblance of respectability in that department—all while allowing opposing point guards to torch them—despite Chandler missing 27 games is encouraging. The chaos that ensued beyond the arc is not.

Opponents drilled 37.1 percent of their three-point attempts against the Knicks last season. Only the Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings—not one of whom won more than 28 games—were worse.

Corner threes killed the Knicks more than anything. Opposing squads combined to shoot better than 39 percent from either corner when facing New York last season.

Pick-and-rolls created problems everywhere on the floor for the Knicks too. They ended last year with the worst defense against pick-and-rolls in the league, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). It rarely mattered how or where the play ended; the Knicks were simply terrible.

Improvement starts on the perimeter. Last year’s perimeter players—with the oft-exception of Shumpert—were leaky faucets. Ball-handlers came off screens, and the Knicks looked confused and lost and then reacted the only way they knew how: by switching their way to implosion.

Somehow, someway that needs to change. They need to control the pace of games better and defend with consistency.

In lieu of numerous defensive stoppers, they’ll need internal development—player epiphanies that culminate in the defensively useless becoming useful, lest the burden of success fall solely on their offense.

 

Keeping Pace

Pinpointing exactly what the Knicks must do to reach the playoffs next season is difficult because of how incalculable it is.

They need to score a lot, because duh. They need to actually play defense, because obviously.

They need to fare better than last season, because yeah.

More than where and how they must improve, it matters what their tweaking and fiddling must amount to: keeping pace with other playoff teams.

This Knicks team wouldn’t sniff the postseason in the Western Conference, where powerhouses are standard and (most) one-sided outfits are eaten alive, then spit out for good measure.

Lucky for the Knicks, they play in the Eastern Conference—the much-improved, though-still-wide-open Eastern Conference.

At least 10 Eastern Conference teams project to contend for playoff spots next season, and that’s assuming the Indiana Pacers fall outside the postseason picture without Paul George.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors and Charlotte Hornets all look like playoff locks after making substantial additions or staying strong over the offseason. Throw the Miami Heat in there too. They couldn’t have rebounded any better from losing LeBron James to the Cavaliers.

That realistically means six playoff teams are already accounted for, barring catastrophic injuries. That also means the Knicks will have to beat out two of the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets to breathe postseason air again.

Possible? 

Absolutely.

Likely?

Well, that’s up to the Knicks. It’s up to their need-to-be-dominant offense. It’s up to their unpredictable defense. It’s up to Anthony and his ability to continue playing like a top-seven superstar. 

It’s up to this Knicks team actually becoming a team. 

Keep pace with and ultimately surpass most of the Eastern Conference’s fringe playoff contenders, and the Knicks will be fine, their lottery-dwelling over, their ill-fated 2013-14 crusade a distant memory.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.


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5 Things Team USA Must Prove Before 2014 FIBA World Cup Begins

Following a 95-78 thumping of Brazil that allowed Derrick Rose to debut in front of his hometown faithful, Team USA only has three more tune-up games before the 2014 FIBA World Cup kicks off in earnest. 

Those games, which come against the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Slovenia, might not count, but they’ll still be useful for the Americans.

After all, this is a roster filled with unproven players. They might be established stars in the NBA, but not many have suited up for intense international competitions. 

While Team USA is the prohibitive favorite to take home a gold medal at the end of the World Cup, the players still have to prove a few things before the games that count begin on Aug. 30. They aren’t mortal locks to sweep through the slate of matchups, one that will likely conclude with a barnburner against the Spanish national team, but they could achieve that status by making a few things perfectly clear. 

Even with multiple All-Stars on the roster, this event cannot, should not and will not be taken lightly.

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What Each Team USA Hopeful Must Prove at Chicago’s FIBA Tournament Event

With so many players forcibly or voluntarily removed from Team USA’s roster, this group’s primary focus is making it through Saturday night’s exhibition against Brazil with a clean bill of health.

Avoiding the injury bug is just one of a number of challenges the remaining 16 players will face leading up to the World Championships in Spain at the end of the month, though.

Heavy on talent but light on size and experience, coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team is still adjusting to life after Kevin Durant. The four-time scoring champ and reigning MVP withdrew from consideration for the team citing “physical and mental fatigue,” via ESPN.com, forcing the roster to attempt to pick up the pieces he left behind on the fly.

“It’s one of those things; you don’t replace Kevin Durant,” Krzyzewski told reporters Thursday. “You look different. And so we have today and [Friday] to look different before we play a really good team. That’s of concern for me because we were pretty far along.”

With 16 players vying for 12 roster spots, that adjustment period comes with the added pressure of competing for an official place on the team. While some have less to worry about than others, each of them has something to prove heading into this weekend’s tuneup.

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Memphis Grizzlies: Courtney Lee must step up

The Memphis Grizzlies have a lot of returning players that are playing the roles they currently fill strong enough. However, one person that needs to step it up a bit is Courtney Lee.
Courtney Lee during his time with the Boston Celtics.
Lee joined the team in the middle of last season when he was traded away from the Boston Celtics. By giving up Jerryd Bayless, the Grizzlies were grabbing someone who was in the midst of a great season despite only averaging 16 minutes a game. However, when Lee joined the Grizzlies, some of his numbers dropped a bit, specifically his shooting percentages both from beyond the arc and from the field.
Throughout his career, Lee has been able to make shots beyond the arc to some extent. In most of his time in the league before coming to the Grizzlies, Lee shot above 40% beyond the arc. In the first third of last season while he was still on the Celtics, Lee even had a career high shooting percentage of 44.2% from three-point range.
However, in his 49 games as a member of the

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Why Charlotte Hornets Must Be Patient with Noah Vonleh’s Development

Sporting a 7’4″ wingspan, 240-pound frame and intriguing inside-out potential, Charlotte Hornets rookie Noah Vonleh is an exciting specimen. But his club should exercise abundant patience in the early going.

The 6’9″ one-and-done power forward out of Indiana is ready to gobble up rebounds, and he covers a ton of ground and space with his mobility and length. He can score via baby hooks and outside jumpers, and he showed stretches of solid defense during summer league.

Don’t confuse those promising qualities with immediate NBA success, though.

There’s so much more to basketball than size, dunks and smooth shooting. Youngsters like Vonleh need to learn about shot selection, passing from the post, pick-and-roll nuances and defensive discipline. And that’s just a small sampling of his homework.

Coach Steve Clifford and the Hornets staff shouldn’t depend on him too heavily during their push for the playoffs, because he’s simply not ready.

Vonleh isn’t an egotistical person or a selfish player by any means, but he’s still learning how to collaborate with his teammates on a possession-by-possession basis. He doesn’t have a keen sense of when to be aggressive and when to dish the rock to open teammates.

“(Vonleh) has a long way to go in terms of feel and basketball IQ,” explains Draft Express video analyst Mike Schmitz. “Doesn’t have a great feel for when to shoot, attack or pass.”

That’s unsurprising to some degree. After all, he’s only a year removed from high school. But even when you compare him to his fellow one-and-done 2014 draftees picked in the top 10, he’s inferior in several key categories.

Note how he lags behind significantly in assists per 40 minutes and free-throw attempts per 40 minutes:

When Vonleh catches the ball on the block or on the elbow, his diagnosis and decision-making are inconsistent. As Schmitz mentioned, the youngster has a difficult time quickly discerning what to do with the ball. He must learn to keep his head on a swivel and exhibit better court vision. That way, he’ll launch timely attacks and also avoid unnecessary turnovers.

The following pair of plays illustrates his deficiencies. First, here’s Vonleh with Indiana, catching the ball in the post with room to turn and finish an uncontested shot. Unfortunately, he never turns to look at the hoop, hastily tossing the ball back out to his Hoosier teammate in order to attempt a re-post:

That’s a classic example of him missing out on an opportunity to assert himself. At the very worst, that play would have resulted in a late-arriving help defender fouling him.

Next, we have an example of the opposite misdiagnosis: In summer league play against the New York Knicks, Vonleh drove into the paint and found himself double-teamed. He opted to attempt an off-balance, contested shot when a couple Hornets were open:

Vonleh ended up making the shot, but he should think twice once he starts playing against big-league opponents. His scoring talent isn’t quite good enough yet to compensate for mental mistakes.

The good news is that the basic tools are there. He has the talent to score in the paint with his left or right, shoot from the outside or face up his man and drive to the tin. He also could become a capable passer once he has time to grow comfortable in Charlotte’s system. Once his knowledge and experience catch up with his physical skills, he’ll be a top-tier stretch 4.

His less-than-refined instincts and poor choices extend to the defensive side as well. Vonleh averaged 4.1 fouls per 40 minutes in college, and he continued hacking away during summer league. He committed 8.2 fouls per 40 minutes, which is high even when you consider the coaches aren’t worried about foul trouble (there’s no foul limit in summer league).

In the post, he’s actually a solid one-on-one defender, as he squares up his man and uses strength and size to deter shot attempts. But in help-defense scenarios, he’s either out of position or uses bad judgement when contesting from the weak side.

Robert White of Prospect Next broke down the big fella’s play in Vegas, and he noticed the defensive lapses on the glass and in half-court sets: “He would at times produce a lackadaisical effort in boxing out or free up his man in dangerous spots by chasing unrealistic help attempts.” 

It’s going to take a combination of film work, practice repetitions and game experience for him to create good habits and put himself in better position. That might take some time, especially on Clifford’s defense-oriented club.

If his help-side footwork gradually improves, he’ll be much more efficient on that end and grow into an imposing defender.

It’s easy for onlookers to demand better decision-making, as they desperately want him to make a big impact as soon as possible. But the truth is that it’s not easy to fully grasp every sequence at the NBA level, especially amid the speed of the game.

Clifford knows this, so he’ll feed Vonleh experience in moderate doses, as he explained to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer.

“You’ve got to give (young players) time to grow and put them in situations where they can grow at the pace that works for them. We have to have Noah’s best interest and progress in mind…It’s not fair to throw him out there night after night against starters.”

For some one-and-done power forwards (think Tristan Thompson or Zach Randolph) or international imports (think Serge Ibaka), it takes a couple years before they become a meaningful part of the rotation. Vonleh could enjoy a similar, gradual rise to prosperity in Charlotte.

Not only must the Hornets coaches practice patience as they nurture this newcomer, but the front office should avoid hastily judging their investment and fans should give him a couple years to develop.

 

Dan O’Brien covers the NBA and NBA draft for Bleacher Report.

 

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Michigan Basketball: 5 Things Zak Irvin Must Do to Meet Expectations

If the Michigan basketball program is to compensate for the loss of guys like Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, some players will have to elevate their games, and one of them needs to be sophomore guard Zak Irvin.

Blessed with a great touch from the perimeter and a body that is ready-made for the next level, Irvin could do a lot of good things on the basketball court. He had a fine freshman campaign, averaging 6.7 points while shooting .434 percent from the field and knocking down 62 of 146 three-point attempts. On a talented and veteran-laden team, he played more of a secondary role for the Wolverines last year.

However, more is expected of Irvin this year. Here are five things he must do to meet expectations in 2014-15.

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Kentucky Basketball: 5 Things Alex Poythress Must Do to Meet Expectations

There might never be another player with a career like Alex Poythress’ in the John Calipari era at Kentucky. 

He entered with high expectations after being named a McDonald’s All-American with a NBA-ready body. His freshman year was marred by a terrible team season.

Despite averaging 11 points and six rebounds per game while shooting over 58 percent from the field, Poythress was looked at as a bust in terms of Kentucky basketball.

The team floundered suffering a first-round National Invitation Tournament loss to Robert Morris and Poythress was inconsistent throughout the season.

He was demoted to sixth man as a sophomore, and while his numbers dipped, his overall play improved. With a diminished role, he became a dominant defensive player while also providing a spark off the bench.

After a run to the national title game, Poythress made the decision to return to Lexington for his junior year. What his role will be is completely up in the air. With an opening at the small forward position, don’t be surprised to see Poythress return to the starting five in that role.

This slideshow will take a look at the five things Poythress must do to meet the expectations set forth by Big Blue Nation.

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The Biggest Hole Every NBA Team Still Must Fill After Draft

The NBA draft is a lot about finding the league’s next great talents, but it’s also about filling needs. Basketball is unique because so few players take the floor during the course of a game; having a massive hole in your rotation needs to be addressed.

Some teams did that in the draft and some didn’t. As we approach free agency and the offseason, where plenty of wild trades can happen, every team will assess their roster and identify what their areas of need are, both in terms of position and production.

With that in mind, we’ll mimic that approach for each of the 30 NBA teams and look at what holes they still need to fill as the free-agency period gets underway, weighing current depth charts, projected developments of young players and more. 

While the rosters of some teams look like Swiss cheese compared with others at this point, we honed in on the one positional and production need for each team moving forward.

 

All advanced efficiency and rating stats are provided by basketball-reference.com, unless otherwise noted.

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Carmelo Anthony must consider leaving New York Knicks

Phil Jackson’s Knicks may be enticing, but Carmelo Anthony has reason to leave.

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