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Ok, let’s just get this out of the way.
I stole this concept. Or at least borrowed and tweaked it.
ESPN NBA writer and every basketball fan’s favorite nerd crush Zach Lowe publishes something he calls the Marc Gasol All-Stars every year. Rather than the best players in the NBA, he runs through a list of the players that he personally appreciates watching, especially those who don’t receive enough credit. It can be hard to define what that means, certainly. Everyone roots for their favorite players and teams. Everyone also enjoys the hell out of the best, flashiest, and most fun players in the league. What Lowe strives to pinpoint are the players who play an aesthetically beautiful brand of basketball and are enjoyable to watch in ways you might not hear about on TV.
The college level is a treasure trove of these types of players. With more than ten times the number of teams as the NBA, college basketball is filled with teams who play different ways and try new things. Within that messy lasagna of basketball are hidden gems that are doing things worth noticing.
Sure, Zion Williamson is beautiful to watch. So are Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards, and Ja Morant. But they are great in all the ways we expect great players to be great. There’s something fascinating about players who excel at the little things. I’m talking about the guys who showcase a high basketball IQ, passing and court vision, under-appreciated defensive smarts, non-stop effort, movement on offense without the ball, functional athleticism, and a little something extra on defense. We’re thinking about guys you’d want as a teammate, even for an afternoon of pick-up at the park.
Like Lowe and his muse (Marc Gasol), I named my collegiate version of this achievement after a player who embodied these traits. Georges Niang was a 6-foot-6 slowfooted, legitimately chubby power forward for Iowa State. In his four years in Ames, he passed, faked, snuck, shuffled, and wiggled to more points and assists than anyone could have expected. He played a beautiful brand of basketball that deserved to be recognized with gushy prose about backdoor cuts and left-handed hook shots.
In honor of Georges’ craftiness and subtle skills, I am naming my team in his honor. With that being said, here are five guys displaying some under the radar genius:
Frankie Ferrari, San Francisco
Where do we start?
His name? Have to start with the name. It’s perfect. His name is Frankie Ferrari. It’s almost too stupid and obvious to be cool, and yet it is real and it is marvelous. Does he have three brothers named Ralphie Ferrari, Vinny Ferrari, and Giacomo Ferrari?
I am beyond elated to confirm for you that he does, indeed, have brothers with those names.
Next item: will he qualify for our annual March Madness All-Handsome Team? Well, San Francisco needs to qualify for the Big Dance and our committee would need sign off on him, but that hair on a guy named FRANKIE FERRARI would be a shoo-in.
Finally, and most importantly, what about the senior point guard qualifies him to appear here in this post?
There’s a fairly simple answer to that question. Ferrari is the best pick-and-roll ball-handler in the nation. He’s far from the best all-around point guard and there are players who are better dribblers, passers, and shooters. Yet when Ferrari is operating with the ball and maneuvering around a screen, he is an artist. I don’t use that term lightly. Watching Ferrari operate off a pick is like watching a skilled craftsman in the medium of his choice.
The Dons’ offense is driven by this skill exhibited by their point guard. It feels like every single possession down the floor they find a way to screen for Ferrari, sometimes repeatedly, until he finds the mismatch that leads to the right look at the rim.
Watch here as Ferrari uses three ball screens, waiting for an opening to penetrate, and finding the open shooter across the court.
Ferrari is an adept passer, always aware of where his scoring options are on the floor. He is averaging 6.8 assists per 40 minutes and has posted the 4th best assist rate in the West Coast Conference. In this clip, he again sucks the defense to the paint before launching a cross-court pass to a shooter.
Defenses that don’t collapse will get hurt by Ferrari as a scorer. He’s not a flashy athlete, capable of finishing above the rim. Instead, he uses the space available to him and counts on an arsenal of floaters. He’s shooting 62 percent around the rim, with just 15 percent of those makes coming via an assist. He’s taking tough floaters in traffic off the bounce and sinking them.
This one is particular beautiful, nearly touching the ceiling on its way through the net.
If defenders hang back and wait for penetration, Ferrari has the shooting ability to make them pay. He’s shot 38 percent from outside the arc over the past three seasons, often making shots off the dribble or from a difficult position. Like his work at the rim, his scoring is self-created. This season 46 percent of his threes have come via an assist. Contrast that number to that of Virginia’s two prolific shooters, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, both of whom receive north of 78 percent of their long balls via an assist.
Ferrari does not need a ton of room to knock down a shot:
No, really. Give him enough room to breathe and he’ll sink a jumper.
He’s been so effective working off his teammates that you’ll see San Francisco use every opportunity to get Ferrari the ball in that scenario. Their half-court offense revolves around ball screens, but they’ll also incorporate that action into transition or special situations. Here they ran a baseline out-of-bounds play that led to a dribble-handoff for Ferrari and a finish at the tin.
At times, Ferrari’s command of the ball on the offensive side of the floor can seem like wizardry. This last play I clipped out of the Gonzaga game is something special. I’ve watched it about 15 times and have no idea how what transpires didn’t include a travel or a foul or a turnover, but somehow Ferrari escapes and zips a pass across the floor to his only open teammate.
Gonzaga presented the biggest challenge to Ferrari and the Dons so far this season, with the athleticism to snuff much of what makes Ferrari shine. Instead, he used patience and court vision to produce each of the plays above, plus 21 points and 4 assists. The Zags won a close game, yet the Dons have looked like tournament team all season long. Ferrari and his teammates will face their two toughest tests over the next week, playing at St. Mary’s and Gonzaga in consecutive contests. Both of those nights, put a pot of coffee on around dinner time. Ferrari is worth staying up to see.
Anthony Lamb, Vermont
Just looking at Lamb, it’s so obvious that he is overqualified to be the best player on a good team in a bad conference. We can handle each piece of that sentence separately. He’s clearly Vermont’s best player, averaging 20.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game. Everything the Catamounts have done this season is driven by Lamb and the attention he has received.
The second item is key, however. Vermont is a good team, currently ranked in the KenPom top 75. Three of the Catamounts’ five losses have come in the home building of a top 40 team. Their most recent loss was a flashback to the end of last season. Vermont was the best team in the America East Conference all season long. Had they earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament, the Catamounts would have earned a seed that would have given them a real chance to reek havoc in March. Instead, they lost the America East Conference Tournament Championship in their home gym on a buzzer-beater. The team that beat them, UMBC, would then, of course, go on to record one of the most iconic upsets in college basketball history.
Vermont has no doubt pondered about what could have been if they’d been the team that advanced to the Big Dance.
With stellar point guard Trae Bell-Haynes graduating, Lamb took the mantle as team leader and offensive creator. You can count the number of players who are scoring 20 points, grabbing 7 rebounds, and swatting 2 shots per game in college basketball this season on one hand.
Lamb is special because he does it in a variety of ways. He uses a low center of gravity remarkably around the paint to clear space and find ways to get the ball to the basket. His command of floaters, hooks, and bank shots makes him dangerous at any point during a drive to the rim. He’s also stretching his game this season. Lamb has already nearly doubled his 3-point attempts from last season and is making them at a higher rate (at 37 percent this year).
But the final piece of that intro sentence now becomes key. None of this really matters unless Lamb can bring Vermont to the NCAA Tournament. With last year’s heartbreak against UMBC looming in their minds, and a home loss to the Retrievers pouring salt in the wound, Vermont needs to vindicate itself this March. The Catamounts are the clear frontrunners in the America East. If Lamb can carry his team to the promised land, he will scare whichever tournament team cursed with facing Vermont in the round of 64. Just ask St. Bonaventure, Harvard, or Yale what he’s capable of doing. Lamb dropped 42 points, 37 points, and 34 points, respectively, on them already this season.
Nick Ward, Michigan State
There’s nothing about Ward’s game that should appeal to me. I spent my basketball playing days on the perimeter, far from the trees battling between the blocks.
And yet there’s something so special when I see a big man that does everything as fundamentally well as Nick Ward. Despite standing a sturdy 6-foot-9 and a feels-like-a-bit-of-an-underestimation 245 pounds, Ward glides around the painted area. His footwork is exceptional when he receives the ball, which allows him chances to get the ball and his body where it needs to be. Sometimes that means a dunk or a floaty hook shot. Many more times, it leads to a foul. Ward is 4th in the nation in drawing fouls, earning 7.9 whistles per 40 minutes.
His footwork extends beyond the paint. Ward has a high basketball IQ, high enough to know that sometimes all he needs to do to get scoring position on the block is run the floor in transition. Watch here as he books down the court, earns his spot on the block, receives the ball, and gets hacked by multiple defenders.
When he catches the ball on the block, Ward is like a planet, pulling defenders towards him with strong gravitational pull. He’s a smart passer when a double team arrives, sensing the trouble and locating the open man.
On the other end of the floor, Ward is an active, willing, and surprisingly stretchy defender. His barrel chest and strong legs let him body any big on the block, yet he’s shown himself to be quick enough to handle perimeter penetration as well. In this clip, he moves his feet and re-establishes in time to use his wing span to swat a shot away.
There’s holes in Ward’s game, like a lack of reliable jump shooting and some questions about conditioning, yet there’s no denying that when Ward is at his best, he has one of the most attractive post-up games in America.
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
Although this is the first time I’ve ever written a post with this theme, in my heart I am well aware Happ has been a member of this fictional all-star team for years. There is nothing in the sports world like experiencing Ethan Happ.
His game is nearly impossible to explain. Happ looks and moves like a modern power forward. If you told me his real name was Ivan Happinovic and he was a European import, it would make a lot of sense.
Well, except for the fact that Happ cannot and will not shoot a jump shot.
In four seasons as a Badger, Happ has attempted over 1400 two-pointers and just 16 threes, of which he has made just one. If you’ve seen Happ shoot free throws, this makes sense. He’s attempted more than 600 foul shots in his collegiate career and made 55 percent of those attempts. His shot, from the line or his jumper, is not Charles-Barkley’s-golf-swing-ish in delivery. At times it looks fairly smooth, just in need of a tweak here or there. And yet, four years into life with Ethan Happ and he still can’t shoot the ball worth a lick.
What makes him so great, then?
Everything else. Literally everything else. It is remarkable that a player with as little ability to shoot the ball as Happ has been so successful in his career. He’s been a double-figure scorer his entire career, notching more than 18 points per game over the last two seasons. Without a jump shot, Happ is still attempting 15 field goals per game this season, making more than 56 percent of them. This far outweighs his 47 percent free throw percentage, meaning he’s by far been better with defense being played than without any defenders in the way.
He’s also averaging 10.3 rebounds per game, with 13 double-doubles this season. He’s clearing the defensive glass at the 4th best rate in the Big Ten. In a loss to Virginia where Wisconsin only scored 46 points and the game only featured 58 total possessions, Happ managed 22 points, 15 rebounds, and 6 assists.
Oh, right. Because he’s also the best passing big man in college basketball. He averages 6.4 assists per 40 minutes, just a hair below the mark of Ferrarri, whom I just wrote about like the second coming of Steve Nash. Happ is assisting on 39 percent of his teammates’ baskets when he is on the floor, good for the 10th best assist rate in the nation. No other player taller than 6-foot-6 ranks in the top eighty of that statistic. Happ is 6-foot-10 and ranks better than all but nine of the nation’s best guards and wings.
Ok, so what else? Oh, right. Defense!
Happ has averaged 1.6 steals per game in his career in Madison. He led the Big Ten in steals and steal rate as a freshman and sophomore, from the center position. On top of quick hands and a knack for jumping into passing lanes, Happ adds 1.1 blocks per game in his career. He’s as active and intelligent on the defensive end as any college basketball player I’ve ever seen.
I hope that these paragraphs of numbers and analysis can do Happ any justice in explaining how he is successful. I suppose there’s one other way to describe it. You know how Ben Simmons is good at everything except shooting the ball, in part thanks to his freakish body and athleticism? Happ is similar, without the freakish athleticism. The game simply comes to him much slower than it does for anyone else. He’s always a half step ahead, with the skills and the body to take advantage.
Devon Dotson, Kansas
This one is half cheating, even I can admit.
I already gushed about Dotson on the blog earlier this season, but now I need to provide an update. Earlier this year, Dotson was playing some remarkable basketball as a freshman point guard for Bill Self. He was a stabilizing presence for a team lush with freshman and transfers. He used his speed and vision to get the ball where the Jayhawks needed it to be. This pass is just ridiculous for a player his age.
But if you’ve followed things recently, things have turned a bit for Kansas and Dotson. Since I wrote that piece in November, the Jayhawks have hit some trouble. After winning their first ten games, the Jayhawks have now lost five of their last eleven. Dotson’s regression to looking more like a freshman once again played a part in that. He has 19 turnovers in Kansas’ five losses this season, but just 26 turnovers in the Jayhawks’ 16 wins.
Beyond just his ability to take care of the ball, Kansas has been more successful when Dotson has been aggressive. He’s averaging just two free throw attempts per game in losses and more than 4.3 per game in Kansas wins. Dotson is shooting more and scoring more in Kansas victories this season.
Now, some of that feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course a team does better when one of its players scores more!
But for this Kansas team, Dotson appears to be a key cog that makes everything work better. Kansas has scored a higher percentage of its points from 2-point range than any other team in the Big XII. The Jayhawks score the 2nd lowest percentage of points from the free throw line in the conference while ranking dead last in 3-point attempt and assist rates. Clearly, the Jayhawk offense is stalling inside the arc. Dedric Lawson is a very good post-up player, but in losses, the ball has gotten stuck in his hands inside the arc. Lagerald Vick is a great shooter, yet has struggled to attack close outs off the dribble.
Dotson gives Bill Self a way to get his offense some inside-outside flow that can organically lead to chances at the rim and from beyond the arc. Though no one could recommend handing the keys of a high-powered offense over to a freshman point guard, Self needs to find ways to use Dotson’s speed and passing ability to initiate the kind of offensive action that can get players like Vick and Lawson the ball in the right places to score.
As Kansas moves through the gauntlet of Big XII defenses on its schedule, keep an eye on how often Dotson is operating things, versus just bringing the ball up and passing to upperclassmen.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.