The college basketball season has settled in, despite COVID stoppages across the nation, to a point where the landscape is starting to make some sense. The best teams in each conference are asserting themselves, and the National Player of the Year race is off and running. It feels like the right time to dig into our old bag of tricks and name the 2020-21 Georges Niang All-Stars.
What the hell is that?
Good question. This is something I covered two years ago as well. It’s an idea that is blatantly and lovingly stolen from ESPN’s Zach Lowe. Every year he names his “Marc Gasol All-Stars”, which is a list of players who may not be the best or brightest in the NBA, but they are his personal favorites to watch. Their effort, tricks, style, and moves for whatever reason stand out.
In stealing the idea, I also stole the naming convention. Marc Gasol is a fun NBA player to watch. Well, Georges Niang was about the perfect college basketball player. Not the best, but the epitome of what makes college basketball worth watching. Niang was (and is) undersized and overskilled. He saw the court like a point guard but moved in slow motion. He made Iowa State games appointment viewing, for a basketball junkie like me, during his time in Ames.
So here now are five players that I love to watch play this season:
Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
As much as we all want to compare the games we watch on television to our own basketball experiences, there are certain things that happen in high level college basketball games and the NBA that there’s simply no way to replicate or remember in your own life.
Kofi Cockburn is one of those things.
Picture the biggest guy who you have ever played basketball against. Not the tallest, the largest. Cockburn makes that guy look like a Lilliputian. The Illinois sophomore center is listed at 7-foot and 285 pounds, all of which is solid muscle. In general, that makes Cockburn (which is pronounced CO-burn for those of you who haven’t seen him play and are giggling through these paragraphs) a sight to see on a basketball court.
But it’s how Cockburn uses his size that makes him a joy to watch. A player of his stature could get lazy and rely on his size to get by. Cockburn does the opposite. He’s so smart about how and where he throws his weight around. He knows that when he runs the floor, it’s nearly impossible to get him off of his spot on the block. Keep an eye on Cockburn on the bottom of the screen in transition here.
He runs the floor the moment Illinois secures the rebound to establish position on the other end. Even though his teammates don’t find him immediately, once Cockburn has planted his roots in the paint, the only thing removing him is a 3-seconds in the lane violation. When the ball swings, he’s ready to convert an easy bucket.
This mindset extends to rebounding as well. He knows he doesn’t need to get handsy or push to free up space or grab a rebound. Cockburn knows and can feel that over the course of a game, his size is going to win those battles.
Defensively, he’s even smarter. With his size advantage, he can act as a defensive wall in the paint, daring opponents to physically go over or around him. He doesn’t swat at the ball or overreach. He uses his verticality and his strength to defend the paint. Watch here as Duke’s Jalen Johnson drives the ball into Cockburn’s chest. Kofi Cockburn walls up vertically and Johnson is left bouncing off like he hit a trampoline.
Reminder: Jalen Johnson is not some little point guard. He’s listed at 6-foot-9, 220 pounds. Cockburn’s verticality around the rim is a weapon against every opponent.
Perhaps best of all, he avoids one of my biggest big man pet peeves: Kofi Cockburn is not going to take a charge. You know why? Because it’s laughable to think someone could knock him over. We know that, he knows that, and most importantly, the referees know that.
Speaking of the referees, they have become one of the most interesting parts of watching Cockburn in action. He’s so much physically larger and stronger than nearly every opponent, he creates situations that look like fouls, but certainly should not be whistled. This happens when Cockburn battles for position on both ends of the floor or when meeting opponents at the rim. Driving ball-handlers head into Cockburn’s chest and bounce back like Johnson in the clip above. Cockburn knows this and is hyper-aware of how he uses his body and the space around him, remaining vertical and forcing referees to swallow their whistles. After averaging 2.9 fouls per game over the Illini’s first seven contests, including four games reaching four fouls, he’s down to just 1.7 fouls per game while playing more minutes per game in Illinois’ six most recent Big Ten games. Best of all, he’s drawing 6.7 fouls per game this season. Teams have no choice but to grab and pull at Cockburn to move him off of his spots.
Cockburn’s matchup with Iowa star Luka Garza on January 29 is, for my money, the most exciting individual match-up remaining on the college basketball calendar.
Sandro Mamukelashvili, Seton Hall
Every college basketball season features a few players who make an extraordinary unseen leap in production and skill year-over-year. Some of this is due to new opportunity. It often occurs early or in the middle of a player’s career. Seniors suddenly having more chances to play and score happens a lot. Four year players suddenly growing into a new, unseen version of themselves is rare.
That’s happened to Seton Hall’s Sandro Mamukelashvili. In his first three years in Newark, Mamu (as he’s commonly known) was a vital piece of the Pirates lineup, but nothing more. Over those three seasons, he scored 7.1 points and tossed 1.1 assists, while shooting 34 percent on 2.0 three-point attempts and 62 percent on 1.8 free throws per game. Certainly there was an expectation that his counting stats would increase in his senior year, with ball-dominant Myles Powell having left the program after graduation.
Yet no one could have expected what Mamukelashvili has become this season. The Georgia (the country) native is shooting 32 percent from long range on more than four attempts per game, many of which with a defender heavily draped on him. He’s already taken more 3-pointers in 14 games this year than he did in 20 games last season. Watch how seamless this pick-and-pop is for Mamukelashvili, casually stroking a 25-foot jumper.
Perhaps more surprisingly, Mamu is playing like a point-center for Kevin Willard. He frequently brings the ball up the court and initiates the Seton Hall offense. He’s dishing 3.2 assists per game, with his assist rate doubling from last year’s 11.0 (his career high) to 21.3 during Seton Hall’s first 14 games. Here he is, once again in pick-and-pop, where he jab steps, drives, moves the defense, and finds an open shooter about as smoothly as you’ll see a 6-foot-11 big man operate:
As a sophomore, Mamukelashvili posted a free throw rate (a relative measure of free throw attempts to field goal attempts) of 40, taking 2.9 foul shots per game that season. As a junior, those numbers plummeted to a free throw rate of 21.6 and 1.6 attempts per game. He’s attacking the paint off the dribble more this season and creating contact. His free throw rate is up to 38.0 and he’s earning 5.2 free throws per game.
Again, a rise in production was expected. This degree of change in efficiency is eye-opening. Mamu’s coach Kevin Willard has repeatedly called him “the best player in college basketball”, which is a tad far-fetched but not nearly as insane as we might have thought entering the year. Mamu looked like a solid college player, destined for a future career on his home continent. Now? NBA teams have their eyes on him, seeing a stretch four with the size of a center and creation ability.
His growth has been remarkable. Watching him feast on opposing big men who can’t follow him to the perimeter has been a joy this season.
Joel Ayayi, Gonzaga
You knew there was no way we’d make it through this without picking a Gonzaga player, right? And as much as I might admire the work of Drew Timme, Corey Kispert, and Jalen Suggs, we need to recognize one of their teammates.
Joel Ayayi is a 6-foot-5 guard for the Zags, playing in a lineup that is full of big men and athletic perimeter players. Somehow, despite his stature and surroundings, Joel Ayayi is one of the best rebounders in college basketball. He leads the Zags with 8.1 total rebounds per game. Typically, when a guard or smaller player racks up rebounds, it’s due to an instinct on the offensive end. By knifing through the defense, guards can find their own or their teammates’ misses.
That’s not true of Ayayi, who grabs 1.9 offensive rebounds per game, but leads the Zags in defensive rebounding rate. He grabs over 22 percent of opponents’ missed shots when he’s on the floor. Again, he’s 6-foot-5!
This is not a small sample size. We’re talking about twelve Gonzaga games, including two blowouts over Northwestern State that occurred on back to back nights and Ayayi only grabbed four total rebounds. He has five double-digit rebounding games, including 18 boards against a ranked-Iowa team. He recorded a triple double BEFORE MISSING A SHOT against Portland.
His rebounding is a weapon for this Gonzaga team that already has an arsenal that could kill God. It doesn’t just secure extra possessions for the Zags. Ayayi’s defensive rebounding skill puts the ball into the hands of a player capable of quickly attacking in transition. For a team that plays as fast as the Zags, that is imperative. Gonzaga plays the 14th fastest tempo in the NCAA, with the average Bulldog offensive possession lasting just 14.2 seconds. That’s the 4th shortest of any DI team in college basketball. Part of that is due to Ayayi’s ability to immediately spark a break the other way, without the need of a clunky outlet pass. Watch here as he nabs a rebound and within seconds the Zags have a layup on the other end.
The Zags want to go fast. Three seconds from missed shot to layup is basically breaking the basketball sound brrrier.
Mitch Ballock, Creighton
There’s something truly special about watching a pure, green-light shooter. When that player is a ball dominant guard like Jimmer Freddette or Trae Young, it can make for some wild offensive basketball.
But when a shooter is not his team’s first option, instead acting as the sniper in waiting, he becomes one of my personal favorite kinds of players to watch. Yes, coaches draw plays for these kinds of players to find open jumpers, though there’s so much more enjoyment in watching them freelance in transition or in broken moments. I’m thinking about collegiate greats like Kyle Korver, Steve Novak, Trajan Langdon, Jason Kapono, or Kyle Guy. A player whose sole function on the court is to catch the ball and shoot the ball is a beautiful thing. My kingdom for a Jon Diebler.
The best pure example of that player in college basketball right now is Creighton senior Mitch Ballock. There are certainly other shooters who are more shooting-dependent in their games, yet none of them are a key cog in a top ten offense on a top ten team like Ballock. No power conference player has taken more threes than Ballock (83 attempts this season) while shooting fewer shots inside the arc (just 13 to date). Quick shoutout to the one non-power conference player who has done so: Western Carolina’s Matt Holverson, who is shooting 45 percent on 91 attempts from long range and just 2-10 on 2-point buckets.
Ballock’s ability to stretch the floor to unending limits opens up so much space for his teammates. The defender guarding Ballock needs to be nearly inside Ballock’s shorts if he’s less than 30 feet from the basket. Not only is Ballock a 41 percent shooter on his 645 collegiate attempts, he has a lightning quick release on his jump shot. He needs a nanosecond of time to get a shot off. Best of all – he’s knows it. He’s a gunslinger. Ballock is one of the most fearless shooters college basketball has seen in some time. He takes shots leaning, twisting, or when blanketed by defenders. If Ballock can reasonably get his shot to the rim, he’ll find a way. If he’s inside 35 feet, he’s in range.
Look at that! There’s 26 seconds on the shot clock!
Throughout a game, this makes Ballock one of the rare players it’s worth eyeing when the ball is elsewhere. Next time you watch Creighton, take a chunk of the game to just key in on Ballock as he glides around the floor looking for an inch of space to collect the ball and flick it towards the rim.
McKinley Wright IV, Colorado
I don’t think I’m alone in having an affinity for tough, hard-nosed point guards who just find a way to get points on the board. That description has typified so many of college basketball’s most interesting players over the last decade and is apt for my personal favorite Pac-12 player, McKinley Wright.
Nothing about Wright is going to fetch oodles of national media attention. Looking at his career on paper, nothing jumps off the page immediately. His 15.4 points per game this season are a career high. His 5.1 career assists per game is good, but not elite. He’s never made more than 36.5 percent of his 3-point attempts in a season. And yet, year in and year out, McKinley Wright has had the answers for the Buffaloes. In fact, the most eye-popping thing about his career may just be his consistency:
His consistency over those four years is confounding. How many programs can simply pencil in a 15-5-5 performance with solid defense and top notch leadership on a nightly basis? There’s maybe one or two players in the nation at any given time who bring that to the table.
In his career, Wright has started all of the 111 games he’s played in, except for one in the middle of his freshman year. In that game, a double overtime win over South Dakota State, Wright finished with 30 points, 11 assists, 9 rebounds, 2 steals and a block in 40 minutes of action. Again, he’s started every game since.
In a close game, Colorado trusts Wright and he seeks the ball. In a recent home win over a ranked Oregon team, Wright notched seven of the Buffs’ final eleven points, spurting Colorado to a win. He should get to play in his first NCAA Tournament this March. I’d be surprised if Wright doesn’t put his stamp on this year’s tournament with a big performance.
Joe Wieskamp (Iowa) Charles Bassey (Western Kentucky), Johnathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (Baylor), Andrew Jones (Texas), Jordan Brunner (Alabama), Brady Manek (Oklahoma), Ron Harper Jr. (Rutgers), Jaden Springer (Tennessee), Jacob Gilyard (Richmond). This is basically point guards, deadeye shooters, and super high energy bigs. I have a type.
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, RotoBaller, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.