If you are a Stanford fan and slightly apprehensive about the future, reassure yourself: you’re about to go through the same fun cycle as before, just with a different sport. I am, of course, referring to the previously-dormant but now stirring Stanford basketball team.
The trouble really began with Trent Johnson, who is a very mediocre coach. (There was a hue and outraged cry over Johnson’s nonextension two years ago; I wish we’d have a chance to revisit that. Johnson had a nice first year, winning with another coach’s guys, but quickly and deeply regressed. This year looks to be more like his second year: he just lost at home to Nicholls State. This is the Trent Stanford fans who paid attention came to know and hate—the roll call of inexplicably bad Trent Johnson losses at Stanford includes: UC-Davis, UC-Irvine, Santa Clara [by 16 at home!] and Siena. What a crummy coach. Why was I supposed to regret losing him again?) Johnson’s mediocrity and a chaotic transition ensured a poor start to Johnny Dawkins’s Stanford coaching career and nuking the 6th man club’s spirit, but now, Stanford basketball is, if not back exactly, certainly within viewing distance of it.
On his way out the door, Johnson explained—this was after leaking sympathetic accounts to friendly media about how he wanted to be buried under Maples Pavilion and other such pablum—that he just couldn’t recruit a sufficient number of athletes (he did it while calling out Mitch Johnson in particular for his lack of athleticism, which while true didn’t speak well of the man. There’s the “class” part of the question, and then there was the “judgment” part too—Mitch Johnson was Trent’s hand-picked point guard and Trent never bothered trying to find an upgrade, unless you count giving Drew Shiller a scholarship as an attempt. Since Shiller couldn’t even get playing time for USF, I’ll say that if it was a genuine attempt, Trent Johnson was spectacularly dumb in that instance.) And while you won’t confuse the current Stanford team with Kentucky, it does give the lie to Johnson’s claim that you can’t recruit athletes to Stanford: it’s got quite a bit of athleticism; whether it’ll do anything with it is quite another question.
Start, I suppose, with the older players. Jeremy Green has moved on from irresponsible gunner to responsible gunner. Last year he had an improbably low 5.3 Assist percentage, which would compare favorably with tunnel-vision-inflicted big men. This year, he isn’t really passing insightfully, but he is taking better opportunities, probably because better opportunities are being created for him. Josh Owens, the power forward, looks basically the same player as he was two years ago, which is one of the more incredible stories I’ve ever heard—Josh Owens missed the entire year last year for an undisclosed medical condition.
The problems when it comes to the older players comes with one Jarrett Mann. Mann just might be the worst free-throw shooter I’ve ever seen at the college or professional level, all things considered. You might say Shaq or you might say Andris Biedrins, what with Biedrins’s incredible 16% free throw percentage last year as a professional, and I would accept either of these responses. The problem here is that both of these guys are big men and they are not expected to shoot. Mann is your point guard, and if there’s anyone who should better a 5-for-17 mark, it’s your point guard. It’s not just the stats but the way he goes 5-for-17: he had a complete airball followed by missing wide right and hitting the padding on the underside of the rim. Compounding this problem is that Mann can’t finish; he’s the proverbial ten dollar setup, ten-cent finish guy.
It’s pretty clear that if Mann continues to play this way, he won’t get many minutes. There are young players who are playing well; the point guard, and perhaps least promising, is Aaron Bright, who looks so far like he will mature into one of those point guards whose presence you forget is even there.
The potential stars in the class are Anthony Brown and Dwight Powell. Brown is a lanky swingman who has one of those unhurried drives out of the Brandon Roy catalogue; we’ll see, we’ll see. The guy, by the way, whom we don’t have to see about is Dwight Powell, who plays like Lamar Odom does—the same versatility, the same ability to dribble for a big man that’s pretty remarkable.
A sequence in the second half of the Arkansas-Pine Bluff blowout illustrated that. It started out around 7:00 left in the second half when Powell snatched a rebound right out of a defender’s hands, elevated and got fouled for two free throws. The next play, on the defensive end, Powell grabbed the board and went coast-to-coast. The play after, Powell stole the ball on the sideline, tightroped it and sent a slick pass to Bright, who finished the layup. Powell has the same sort of uncommon grace and versatility for a big man that Odom does, and while it’s unlikely Powell will ever become as good as Odom is right now, Powell does a pretty good impression of him.
It’s too early to say exactly how good Stanford basketball will be even this season—kenpom.com has Stanford tentatively ranked fifth in a weak Pac-10 (this has become a bit of a trend, sadly)—but I do believe it’s trending upwards.