UNLV didn’t have any trouble with Whittier on the scoreboard, as the Rebels cruised to a 94-57 win in Friday’s exhibition matchup behind 20 points from freshman forward Derrick Jones. But that doesn’t mean Dave Rice and his players were completely satisfied with the performance, either.
“Some good,” Rice said after the game, “a lot to work on.” The coach focused on the Rebels’ turnover issues (18, including 12 in the second half) and their struggles on the defensive boards (Whittier grabbed 17 offensive rebounds) and said those areas will be a focus in practice before next week’s season opener against Cal Poly. The sloppy play was mostly confined to the second half, however, which mostly amounted to 20 minutes of garbage time. The rest of the contest was dominated by the Rebels, as they held Whittier to 27.7 percent shooting and forced 26 turnovers.
Of course, reading too much into an exhibition over a Division III opponent would be a waste of time. We didn’t learn anything new about UNLV, and there weren’t any revelations that could be considered enlightening. But watching the Rebels run for 40 minutes in a real game situation helped confirm some things we already kind of believed about the 2015-16 team.
Some key takeaways from Friday:
The Rebels have a definite core of three players, as Stephen Zimmerman, Patrick McCaw and Ike Nwamu will be the straws that stir the drink this season. All three had their moments on Friday, as Zimmerman (13 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks) dominated inside, Nwamu (12 points, 3-of-7 3FGs) lit it up from the perimeter and McCaw (nine points, three assists, four steals) did a little bit of everything. Turnovers were an issue, as McCaw and Nwamu each had four giveaways, but for the most part the trio exerted their will on an overmatched Whittier squad.
There is a capable supporting cast in place—Jerome Seagears can shoulder some of the playmaking duties and Derrick Jones appears capable of contributing inside—but the Rebels’ fortunes will largely rest on the Big Three of Zimmerman, McCaw and Nwamu.
Watch Derrick Jones in practice, and you may get the impression that he’s a bit raw on the offensive end. But get him into a game situation, and he can turn into an absolute terror. The freshman forward totaled 20 points on 7-of-10 FGs to pace the Rebels, and the most impressive aspect of his performance was that he did it without having an offensive play run for him all night.
Jones’ athleticism and motor will make him an impact player around the basket, even if his skills aren’t totally polished at this point in his career. More than one UNLV coach has thrown out a Shawn Marion comparison, and it doesn’t seem crazy—Jones can make a living off garbage baskets, as evidenced by his four offensive rebounds against Whittier. Jones was UNLV’s leading scorer in last week’s closed scrimmage against USC with 18 points, and he was the leading bucket-getter on Friday. He’s ready to contribute right away and should earn heavy minutes as the regular season gets underway.
Rice continues to say the Rebels are committed to playing pressure defense, and he stuck to it against Whittier. By my count, UNLV had 42 opportunities to press (dead-ball inbound situations in the backcourt), and they played fullcourt pressure defense on 35 of those possessions. The pressure only generated six turnovers, but the Rebels stuck with it for the full 40 minutes, even in the closing moments of the 37-point blowout.
There weren’t many exotic looks, as Rice mostly had the Rebels in a man-press with occasional traps. That may change when the regular season rolls around. But the commitment to the system is the important thing, and that was evident on Friday.
Whittier’s tallest player is 6-foot-6, so let’s not give the Rebels too much credit for their offensive execution (51.6 percent shooting, 1.119 points per possession). But to my eye, the team looked cohesive on that side of the floor. There was more quality screening than last year, and Zimmerman simply overpowered the Poets in the paint, throwing down a handful of uncontested dunks.
Jerome Seagears and McCaw give the Rebels dual ball-handlers capable of making plays, and their willingness to make the extra pass had a positive effect on the rest of the team (Seagears finished with seven assists, while McCaw notched three). And Zimmerman’s passing ability in the post is light years ahead of anything the Rebels had last year—the rest of the team is going to have to get on his level, because Zimmerman threw a couple gorgeous interior passes that bounced off the hands of teammates who weren’t ready to catch them (and weren’t even really aware they were open before Zimmerman found them).
The turnovers were disconcerting, and Rice hammered that point home in his postgame press conference. But the Rebels have the potential to be a strong offensive team, and their showing against Whittier did nothing to diminish that belief.