Bad offense cost UNLV in its 69-66 home loss to Fresno State last week. The Rebels shot 33.3 percent, made just 16 field goals and scored only 0.880 points per possession. (For context, the latter number would rank 220th in the nation over the course of the season.)
And when UNLV absolutely needed to create baskets in the second half (27.3 FG%), there appeared to be little cohesion in the Rebels’ halfcourt sets.
Through the entire slog, there was one distinct absence. A giant absence. A 7-foot, 240-pound absence.
Stephen Zimmerman, UNLV’s prized freshman center, was thoroughly uninvolved for most of the contest, finishing with 10 points on 2-of-6 shooting. Over the final 20 minutes, he didn’t make a field goal. He missed a reverse layup with 9:33 to play, and then did not attempt a shot the rest of the way. A free throw with 4:48 remaining represented his last notch in the scoring column.
It wasn’t the first time this season the Rebels have failed to utilized the gifted big man. Though he’s averaging a respectable 9.6 points per game on 48.2 percent shooting, the prevailing evidence shows that he hasn’t been a central cog in the offense to this point. For most of the season, he’s been left standing on the perimeter with no particular place to go.
That was especially true against Fresno State. By my count, Zimmerman was on the court for 47 halfcourt offensive possessions on Wednesday. During those plays, he received only eight touches. Rebels simply didn’t look for him as an offensive catalyst. Despite Dave Rice’s longstanding desire to run an inside-out offense, UNLV threw the ball to Zimmerman in the post just one time all game.
It’s hard to believe that Zimmerman has been minimalized so quickly.
His offensive numbers haven’t been great this season—he’s missed some easy shots inside, leading to low efficiency rates—but the sample size is extremely small. For example, he’s made just 3-of-15 shots from the post this season, but that doesn’t mean much. The more noteworthy takeaway from that stat is the fact is that he’s only attempted 15 shots in the post through 12 games. Likewise, he’s only been utilized as the finisher in 20 pick-and-rolls, according to Synergy Sports data.
That’s an alarmingly low level of involvement for a player UNLV recruited so intently for four years. And just in case anyone has forgotten, it wasn’t just any old recruitment process—Dave Rice and his staff put on a full-court press that, for UNLV, reached unprecedented proportions. And after all that, now that Zimmerman is here, he’s found himself largely on the outside looking in.
Take this play from late in the Fresno State game:
Zimmerman is mostly left to his own devices down in the general area of the right block. He isn’t asked to screen, either on the ball or away from the ball. And the Rebels never really look to set him up for an inside touch.
And then there’s this possession:
Zimmerman comes out to set a ball screen for Jerome Seagears, but Seagears ignores him and pivots away from the potential screen, eventually choosing to isolate and drive one-on-one. The result is a killer turnover at a time when UNLV really needed to create a quality shot.
These are just two examples, but they are an accurate representation of the entire Fresno State game, and especially the stretch run. Over the final four minutes, UNLV had seven offensive possessions; Zimmerman did not touch the ball once.
For the season, Zimmerman’s usage rate (the amount of possessions he has “finished” with a shot attempt, free throw, assist or turnover) is 10.4 percent, which ranks just sixth on the Rebels, according to Synergy. Now, that rate is reduced because Zimmerman has missed some time due to injury, but it’s still curious that he’s lagging behind players like Derrick Jones (10.8 percent), Ike Nwamu (12.7 percent) and Jerome Seagears (13.2 percent).
UNLV’s halfcourt offense is broken. That much is clear, as the Rebels rank 230th in the country in points per possession in halfcourt situations. Getting Zimmerman more touches won’t cure everything, but feeding the big man would probably allow him to get into a better rhythm and find the range on his shot. And that would be good for everyone.