Simply put, Troy Baxter’s commitment is a huge event for UNLV. You can easily make the case that it’s the most important thing to happen to the program since Marvin Menzies’ hiring, and there wouldn’t be much of a counter-argument.
It isn’t just that Baxter is the most talented prospect to join the team since the coaching change, though he clearly is (the consensus among recruiting services is that he’s a Top 100 player). It’s that Baxter’s decision has proven that top-tier players still view UNLV as a viable destination, even after all the turmoil the program has been through in the past year. And that’s invaluable when it comes to changing the outside perception of the Rebels.
Some thought it would take years for another blue-chipper to pledge to UNLV, but Baxter will be suiting up when the Rebels begin practicing full-time next month. What will the Florida native bring to the table? I watched four of his high school games from last season in order to get a better sense of his abilities, and there were some obvious (and not-so-obvious) takeaways.
The first thing that jumps out about Baxter is his extreme athleticism. He has tremendous leaping ability and superior quickness for his position, and he is a ferocious finisher around the basket. That quality alone should help him contribute right away at the offensive end.
When given space around the basket or a clear path to the rim, the 6-foot-8 forward is as explosive as they come. He attacks aggressively, tries to dunk everything and usually can. There were very few high school defenders capable of challenging him around the rim, and even at the college level he’ll still be in the 99th percentile of pure athleticism.
UNLV doesn’t really have a hammer in the frontcourt who can finish plays the way Baxter can. He is an absolute superstar above the rim:
The dunking is impressive, but it’s not just the leaping ability that makes Baxter a lethal finisher. He has a good feel for scoring in the paint, as he can usually sense when to pump fake or use an extra dribble in order to create space. That kind of intuitive knack for offense is what sets Baxter apart from other pure athletes who may lack skill or awareness, like Demetris Morant, a former UNLV forward who was a high flyer but didn’t really understand how to harness his physical gifts.
If scoring in the paint was all Baxter had to offer, he’d be a good prospect. But his offensive arsenal extends outside the lane and is fairly refined for a player his age.
He possesses a solid 3-point shot (he went 5-of-11 from long range in the four games I saw) to complement his inside game, and at the high school level, power forwards and centers who were guarding him rarely followed him out to the arc. Like most shooters, Baxter is better on spot-up attempts when he can set his feet, but his size and high release allow him to get off his shot even when he’s not wide open. That ability comes into play in the first clip of this video:
The first play is noteworthy, as it shows Baxter hitting a buzzer beater against Huntington Prep (Huntington, W.V.) to send a holiday tournament game into overtime. Huntington Prep was ranked No. 5 in the country at the time and was loaded with Division I talent, but after watching the game I thought Baxter was the best offensive player on the court.
Baxter’s unreal finishing ability and long-range shooting stroke make him difficult to defend, but those aren’t the only weapons at his disposal. Defenses have to respect his outside shot, and when they rush to contest his release, Baxter possesses the ability to pump fake, drive past his defender and get into the lane, where, again, he finishes just about every time.
That ability to attack close-out defenders makes him a potential star. Baxter has a good feel for when to shoot and when to drive, and he’s skilled enough and athletic enough that one hard power dribble can often get him all the way to the rim.
When he can’t get all the way to the basket, he sometimes loses his sense of place and ends up shooting floaters or wild quasi-hook shots. But when the defense doesn’t rotate quickly enough and leaves an open path to the rim, Baxter regularly helps himself to highlight dunks:
Offensively, I think Baxter profiles as a stretch-4. Though he can attack close-out defenders off the dribble, he doesn’t possess the ball-handling skills to create his own offense against set defenses, which is a key trait for wing players. And in the four games I watched, I only saw him post up twice, so back-to-the-basket moves don’t seem to be part of his arsenal. So I think he’s more of a 4 than a 3, but wherever he plays, he’ll convert at a high rate around the rim, space the floor with pick-and-pop 3-pointers and slash through rotating defenses. That skill set should make Baxter one of UNLV’s top offensive threats, maybe as soon as this season.
Defensively, Baxter is further away from being an impact player. To put it plainly, he didn’t appear to play much defense at all in high school, which is strange for a player with his size and physical ability.
He played most of his minutes at center and power forward, but oddly he was not a factor in the paint. He should have been able to make a living just by hanging out around the basket and swatting shots, but in the games I watched he didn’t really offer any rim protection. He was often out of position, and he was not aggressive when he got the opportunity to challenge shots:
In general, Baxter’s defensive awareness was lacking. He got caught with his head turned too often, losing his man and allowing layups in each game I saw. That comes down to focus and motor. You can see Baxter flat-footed or walking around casually during defensive possessions, conceding position and allowing points to opponents who should not be scoring on him so easily:
Baxter’s defensive indifference also extended to the boards in the games I saw. Over the course of four games, I counted just seven defensive rebounds, with two of those coming off missed free throws when he already had inside position. I’m not sure how he averaged 7.0 rebounds per game last year. In the games I watched, he did not aggressively pursue rebounds, often failing to box out or attack the ball while it was in the air:
You can also see how often Baxter got pushed out of position by smaller players. He’s not particularly strong, so this could be an issue that follows him to the college level. Baxter tended to shy away from contact in general in the games I saw, which is usually a sign of a player who needs to add muscle to his frame. When he sets screens, he tends to vacate the area before things get physical:
That lack of physicality reminds me a bit of another former Rebel, a long, lanky big man named Christian Wood. Like Baxter, he also had a perimeter-oriented skill set and an aversion to dirty work. But Wood got better at that aspect of the game over time, eventually becoming a workhorse rebounder and shot-blocker for the 2014-15 Rebels. With good coaching and a good attitude, Baxter could make himself into an impact player at the defensive end of the court just like Wood did.
If that ever happens, Baxter could become one of the best players in the Mountain West. I’m extremely high on his offensive repertoire, and the physical skills that make him a rim destroyer on that end could help turn him into a plus defender capable of guarding multiple positions. And if the Rebels rev up their running game, Baxter is the type of small-ball frontcourt player who would thrive in open-court situations.
Baxter is the crown jewel of UNLV’s 2016-17 recruiting class, a player with phenomenal upside and the ability to contribute right away as a freshman. He should get plenty of playing time this season, and there will be gif-worthy highlights along the way. But there is so much room for improvement in his all-around game, watching Baxter develop will provide just as much excitement as any of his explosive dunks.
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