There wasn’t a whole lot of action on the court Friday at UNLV’s first official basketball practice of the season, but that was to be expected—the media was only allowed to watch the first 30 minutes or so, and the team isn’t delving deep into the playbook just yet. It’s mostly a ceremonial event, but there was still plenty to learn.
Let’s run through five noteworthy developments from the first practice:
Christian Jones not a center
Since he signed with UNLV, I’ve projected Christian Jones to start at center for the Rebels. Sure, the 6-foot-7 St. John’s transfer is undersized for the position, but he’s a versatile frontcourt defender, and given the roster composition—there aren’t a whole lot of true big men walking around campus—he seems like the best option.
But on Friday, Marvin Menzies tried to throw cold water on that idea. When asked if it was nice to have Jones available to play some center, Menzies made it clear he doesn’t want him to man the middle full-time.
“Let’s hope that we don’t [have to play Jones at center],” Menzies said. “Let’s hope we get the true 5’s and the guys that are probably stronger at that position and get them up to speed and healthy. I’d like to play [Jones] at the 4…It’s good to have [center] as an option, but that’s not how we see him playing within the system.”
Will the depth chart at center work out to Menzies’ preference? I’m not so sure. True freshman Cheickna Dembele seems like the only other viable choice for the starting job, and there are several reasons why he may not be up to the task early in the season (see below). Forwards Dwayne Morgan and Troy Baxter may be listed taller than Jones (both 6-foot-8), but Jones is built sturdier, and when the Rebels went to the Bahamas for their exhibition series, Jones was tasked with the majority of the minutes at center.
Jones would surely be at a size disadvantage most of the time at center, but he won’t be helpless. He’s a solid, heady defensive player who could probably hold up in the paint as long as he stays conscientious about his rebounding duties. Now that we know Menzies doesn’t want to stick Jones at the 5 any more than he has to, it will be interesting to see how Menzies approaches the preseason and the early portion of the regular season when it comes to figuring out the center position.
Issues lingering for Dembele
As mentioned above, Dembele may be the coaches’ preferred option to win the starting center job, but there are still several hurdles to clear before the towering freshman is ready to assume that vital role.
First, he’s got to get eligible. The Mali native has to get his academics in order before the NCAA will clear him to play, and though Menzies said all the paperwork has been sent to the NCAA, there’s no telling how long it will take before the Rebels get a response.
Second, he’s got to get healthy. While the rest of the team went through drills on Friday, Dembele reclined on the bleachers, resting a heel injury. Menzies didn’t seem too concerned about it, but Dembele is a freshman, and every practice minute lost is another minute he falls further behind in his development.
And that development is imperative, because third, there’s no guarantee that Dembele is even capable of playing big minutes at the Division I level right now. When I scouted some of his high school games, his talent was obvious, but it was also obvious that Dembele’s game needs some refinement before he’ll be ready to contribute on a full-time basis.
Once all those issues are settled, it’ll be time to start talking about Dembele as a realistic choice to start at center.
Baxter playing catch up
Baxter’s addition late in the summer was exciting, and he will definitely figure into the frontcourt rotation in a big way. But it’s going to take some time for the springy freshman to catch up. His late arrival meant he wasn’t around for the Bahamas trip, and though he dressed for the first practice, a minor injury kept him from participating.
Even though he wasn’t taking part in the action on Friday, Baxter’s teammates are clearly enthusiastic about playing with him. Jalen Poyser said Baxter is capable of helping the team on both ends of the court, while Uche Ofoegbu was practically drooling over the prospect of throwing alley-oop lobs to him.
Judging by his peer assessments, Baxter has already been impressive behind the scenes in closed workouts. Once he gets up to speed, expect him to start flashing serious game.
Jalen Poyser ready to score
If you’re looking at the UNLV roster objectively, you’re probably wondering how this team is going to score points. That’s where Jalen Poyser comes in. I’ve been assuming that the 6-foot-4 sophomore will slide into a lead scoring role, and Poyser basically confirmed that line of thinking on Friday.
“I need to score the ball a lot,” Poyser said before the practice. “That’s what the team expects from me, to score the ball, put the ball in the basket and put the team in the best position to win.”
It sounds like those instructions are coming straight from the coaching staff, so look for Poyser to get the green light on opening night and every game thereafter.
Rebels serious about running
UNLV played fast last year, finishing seventh in the nation in possessions per game and 12th in KenPom.com’s adjusted tempo ranking. Menzies referenced those rankings on Friday and reaffirmed that he wants to play at a similar pace.
Ofoegbu, a senior grad transfer from San Francisco, noted the maniacal pace of the Rebels’ preseason workouts and said he expects that conditioning work to pay off during the season.
“We’re going to have to be able to run up and down,” Ofoegbu said. “A lot of teams like to slow it down, and I feel like the way we’re going to run is going to tire out a lot of teams. A lot of [opposing] players are going to get tired. We’re going to be in the second half and it’s still going to be like a normal game [for us], and everyone else is going to be winded. That’s going to be our M.O.”