What We Learned From First Practice

Christian JonesLast week, we looked at UNLV’s roster for the 2016-17 season and tried to figure out which five players would make up the best offensive lineup. I thought it was an interesting exercise in showing how the Rebels are going to have to get creative in order to score points this year, and the obvious follow-up is doing the same type of projection with a defensive lineup.

Choosing a five-man defensive unit presents a lot of the same challenges we faced when doing the offensive lineup last week—with 10 new players, including five true freshmen, we simply don’t know a lot about these players or how they’re going to fit together on the court. We also don’t have a lot of statistical data to draw from, so I’m mostly relying on my own scouting when it comes to the new players.

With those caveats in mind, let’s try to figure out UNLV’s best defensive lineup.

Backcourt options

Kris Clyburn, sophomore
Good length, quickness to defend opposing slashers. (Scouting report)

Zion Morgan, freshman
Good size at 6-foot-4 and plenty of athleticism. (Scouting report)

Jovan Mooring, junior
Wasn’t asked to play much defense for his juco team last year. (Scouting report)

Jalen Poyser, sophomore
Enough size and quickness to cover point guards and shooting guards. (2015-16 report card)

Uche Ofoegbu, senior
Not a great athlete, but more experienced than the rest of his backcourt mates. (Scouting report)

Based on the amateur scouting I did over the offseason, Clyburn has the best chance to be an impact defender this season. He’s a long 6-foot-7, and he has the quickness and athleticism to cut off driving lanes. He also takes defense seriously, which is more than half the battle. If the Rebels get themselves into a situation where they are looking for defensive stops, I’d expect Menzies to send Clyburn out there.

Ufoegbu is the most experienced backcourt defender, but his effort on that end didn’t stand out when I watched some of his games from last season.  Mooring was more of a spectator on defense last year and struggled to defend away from the ball. Morgan had a ton of defensive highlights as a high school senior last year, and I think his athleticism will help him carry that over to UNLV this year.

Poyser has all the athleticism you’d want from a defensive standpoint, but he struggled on that end as a freshman and finished last on the team in just about every advanced metric. He’s got an added year of experience now, but he’ll also be asked to carry a significant scoring load this season. That means he can’t afford to defend as aggressively as others, as foul trouble for Poyser could completely sabotage the Rebels’ offense.

Frontcourt options

Troy Baxter, freshman
Menzies has mentioned Baxter getting minutes at power forward and center. (Scouting report)

Ben Coupet, freshman
Has the size and skill set to do a little bit of everything on the defensive end. (Scouting report)

Cheickna Dembele, freshman
Has legitimate game-changing ability as a shot blocker. (Scouting report)

Tyrell Green, senior
Undersized power forward has athletic limitations. (2015-16 report card)

Christian Jones, senior
Excellent mobility allows the 6-foot-7 forward to switch onto smaller players. (Scouting report)

Dwayne Morgan, junior
Foul trouble has kept him from becoming an impact defender. (2015-16 report card)

Djordjije Sljivancanin, freshman
Menzies has thrown him out as possible option at center.

There are some coaches (and some statisticians) who firmly believe that rim protection is the single most important factor in fielding a good defense, and Dembele is the only player on the team who can really provide it. Even though he’s super raw, that one skill should earn him big minutes in the middle of defensive lineups.

Aside from Dembele, the Rebels actually have a lot of options to build a good defensive frontcourt. Morgan and Jones are versatile enough to switch onto the perimeter and could even team up at the 4/5 positions if an opponent tries going small. Coupet was recruited for his defense and seems to excel at the little things. Baxter has all the potential in the world but didn’t make much of a defensive imprint at the high school level, so it could take some time for him to learn.

Lineups

Choosing one defensive lineup as the best is a tricky exercise, because so much of defense is reactive and depends on the opponent. If the Rebels are playing against a team like San Diego State, which does most of its damage in the paint, Menzies would probably play a bigger lineup. If the opponent is Boise State, which spreads the floor with shooters, Menzies might prefer a smaller lineup better suited to covering ground. So there probably isn’t one right answer.

For the purpose of this exercise, let’s pretend the Rebels are set to take on an unknown opponent and Menzies’ only goal is keeping the score as low as possible. In that hypothetical scenario, I think the first two players tabbed for starting spots are Kris Clyburn and Cheickna Dembele. Clyburn is the top perimeter defender and Dembele is a quality rim protector, and having those two elements allows Menzies to fill in the lineup around them while playing to their strengths.

Here’s how I think the defensive lineup would look:

PG: Zion Morgan
SG: Kris Clyburn
SF: Ben Coupet
PF: Christian Jones
C: Cheickna Dembele

Yes, those are five newcomers. Jalen Poyser allowed 0.985 points per possession last season as opponents shot 43.4 percent against him (both marks ranked worst on the team), and he needs to stay out of foul trouble, so I’m not ready to cast him in a defense-first lineup. Instead, I like Zion Morgan’s potential to be a disruptive defender, and at 6-foot-4, he and the 6-foot-6 Clyburn would give the Rebels enough quickness and length to match up with any opposing perimeter combination.

And the toughest decision was going with Christian Jones over Dwayne Morgan at power forward. I like Morgan’s athleticism, but in the end I think Jones’ experience and recognition skills will make him a better fit next to Dembele. At the small forward spot, I like Coupet’s ability to do a little bit of everything. He can defend off the dribble, defend the paint, rebound, challenge shots and win loose balls, and that kind of glue guy is valuable.

This is just one option. As I said above, Menzies probably won’t roll this lineup out there against Boise State on the final possession with the Rebels up by three points. Against small-ball teams, Dembele probably goes to the bench in favor of Dwayne Morgan, and maybe the coaching staff values Uche Ofoegbu’s knowledge of the playbook over Zion Morgan’s chasedown-block athleticism. It all depends on the situation.

But I do believe UNLV has enough pieces to field good defensive units this season. Whether that translates into wins is another story.

Vegas Seven

DTLV

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