Marvin Menzies put New Mexico State in the NCAA Tournament five of his last seven years as the head coach in Las Cruces. The success was largely tied to Menzies’ ability to develop big guys into dominant forces. It all culminated in Pascal Siakam being drafted in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft.
Cheickna Dembele is Marvin Menzies first project at UNLV.
On the offensive end, Dembele has a long way to go. He has flashed obvious potential. But he has struggled to catch passes and to finish at the rim, where he’s shooting just 48.5 percent.
That’s where Menzies has to get to work, turning a freshman with minimal experience in organized basketball into an offensive weapon on the block.
But Dembele is already flourishing for UNLV on the defensive end with his shot blocking. The 6-foot-11 African native ranks second in Mountain West games in blocked shots per 40 minutes at 3.8. With a larger role in the UNLV lineup, Dembele is making his impact at the rim felt every game.
Dembele had nine blocks through the first 11 games of his season, where he was averaging 11.5 minutes per game. In the last five games he’s averaging 25.4 minutes and has blocked at least two shots in every game for a total of 13 blocks. UNLV finally has a rim protector.
He has had some monster blocks this season where opponents think they can dunk on a 6-foot-11 center.
Even when UNLV was getting throttled by Duke, Dembele made sure to keep Amile Jefferson from adding to the highlights.
The best part of this dunk is that Dembele is covering for a teammate. Troy Baxter aggressively looks for a steal. When he misses, he is out of position to make a play on Jefferson. But with Dembele waiting at the rim, there is no problem.
That security can make perimeter defense much better. Last season Pat McCaw could take chances and whiff when trying to jump a passing lane or rip someone’s dribble because Stephen Zimmerman was waiting in the paint to prevent a layup.
With Dembele’s limited minutes and a heel injury early in the year, UNLV didn’t have that safety blanket. But now they do.
What is truly exciting for Dembele’s future as a rim protector is the couple of times he denied two layups on the same play with perfect defense. The kind of defense that requires athleticism, which is supposed to be a hole in the lanky 6-foot-11 big man’s game.
When defenses try to drag Dembele into ball screen defense, UNLV has him sag off the screen in the lane. Essentially Dembele’s effectiveness is maximized the closer he is to the rim.
This strategy involves Kris Clyburn fighting over the top of the screen to take away the three-pointer for the guard. With Dembele cutting off the path to the rim, the only open shot a guard can get against this defense is a pull up 15 foot jump shot, the most inefficient shot in basketball.
This defense is susceptible to the screener popping to the three-point line for an open jumper, but when the big man rolls, Dembele has a chance to make a play. And that’s what he did.
Kansas’ Frank Mason does a nice job to draw Dembele up to the Mountain West logo before making the pocket pass back to his rolling big. And that’s when Dembele flashed the unexpected athleticism by recovering all the way to the rim to block the shot.
It is a perfect play from Dembele. He takes away two potential layups on one play. Then grabbed ball and was fouled.
That was in a man-to-man defense, but he’s also shown the same ability in UNLV’s matchup 2-3 zone, where good ball movement can create numbers advantages for the offense.
Troy Baxter would be in the corner if UNLV was running a normal 2-3 zone. But in the matchup zone, UNLV will have guys abandon their traditional area to help cover an open opponent. Boise State gets the ball to Chandler Hutchison in the corner, and Dembele is now tasked with defending two Broncos. He does so beautifully.
Dembele cuts off Hutchison’s drive out at the block. This prevents Hutchison from even elevating for a possible layup. But Hutchison reads that and makes a smooth bounce pass to Robin Jorch.
Again, Dembele displays tremendous body control to turn and jump without fouling Jorch, but instead getting all ball to deny a sure layup.
Those two blocks are phenomenal. Dembele was put in a situation where he has to defend two players. In both instances, the offense made a smart pass after drawing Dembele out. But both times he recovered to take two points off the board.
The Dembele project is under way. And it is one Menzies has confident UNLV fans will enjoy.
“By the time his career is over here, he’s going to be one of your favorite Rebels,” Menzies said.