Have you ever played a basketball video game? They’re a lot more realistic these days than they used to be. It’s one of the more difficult sports to transition into the video game world because the game flow isn’t as easy to capture as football, baseball, soccer, or hockey where everything has much more fluid movement. But they seem to have gotten the hang of it now, and they’re a lot of fun. The unrealistic ones are even more fun (Boom-shaka-laka).
In these games, as with most sports games, you have the opportunity to improve your players abilities and stats as you go along. Usually it’s by doing some sort of training exercise or mini-game that will allowing you to add to a player’s passing ability, how high he can jump, or how accurate his shot is. Unfortunately, player improvement in the real world isn’t quite so simple, but this time of year is probably the closest we get to boosting a player’s stat-bars.
The off-season workouts are a time to get back to fundamentals and work on the little things that will have big impacts next season. The slow and steady grind of the summer months is the perfect opportunity for players to make substantial improvements in their abilities, and Villanova’s coaching staff does a great job of encouraging that growth.
Today, I’m going to play coach of next season’s team, and just like in a video game I’m going to pick one stat for each player to improve in. For the rookies, I’m going to pick the stat I want to see them have the biggest impact on. I’m also assuming no injuries (knock on wood) and no red-shirts (which I think we’ll end up with at least one). And just for fun, I’m not going to select the same stat twice. Get ready to disagree with me on at least one of these!
Jalen Brunson - Steals
Even though Josh Hart was in contention for National Player of the Year last season, people on this site were seriously debating (and deservedly so) if Jalen Brunson was actually the team’s MVP. That’s how good and important Brunson was last season. And it wasn’t just that he performed well, his stats had drastically IMPROVED! Brunson got better in all but two statistical categories last year: he’s still at 0 career blocks, and his 3P% dropped all the way from 38.3% to 37.8% (insert sarcastically audible gasp here).
So for the guy that runs the offense and could be our leading scorer next season, we’ll look to the defensive side of the ball for improvement. For the previous four seasons, Ryan Arcidiacono averaged 1.1 to 1.4 steals per game as a starting guard. In fact every guard that’s started the majority of a season for Villanova in the past 5 years has averaged at least 1 steal per game, with the exception of two: 2016 Jalen Brunson (0.7), and 2017 Jalen Brunson (0.9).
Am I grasping at straws here? Of course I am, he’s a great player and finding an area to improve is tough. But there are reasons that this should be a focus for improvement this season. None of the potential point guards on this team (Brunson, Booth, DiVincenzo, Gillespie) have averaged 1 steal per game over a collegiate season. A big part of Villanova’s defense is creating pressure up top on the opposing ball handlers, and that could be an issue for this group. As the leader of the team, this is an area where I’d like to see Brunson get a little more aggressive and lead by example.
Phil Booth - Field Goal Percentage
Let’s throw out last season for a minute and just look at Booth’s freshman and sophomore campaigns. He came out on fire his first year, shooting 56.3% from the field, 64.5% inside the arc, and 48.5% from outside. Sure, he only had 128 shot attempts all season, but that’s still madness, and a regression was expected for the next year.
But instead of the slight regression we were hoping for, Booth went into full sophomore slump mode. Those gaudy numbers from the previous season vanished as he went 36.8% from the field, 42% from inside the arc, and 31.7% from outside. Of course, we all know that slump came to an abrupt end in the National Championship. Booth had a team high 20 points on 85.7% shooting from the field (80% inside the arc, 100% outside) and a perfect 6 for 6 from the charity stripe.
Then, dealing with injury, Booth was back in his slump to start last season. According to the team, he was back in practices in March, and should be ready to go for next season with the rest of the off-season to recover and improve. But which Booth will be back next season? If he can get back to around 50%/60%/40%, Villanova could have the best offensive backcourt in the country.
Mikal Bridges - Free Throw Attempts
Bridges was the team’s best free-throw shooter last season at 91.1% from the line. The problem, was that he was just 6th on the team in free-throw attempts with 56. That’s less than half the attempts each of his fellow starters Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, and Kris Jenkins had. It’s also fewer attempts than both Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Pascahll, who both came off the bench and played fewer minutes than Bridges. Even worse, DiVincenzo and Paschall both shot under 70% from the line this year.
But the improvement this team wants to see from Bridges this season isn’t just getting to the line more, but more aggression on offense overall. Bridges was basically a 3 and D guy for Nova last year, a role he’s likely to fill when he continues on to the NBA. But he’s such a talented slasher that I think he can be more than that. This year I’d like to see him create more opportunities to attack the rim, or at least get himself into areas where the guards can create those opportunities for him. If he can get more aggressive in attacking the hoop, I think he can develop into one of the leading scorers on this team. Maybe even THE leading scorer.
Eric Paschall - Three Point Field Goal Percentage
It’s hard to compare Paschall’s first year at Nova to his lone year at Fordham without throwing some caveats in there. First off, it wasn’t the same level of competition, and second, his roles were completely different. That being said, Paschall saw his outside shooting drop down to 27.9%, 2nd worst on the team. The only player who shot worse was Dylan Painter, a 6’10” Center who went 0 for 3.
Last season, this wasn’t as big a deal because Paschall’s primary role was inside the paint. It was a new role for the sophomore due to Nova’s lack of interior players. To that end, only 34.9% of his shots came from behind the arc. But heading into next season, it’s likely that his role will expand out to the wings where he’ll be expected to knock down open threes.
I don’t think he’ll ever be an elite outside shooter, as he only shot 31.5% at Fordham. That said, if he can improve from deep by 5-10% it will force defenders to cover him on the wing and open up the interior for Omari Spellman to work. If those two can get an inside-outside game working, there’s not many front-courts at the college level that will be able to handle them.
Donte DiVincenzo - Free Throw Percentage
Like the hair atop his head and Gus Johnson’s nickname for him (the “Big Ragu”), DiVincenzo caught fire last year. In th five games of last year’s post-season, which included the Big East and NCAA Tournaments, there’s an argument that he was the team’s MVP. In those games he averaged 15 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 2.4 assists while shooting 55% from the field and 65% from behind the arc. In fact the only area in which DiVincenzo struggled was at the free throw line.
In those five games, DiVincenzo was just 10 of 17 for 58.8% shooting. That’s not ideal for a player who attacks the basket and can get to the line frequently if given the opportunity. On the season, he made 58 of 83 attempts for 69.9% shooting. That’s not awful, but for a Villanova team that averaged the nation’s 3rd best FT% at 79%, he ranked 6th.
The good news here is that Jay Wright’s coaching staff has done wonders with developing player’s shooting fundamentals, especially at the free throw line. Villanova has finished Top 3 nationally in free throw shooting each of the past two seasons, and they’ve finished in the Top 25 in 6 of the last 10 seasons. Just looking at the players a year ahead of him, Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Phil Booth all improved their free throw percentages by at least 10% between their first and second seasons at Villanova. If Donte can achieve that same level of improvement, he’ll become an even bigger scoring threat for the Wildcats.
Tim Delaney - Games Played
Unfortunately, there have been a few Villanova players who had their careers plagued by injury. Most recently, Jason Fraser and Curtis Sumpter come to mind. But I don’t think I’ve seen any other player that’s had to go through what Tim Delaney has experienced before he got any significant time on the court.
After losing his first season to hip surgery, he had his second season cut short by the same injury. While Delaney did manage to get into a few games this season, his only meaningful minutes came in the first game of the season where he went 1 for 2 from deep against Lafayette. It’s also important to point out that he was the first player off the bench after the regular rotation, ahead of Dylan Painter. To me, that says Jay has seen what he can contribute in practice and that there’s still a chance for him to become a role player on this team.
For next season, the ask is simple: stay healthy and start getting game experience. Delaney is eligible for a second medical red shirt to cover last season (assuming the NCAA grants it), making him essentially a freshman for next year. If he can re-establish his health and provide 5-10 minutes off the bench every game, it could help keep the rest of the team healthy and rested throughout the season. And who knows, with time and health he could develop into the match-up nightmare he was projected to be out of high school.
Dylan Painter - Offensive Rebounding Percentage
Dylan Painter is a big dude. In fact, at 6’10” and 240 pounds, Painter is the biggest player on Villanova’s team. That size can be crucial for some of the battles in the paint the Big East is known for, and those are battles the team will need him to win next season. While Painter could develop into a capable passer Jay could run the offense through, similar to Daniel Ochefu, it’s not going to happen this season. So when Painter’s in on offense, his focus needs to be on creating opportunities for others and extending offensive possessions. The best way to do that is with offensive rebounds.
Offensive Rebounding Percentage is a measurement of how many offensive rebounds a player came down with vs. the number of opportunities for offensive rebounds they had while on the court. To put some perspective on this, the Top 50 offensive rebounders in the country last season averaged 13% or better. Villanova has traditionally been a bit under that, partially because they’re one of the countries better shooting teams. But last season Darryl Reynolds had a respectable OR% of 11.8%, and the year before Ochefu was at 11.3%. Dylan Painter, with a much smaller sample size, came in at just 7.6%.
The good news is that there’s no where to go but up. While it’s unknown how much more playing time he’ll see with the additions of Omari Spellman and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, he will be the most experienced of Villanova’s big men. As we’ve seen under Jay Wright, that counts for something. I could see Painter’s role expanding to the back end of the normal rotation if he improves his man to man defense. But to hold onto that opportunity, he’ll have to improve his rebounding as well.
Omari Spellman - Points
Not since Ryan Arcidiacono took over the point guard position in 2011 has there been a player that’s going to be asked to do so much in their first season for Villanova. Omari Spellman is being asked to step into a completely vacated role at center, and likely start and play the majority of the teams minutes at the position. That’s not going to be easy, but he does have two things working in his favor. First, he’s had a year to prepare, (thanks NCAA!) using that time to get in better shape and learn the system. And second, he’s got the talent to do it.
With the departure of last year’s seniors, Villanova is losing over 46% of it’s scoring from last year. That’s also nearly 60% of the scoring it got from its starters. Spellman is going to be asked to fill a big part of that deficit, even though scoring hasn’t recently been a strength for Villanova’s big men. Then again, Spellman’s not your traditional Villanova big man.
From what I’ve seen in last year’s pre-season, I’d say he has the size and quick first step of Ochefu, combined with the athleticism and shooting of Dante Cunningham. Yeah, I’m excited too. Spellman should easily become a focal point of the offense, especially if Jay returns to the one in-four out offense that won Villanova a National Championship. If Spellman can show the passing skills Ochefu had in 2016, he’s going to be nearly impossible to stop when surrounded by shooters he can kick out to. Is it November yet!?!?
Jermaine Samuels - Minutes
Jermaine Samuels is a special talent that could walk into a lot of programs and start from day one. But even though Villanova is losing three starters, Samuels is still in line behind a lot of experienced and talented players. He’ll likely be one of the first players off the bench for Villanova this season, and should be a prime candidate for the “Sixth Man” role if Donte DiVincenzo makes his way into the starting lineup. That distinction is important because Villanova’s “Sixth Man” has recently played just as many, if not more minutes than some of the starters.
At Villanova, minutes are earned through effort and improvement. It’s not just that you give it your all, you actually have to get to a point where you can play at a high enough level that you can help the team. That’s one of the reasons why Dylan Painter didn’t start seeing his minutes expand until late in the season when the team faced injury troubles. If Samuels can get to a point where he’s consistently getting 10 to 20 minutes a game as a freshman, it’ll show the fans just how confident Jay is in his abilities. If he starts out the season playing under 10 minutes per game, it’s a sign that he needs more time to develop. I’m betting on the over.
Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree - Rebounds
Every player at every Villanova press conference will tell you that there’s two things they focus on above all else in practice: defense and rebounding. Unfortunately there isn’t a single stat that sums up a player’s defense, but rebounding speaks for itself. Cosby-Roundtree, or “DCR”, is going to need to excel in those areas if he wants to wrestle some minutes away from Spellman, Paschall, and Painter.
While Villanova hasn’t been a “bad” rebounding team in recent years, they have finished outside of the Top 100 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage in each of the last three seasons. Last season was the first time since 1998 that Villanova finished outside the Top 100 schools in total rebounds (132nd). That should remedy itself as Villanova will have more size on the roster this season, but size isn’t everything. Just ask Josh Hart or Donte DiVincenzo, you have to want the ball more than your opponent. That’s what DCR will be learning this season.
Colin Gillespie - Assists
The last three-star guard Villanova recruited became the team’s leading scorer, was named a team captain, and went on to be drafted to the NBA. I’m not saying that’s Colin Gillespie’s future, but anyone who watched him tear up the Philadelphia Catholic League this year knows that’s his ceiling. This kid is full of potential, but he’s going to have to earn his playing time as he comes in behind three capable guards.
That doesn’t mean Gillespie’s development this year isn’t important. Even though none are seniors, it’s unlikely that the trio of Brunson, Bridges, and DiVincenzo will all be back with the team the following year. This will be an important year for Gillespie to prove to his teammates and the coaches that he’s a skilled ball handler who can facilitate the offense from both the point and off-ball guard positions. In high school, he was primarily a scorer, but he did show the ability to create opportunities for his teammates. The good news is that he shouldn’t have too much pressure to be “the man” any time soon, so he’ll be able to come along gradually as he earns more playing time.
Statistics for this article were sourced from sports-reference.com and kenpom.com . What areas would you like to see the players improve in next season? Where do we need the rookies the most? What’s the most important stat the whole team needs to improve on? Leave your answers in the comments below, and thanks for reading!