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Don’t Sleep On Villanova Basketball’s Dylan Painter

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The red-shirt sophomore is primed for a breakout season.

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Villanova vs Tennessee Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

It’s around 9:00 AM when my friend finally wakes up from his nap on our road trip to Boston. We’re just past Manhattan now as I’m driving us up to Villanova’s Sweet 16 game. The two of us are die hard fans, so much so that we bought these tickets back in November because we were convinced that Nova would be the #1 Seed in the East.

The rest of the morning is filled with many of our frequent Villanova Basketball debate topics: How many players will go pro? Where does this team rank all time? Why hasn’t Jay Wright hired us as consultants yet? After exhausting those topics and not wanting to jynx the weekend by talking about how far Nova will go in the tournament, we get into one of our more highly debated topics of the past year: How good can Dylan Painter be?

It’s a question I’ve seen pop up a number of times this off season, and it seems a number of people aren’t sold on the 6’10 red-shirt sophomore out of Hershey, PA. He has his supporters (myself included) and those that don’t think he’ll ever play meaningful minutes (my friend), but the majority of fans seem to fall somewhere in the middle. They don’t think he can’t become a role player for the Wildcats, but they’re more comfortable with the “I’ll believe it when I see it” approach.

Well in case you haven’t been paying attention this summer (and who can blame you, it’s August), we’re starting to see it. Painter has been active this offseason on campus, in the gym, and most recently over seas. But for all the haters out there, let’s do a deep dive (or as deep as you can go with only one season of data) into why we should all be optimistic about Villanova’s big man.

First Impressions Can Be Deceiving

NCAA Basketball: Lafayette at Villanova Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The first time we saw Dylan Painter suit up for the Wildcats it wasn’t pretty. It was evident that the big man would need time to catch up to the speed of the game, especially on defense. Not only was he physically having trouble getting out to the perimeter and guarding smaller players, he was hesitant in his decision making which only compounded the issues. By the end of the season he had progressed offensively, but the defensive issues still lingered.

By the time the offseason rolled around, we had learned that Painter was never meant to play in his first year on campus. The coaching staff recognized that he still needed time to develop (as most big men do) and had planned to red shirt him. However, when the NCAA declared Omari Spellman ineligible for the 2016-17 season Painter had to be activated for depth in the front court.

So it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone a year later when Painter red-shirted his sophomore season. With Spellman back and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree in the rotation as well, front court depth wouldn’t be a concern if Painter took the year to focus on improving his body and his game. Besides, Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman, Donte DiVincenzo, and Eric Paschall are all the proof you need that an early red-shirt season can have great results.

I guess that’s why I don’t understand how people can be pessimistic about Painter this season. They saw him play about six minutes a game in fewer than two-thirds of a single season two years ago, and yet don’t see room for improvement. To put that into perspective, Jermaine Samuels played about six minutes a game in fewer than two thirds of Nova’s games last season. I know in some respects we’re comparing apples and oranges, but here’s how the two rookie campaigns compared against each other:

Even with Samuels playing 26 more minutes than Painter, it was the big man that came away with the better stat line at the end of the season. But despite that, Samuels is the player that most people are talking about as the candidate for an improved season. I’m not saying they’re wrong, I too am expecting a big jump from the sophomore that had last season interrupted by a broken hand. But in my opinion, both players are ready to take the next step.

The reason people are ready to accept a jump for Samuels and not Painter is perceived potential. Samuels was a highly ranked 4-star recruit whose athleticism was on display even when he wasn’t producing results. Painter was a 3-star prospect who was often described as “lumbering” in his first few games. That’s how people’s perceptions were formed, and that’s what people are basing their predictions on. What they’re forgetting is that like Samuels, Painter showed signs of what he could be late in his only season.

Diving Into The Shallow Stat Pool

Let’s start with the disclaimer. On day one of Statistics 101 your professor would tell you that trying to divine meaningful data from a single season with just 22 games and 127 minutes isn’t the most reliable decision. However, when it’s all you have to work with, you do what you can.

The same can be said of the second half of Painter’s first season. Early on the big man was used sparingly, playing mop-up minutes for the first three months. But he turned a corner, playing in nearly every game for the Wildcats in February and March including an eight game stretch where he averaged over 10 minutes per game. During that span, Painter shot over 80% from the floor, over 80% from the free-throw line, and averaged a pair of rebounds per game.

That eight game run culminated in his best game of the season. Villanova had opened up a big lead in their opening game of the Big East Tournament against St. John’s, and Wright decided to see what the big man could do with 22 minutes. The result was 10 points and 6 rebounds on a perfect shooting day, 3-3 from the floor and 4-4 from the line. As the Wildcats pushed further into the post-season and Wright relied more on his experienced players, Painters minutes fell back to mop up duty. But when given the chance as a freshman that was supposed to have red-shirted, Painter flashed his potential.

So if we know the potential to be a contributor at the role player level is there, I’m forced to ask a simple yet frankly silly question. How often does a Jay Wright big man regress or stay stagnant year over year? Sure, no two situations are the same. But unlike Dylan Painter’s single season, we have plenty of data to look at here. Below are the average stat progressions of the thirteen scholarship players that are/were listed 6’8 or taller under Jay Wright at Villanova:

These aren’t cherry picked stats, this is everyone from Chris Charles to Tim Delaney. Outside of three point shooting, which is also the reason FG% decreased, every stat category average increased in a big man’s second season under Wright. More impressively they increased on a per game basis, which indicates the players were actually improving and not just getting more minutes.

Quick side note, it’s interesting that big men seem to regress in rebounds and blocks from their junior to senior seasons. If I had to guess, it’s that big men in Wright’s system start early focusing on the paint and rim protection, but later evolve their game to guard the perimeter and take jump shots as well. We saw this with guys like Dante Cunningham and Mouphtaou Yarou. They weren’t regressing, just becoming more rounded as players. The free throws though, that’s just unacceptable! But I digress...

So if Painter’s freshman stats say he was getting better, and the program’s stats indicate that big men get better in their second and even third seasons (this will technically be Dylan’s 3rd year on campus), what else is there to convince people that he’s ready to take a significant step and become a role player? The answer is in the response that we keep hearing from Nova Nation, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Passing The Eye Test

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Seton Hall Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Like I said before, Painters first few appearances weren’t pretty. Then again, we were watching a kid learning how to swim by simply being thrown into the deep end and trying to figure it out. Now he’s had two off-seasons and a red-shirt year to work on his body and his game. Spoiler alert, it’s already clear that the dude’s been hitting the gym.

This is Dylan Painter his senior year of high school:

Dylan Painter (credit CoBL) City of Basketball Love

Sure he had the height and the frame, but I wouldn’t say he was a big guy or overly powerful. Fast forward two years of working with Villanova strength coach John Shackleton:

@VUCoachJWright on Twitter
@VUCoachJWright on Twitter

Both of those pictures were taken this summer, and it’s clear that Painter is ready to hold his own on the inside. When it comes to the perimeter we have very limited video of his ability to close out, so I can’t speak to his progress for certain. But it does appear that the hesitation he showed his freshman year is all but gone, allowing him to react faster on closeouts and commit to defensive assignments.

I’m not going to claim that Painter will come in and earn starting minutes and be a revelation this year. I’m saying the people that have been waiting to see him improve WILL see him improve. I projected the big man to average up to 10 minutes a game this season, and it would have been more if we weren’t looking at the possibility of a ten man rotation. Those minutes would put him on par with Maurice Sutton’s senior season or Dwayne Anderson’s sophomore year. That makes him a valuable role player even if there are others more crucial to the team’s success.

The best Villanova teams have had a back up big man that could step up when needed. 2006 had Jason Fraser who was relegated to the backup role due to injuries. 2009 had Antonio Pena, one of the most consistent bench players in Wildcat history. 2016 had Darryl Reynolds, a player who always stepped up when the team needed him most. And last season saw the emergence of Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, a freshman who showed Nova Nation there were in fact ways to score inside the three point line. My point is all of them played a valuable role, and that’s the role Painter is ready to step into.

I recognize that this summer article probably won’t sway some of you. You have to see it before you believe it, and that’s a completely acceptable approach. But there are fans who have already written Painter off solely based on his first season. In fact, some of you (who will remain nameless) have already expressed your thoughts in the comments of the 2016-17 season’s game recaps on VUHoops.com:

“I seriously wonder if Painter has any offensive game... who is going to develop his offensive game?”

“Can someone tell me why Painter’s chasing guards on switches out near the top of the key leaving our guards to cover the opposition’s front court?”

“DP seems lost when he gets the ball on the block.”

“Unless Painter actually grows those five fingered appendages we call hands in the offseason, I’m a little worried we could take a step back with such a gaping hole in the middle. We’ve enjoyed such a significant rebounding age. Say goodbye to that.”

Yikes, pretty rough stuff for a rookie! But I must confess, I played a little trick on you there. None of those quotes are actually about Dylan Painter. In fact, all of them are from the VUHoops comments sections of game recaps from the 2012-13 season. That’s right, they’re all about freshman big man Daniel Ochefu.

I’m not saying Painter can magically transform into Ochefu. But I am saying that you’ve already SEEN players, specifically big men, start slow before getting significantly better with time and training. And this big man is the next in line to take a step up in production. Nothing’s ever guaranteed when it comes to player development, but don’t sleep on Dylan Painter.