For years, the Washington hoops program had a dearth of quality big men. But coming off a 27-9 season, the Huskies are loaded with mobile big guys.
During a practice this month, the University of Washington Huskies men’s hoopsters momentarily set up in their trademark 2-3 zone defense with 7-1 Brian Penn-Johnson, 6-9 Isaiah Stewart and 6-9 Hameir Wright in the back, and 6-6 Nahziah Carter and 6-6 Jamal Bey out front.
Most NBA teams can’t do vertical like that.
“If we do that lineup, we’re tough to beat,” said Penn-Johnson, smiling at the recall. “It’s not just the height. It’s the length.”
Indeed, the many Huskies front-liners signed up for the pending season — eight of them 6-9 or more — almost seem to have extra sets of elbows that extend arm length. Penn-Johnson, a redshirt freshman from Long Beach, CA, was asked to demonstrate the observation at the team’s media day this week at Hec Ed.
He stood and unwound his left arm, which took a moment, and went straight up with it. A nearby sports writer, 6-8, did same. He was out-reached by more than a foot.
“About 10-1,” Penn-Johnson said when asked the measure. “I can grab the rim. Flat-footed.”
It would appear then, for opposing post players, the pump-fake is as out of date as a rotary-dial phone.
We all understand that verticality alone has never won a basketball game. Nor is the practice lineup the one that will begin the season Oct. 31 against the trembling youngsters from Western Washington.
But the grouping is among the many possibilities for a Huskies team that may be unlike any in program history — a long, powerful collection of top-shelf athletes that is deep and versatile. Like those teams that make the round of 16 every year in the NCAA tournament.
Or play a lot in Spokane.
Even in the apex of the Lorenzo Romar years, the Huskies rarely matched up well with premium outfits. The shortfall extended into the Mike Hopkins era, including the final game the past season, a second-round NCAA tourney loss to a North Carolina team whose superior, NBA-caliber firepower was obvious in warm-ups. The Huskies finished with a fine 27-9 record and were Pac-12 Conference regular-season champs, but another step needed to be taken.
Right now, the Huskies are what’s known in the hoops vernacular as an airport team. They look great coming off the plane, but can they play?
That won’t be known for a while. But senior Sam Timmins, the 6-11 holdover center from New Zealand, is willing to venture a guess.
“We are bigger across the board, which is great for the zone,” he said. “We have lots of guys who can play and guard different spots. We’ll be able to do things we couldn’t do last year.”
The two most noteworthy reasons for optimism are Isaiah Stewart, a 6-9, 250-pound powerhouse from Rochester, N.Y., and Jaden McDaniels, a 6-9, 200-pounder from Federal Way High School, a Slim Reaper in the fashion of Kevin Durant. For longtime Sonics fans, one look at Stewart’s shoulders will cause you to shout, “Michael Cage!” who spent six of his 15 NBA years in Seattle.
Both freshmen were heavily recruited, but fell for the quirky charms of Hopkins, the two-time conference coach of the year. The recruiting class was widely hailed, but Washington escaped mention in the first Associated Press top-25 poll, and were picked third in the Pac-12 by conference media members.
“We have a lot of guys who are excited to prove themselves,” Hopkins said. “We have some guys that redshirted last year that are pretty darn good that nobody even knows exist.
“People are talking about all these other guys, but (fans) are going to be like, ‘Who’s that guy? I like him.'”
One of those guys is Penn-Johnson, who has recovered from an ankle injury that kept him out a year ago. The forced inactivity caused his weight to go up to 260, but now is a lean 245 spread over his 7-1 frame.
He is destined to be a force in the low post. He’s going to do it in the old-school, back-to-the-basket fashion of his NBA idol, Tim Duncan, the 17-time All-Star with the Spurs, whose legacy is nearly lost in today’s game of behind-the-arc madness.
“He’s my hero,” he said. “He perfected the back-to-the-basket game. I think he was the greatest power forward to play the game. He fine-tuned everything he did in that area and didn’t stray out.
“Big men now are jack-of-all-trades — shoot outside, dribble, drive. He had one thing he was really good at, did it better than anyone else, and lasted so long in the league. That’s something I’m trying to build on. Works for me.”
Shaquille O’Neal nicknamed Duncan The Big Fundamental. Duncan’s footwork, hands and court awareness made his game smoothly, relentlessly efficient. To hear a kid with a full appreciation of Duncan is breathtaking.
“You couldn’t stop him in the paint,” Penn-Johnson said. “Right hand, left hand, he had an answer for every (defense). Very sound. He had a perfect post game.”
The Huskies appear so stacked up front that playing time could be a large issue. But probably only for a season. It’s expected that Stewart and McDaniels will declare for the draft after one year. That’s a tribute to their talent and Hopkins’ recruiting savvy, but it puts Washington in the group of one-and-done factories that has taken a big chunk of fun out of the industry.
Hopkins laments very little about the onerous nature of the one-and-done culture.
“I think you get more burned when you have a guy that (seems destined) for four years, and he leaves after two or three,” he said. “It’s unexpected. With the one-and-one, the bottom line is that to have a sustainable system you need to have players on your roster who are great three- or four-year guys with great upside who have chips on their shoulders.
“You have them in your system when one of the (one-and-dones) leaves, then (fans) ask, ‘Who the hell do they have on their roster? Oh my gosh, I forgot about him.'”
Hopkins thinks the rest of his roster can sustain consistent success.
“You need players that are grateful they’re there, getting better,” he said. “They know the system and are just waiting for their opportunity. I feel like we’re there. We have guys on this roster who can explode at any time.”
One-and-done is an issue for April. The Huskies are loaded for November through March. You are officially on alert for explosions.