On Point Scouting exclusive article by Aaron Shore
The NCAA regular season and the conference championships are done and it’s now time for the real thing.
Before we start, I’ll review the season from a Canadian perspective, with an eye to the NCAA tournament.
To be honest, 2021-22 was not a phenomenal year for the Canadians in college as whole. No player really broke out of nowhere (the way guys like Brandon Clarke (Gonzaga) or Mfiondu Kabengele (Florida State) did several years ago). The best performers were already marked at the beginning of the season as candidates to break through. And while nearly all the attention goes to these players (and rightfully so), many others had somewhat mediocre or disappointing seasons.
It starts with the freshmen class. In my preview to this college season, I predicted that this is probably going to be a weaker Canadian freshmen class, particularly in terms of depth beyond the top three oruroyr guys (who themselves reclassified from the class of 2022). But even this might have been an underestimation of how much relatively weaker this Canadian class is. With the exception of Caleb Houstan, Ryan Nembhard, and Charles Bediako, no other player (and that includes Enoch Boakye) managed to make a significant impact or even get significant minutes in their respective teams. This includes those playing in the mid-major and low-major levels.
In that preseason preview, I highlighted a couple of lengthy wing/forward prospects who I thought were at least intriguing. I did note that most will probably not play a major role in their freshman year. Well, turns out that this was quite an understatement. I mentioned names like Ethan Butler (Oregon), Kordell Charles (East Tennessee State), Jacob Holt (Santa Barbara), Marlon Lestin (East Carolina), Justin Ndjock-Tadjore (St. Bonaventure), Nana Owusu-Anane (Brown), and Muon Reath (San Diego). Of these, only Owusu-Anane played more than 10 minutes per game. And even he, while starting well, kind of vanished as the year continued, before ending the season with an injury. The others on this list all played sporadically and none of them scored more than 2 points per game. The silver lining is that there are good reasons to be more hopeful about the 2022 Canadian class, both in terms of the top players and in terms of class depth. We’ll save this discussion for another time.
But it wasn’t just the freshmen. Guys like Quincy Guerrier, Emanuel Miller, Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe, Marcus Carr, and Jahmyl Telfort were thought of by some as borderline NBA talents prior to the beginning of the year. All of them took a step back or just treaded water and did not make significant progress this year.
Okay, now it’s time to put the negativity behind and focus on those who did play well and deserve to be celebrated by Canadian basketball fans. So without further ado, here are my first, second, and third all-Canadian teams (with an effort to maintain some positional representation).
Andrew Nembhard (Senior, Gonzaga). A tale of two seasons in one. In the first half of the 2021-22 season, Nembhard did not impress (except for an excellent game against UCLA). However, he really picked up things in the second half of the season, where he played the best and most consistent basketball of his college career. In the first 14 games of the season, Nembhard reached double figures in scoring only twice. In the last 14, he had 10 double-figure games. During these 14 games he’s been averaging 15ppg, 6.5apg, 3.5rpg, and 1.7spg, all while posting an impressive 5:1 assist to turnover ratio. His shooting numbers have also looked good during this stretch: 54% from 2, 37% from 3, and 94% from the FT line. And it’s not just the numbers. Nembhard has been playing the most aggressive and efficient basketball of his career. He gets to the paint often, aggressively looks for his shot rather than just passing, and also looks good physically. The 3-ball shooting can still be inconsistent, but this is clearly the version of him that Canadian basketball fans have always wanted to see – an aggressive yet reliable NBA rotation PG, who will come off the bench and providing a steadying presence. I think he’ll get a chance to show that he can be just that next year. Before that, though, one more task to complete on the collegiate level and I at least hope to see him take Gonzaga just one step further this year.
Bennedict Mathurin (Sophomore, Arizona). The Canadian MVP of the season (and also the PAC-12 player of the year) has had a marvelous sophomore year, carving his way to a likely NBA lottery pick. The 3-point shooting remains his primary calling card, but Mathurin has developed into a 3-level threat, mixing up his game and initiating offense much more this year. While his passing is still not elite, he’s also improved significantly his ability to make the right reads and create for others this year, posting 10 games with 4 assists or more (only had one of these last year). Mathurin can still get a bit passive at times on both ends of the floor. On offense, he’ll have stretches where he’s ball-watching, not moving enough, and does not initiate. On defense, he’s been much more consistent and committed this year, but still has some room to grow to realize his potential. But all this is nitpicking. It’s been a wonderful year for Mathurin, culminating (so far) with PAC-12 regular season and conference championships. And Maturin was great in the conference championship game last Saturday, putting up an impressive 27 points and seven assists against a strong UCLA team. I’m really looking forward to seeing how he does in the post-season and then next year with the big boys.
Caleb Houstan (Freshman, Michigan). Some might be surprised to see Houstan’s name here. After all, he did not live up entirely to the hefty expectations at the beginning of the season (many had him as a potential top-10 draft pick). Houstan began the season looking quite overwhelmed by the strength, athleticism, and physicality of college basketball, and his shot (his calling card) was not really falling to start the season. Then he started to adjust and looked significantly better – though still somewhat inconsistent game-to-game – in the second part of the season, where he began to figure things out on both ends of the floor. Over his last 15 games, he’s put up nearly 14ppg, shooting 44% from 3 on decent volume (5 3-point shots per game). Houstan might decide to come back for at least one more year at Michigan (although maybe not, given that this draft class is not very deep and he could perhaps still make it into the first round). Regardless, he’s been the best Canadian wing in college this year. He’ll have one last chance to impress in the big dance, though Michigan does not look like a team that can make a deep run (it would be a big surprise if they make it to the second week).
Josip Vrankic (Senior, Santa Clara). This is the first position on my first team where I hesitated a bit. Whereas the other four players on this first team are all probably (or surely) future leaguers, Vrankic is most likely not. What he has been, though, throughout his 5-year NCAA career, is an excellent college player on a good team, playing in a strong conference. You could certainly argue that this final year has not been exceptional. He posted about the same scoring numbers as last year (15ppg), with fewer rebounds per game. But much like Nembhard and Houstan, it was quite an uneven season. He started the season strong but then missed one month with an injury and took some time to get back into shape after he came back. I think there’s a good argument to be made that if he hadn’t missed that time Santa Clara would now be in the tournament, as they lost 5 games in that month that probably cost them the bid. Overall, Vrankic was great, shooting the ball really well (career highs in FG% and FT%), and also posting career highs in assists (3.2 per game) and steals (1.3 per game). More than anything though, he’s just been the heart and soul of this Santa Clara team, and he’s been recognized for it with a spot on the All-West Coast Conference First team (sharing it with Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, Chet Holmgren, and Andrew Nembhard). Off to a pro career now.
Zach Edey (Sophomore, Purdue). I’ve recently written more than 3,000 words about Edey, so I don’t feel the need to repeat why I think he’s been awesome this season. I’ll reiterate just one statistical figure – Edey’s 42 player efficiency rating (PER) is the highest for a single season in college basketball since at least 2009 (earlier data is not available), beating Zion’s 41 from four years ago (by the way, fellow Canadians Brandon Clarke and Kelly Olynyk occupy the 2nd and 5th places respectively on this list). Purdue will be a dark horse in the NCAA tournament. As I’ve written before, they are not without their problems, but on a given day they can beat any team in college.
Ryan Nembhard (Freshman, Creighton). A recent wrist injury cut short a fantastic freshman season for the younger Nembhard brother. He was given the reigns to a young and talented Creighton team right out of the gates, and he delivered. 11ppg and 4.5apg, providing memorable highlights, game-winning plays, and lots to get excited about. There’s still quite a bit to improve (e.g. 3 turnovers per game and only 31% from 3). But the overall picture is very encouraging for the undisputed Big East rookie of the year. To be continued next year. Creighton will play in the tournament but I can’t see them making a deep run.
Kobe McEwen (Senior, Weber State). McEwen decided to end his career at a lower level of play, and it paid off. He was able to shine in a bigger role and seemed to enjoy basketball more this year. He was able to focus on scoring as the focal point of the offense, and produced well, finishing second among all Canadians in scoring (18ppg), on a nice 60% true shooting. Weber State had a good season but a weaker ending means that it will miss the big dance. On to a pro career for McEwen.
Noah Kirkwood (Junior, Harvard). Harvard were plagued by injuries this year and underperformed, but Kirkwood (together with another Canadian Luka Sakota; see below) pretty much held them together, doing just about everything from scoring to sweeping the floor. 18 points (57% true shooting), 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2.5 stocks per game tell only part of the story. Kirkwood was the focal point of the Harvard offense, while also defending 1-5 for a depleted team that often had him covering the opponents’ biggest players (it’s only Ivy League, but still). I believe he’s completed his degree at Harvard, but he only actually played 3 years, due to COVID and the league’s cancellation last year. It seems like a move to a high major team to finish up his college career might be the obvious next step.
Abu Kigab (Senior, Boise State). One of my favorite Canadians in college (I have a soft spot for him ever since his iconic performance, leading Canada’s U19 junior team to a FIBAWorld Cup gold medal, alongside RJ Barrett) is finishing up his career in style. The most important player on an excellent Boise State team (For me they are borderline top-25 in the country). 15ppg, 6rpg, 2.5apg, almost 2 stocks and a lot of hustle and defensive presence. The best player on the team, and all-Mountain West Conference first team, and the MVP of the conference championship, leading Boise State to a close win in the final game. I look forward to seeing what they can do in the big dance. They have a lot of experience and talent, as well as suffocating defense, and the potential to make some real noise, though they got a hellish bracket, starting against a strong Memphis team and then, if they somehow pull it off, a likely meeting with Gonzaga in the round of 32. Can’t really see them making it to the second week. But Kigab (and Winnipeg’s Emmanuel Akot; more on him below) will have a chance to show what they got in high profile games.
Fardaws Aimaq (Junior, Utah Valey). Like Edey, I wrote quite extensively about Aimaq’s wonderful success story as part of my “future of Canadian basketball in the paint” series. He’s leading all Canadians in college this year in both points (19ppg) and rebounds (14rpg; almost 5 more than the next Canadian in line, Georgia State’s Eliel Nsoseme). And he’s led Utah State to a fine season, which will hopefully end up with a ticket to the big dance. Time for him to move on to a power conference? Or maybe he’ll try his luck in the draft.
THIRD TEAM: yn
Marcus Carr (Senior, Texas). This was a fairly disappointing season for both Carr and Texas, a team that had high hopes prior to the start of the season but did not quite deliver. Carr’s shooting percentages were about the same as they were at Minnesota (that is, not great; around 51% true shooting), but both his scoring and assist numbers dropped quite a bit, as he was less of a focal point in the Texas offense. He did play better in January and February, with a couple of games where he looked like his old self, so I would still give him the nod here (though I wouldn’t argue with anyone who puts Princeton’s Jaelyn Llewellyn here). Carr had a rough game in Texas’ close to TCU in the conference tournament. He’ll look to bounce back in the NCAA tournament but Texas has a tough path, with a possible meeting with Purdue in the round of 32.
Keeshawn Barthelemy (Sophomore, Colorado). A nice breakout year for the sophomore out of Montreal, putting up a stats line of 11ppg, 2.5apg, and 2.5rpg in slightly more than 20 minutes per game. Barthelemy started the year hot, then cooled off in December and January, but looked good again in February, including in big wins against #2 Arizona and against Oregon. His perimeter shooting can get hot or cold, but when it’s on, he’s a dangerous offensive weapon, as he’s also able to get to the rim and finish with contact. I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of his college career shapes up. Colorado had a good season but missed the tournament due to a few bad losses, despite being one of only three teams in the country to beat Arizona (they also gave the Wildcats a run for their money in the conference tournament).
Rudi Williams (Senior, Coastal Carolina). Since there’s no wing who I think really deserves this spot (Olivier-Maxence Prosper probably comes closest), I’ll go with another guard here. Williams couldn’t quite find his place last year with Kansas State and, similar to McEwen, decided to finish his college career at a lower-level college. He put up a highly efficient season, scoring 14ppg on 60% true shooting (43% behind the arc), adding 4rpg and 3.5apg. He should have a nice pro career.
Tyrese Samuel (Junior, Seton Hall). Not quite the breakout year I was hoping for from Samuel, but he certainly made a step in the right direction. His stats improved across the board (8ppg, 6rpg, and 1.5 stocks in less than 20 minutes a night) and he was an important contributor off the bench for a good Seton Hall team. Should play a bigger role next year.
Charles Bediako (Freshman, Alabama) I wrote quite a bit about the encouraging freshman season from the younger Bediako. I’ll just highlight that his 69% shooting from the floor ranks first among all freshmen in the country. 15 points, 10 rebounds and nearly 4 blocks per 40 minutes is an excellent stat line. Once he manages to stay out of foul trouble, he’ll also get more playing time next year. A very promising start to his college career. Before that, Alabama will try to make a run this year in the NCAA tournament. They are an explosive, unpredictable and quite unbalanced team. They can beat just about anyone on a given day (they beat Gonzaga, Tennessee, and Baylor this year), but can also just as easily lose to a weaker opponent.
- Maurice Calloo (Junior, Oregon State). Another tale of two seasons. Of the 12 games this season where Calloo played 25+ minutes per game (most of them since February), he has scored in double figures in all but two (compared with no double-figure games in any of the games in which he played less than 25 minutes). In these 12 games he shot 47% from 3, taking 5 of them per game. Clearly, a shooter like him needs some confidence to play well and hopefully he gets big minutes more consistently next season.
- Jaelin Llewellyn (Junior, Princeton). Very solid year for Llewellyn, who didn’t quite explode the way I hoped he might, but still put up good numbers, with 15ppg (with significantly better shooting percentages), 4rpg, and 2.5apg. I expect that, like Kirkwood, he might look for a high major team next year if he doesn’t decide to just go pro. Ended the year really well with 20ppg in the two conference championship games, as Princeton feel just short of capturing a spot in the NCAA tournament.
- Blondeau Tchoukuiegno (Junior, New Hampshire). The athletic guard continues to progress and put up a really nice season with 12ppg, 5rpg, and 4apg, shooting 40% from behind the arc and leading the Wildcats backcourt.
- 4. Luka Sakota (Sophomore, Harvard). A nice breakout season on his second year at Harvard (well, technically third, but only second year of actually playing ball due to the COVID shutdown last year). 11.5ppg (36% from 3) and quite a few clutch plays. Should continue to grow next year and I would like to see some more playmaking, as I know he has it in him (only 2apg this year).
- Emanuel Miller (Junior, TCU). I mentioned above that Miller did not make another step forward this season and in fact regressed a bit. Moving to TCU, he also changed his position and played more on the perimeter. On the one hand, this is an important development for him given his size (he started to shoot 3s, even if right now he’s not really making many of them). On the other hand, it took away some of his offensive prowess and dominance, as both his scoring and rebounding averages have declined, as well as his shooting numbers (almost a 10-point decline in TS%). He remains one of the best Canadians in college basketball, but will need to find his rhythm again next year.
- Quincy Guerrier (Junior, Oregon). Much like Miller, Guerrier (and Oregon) had a disappointing season. I thought he would blossom in the Oregon system, but he started really slow (didn’t even score in double figures until his tenth game) and didn’t really shoot the ball well. He did have a strong ending to the season (17ppg and 7rpg over his last 5), particularly in the conference championship, where he had 20 and a season-high 25 in two games, finding his shooting touch from beyond the arc. Hopefully he can build on that in his senior year.
- Emmanuel Akot (Senior, Boise State). When the year began, it looked like this might be the year where all this talent finally breaks out. But instead of picking up as the year went on, he mostly wavered off. Still finished the year with 11ppg (first time he’s scoring over 10ppg), 3apg, and 40% from behind the arc on nearly five attempts per game, while partnering with Kigab to lead an excellent Boise State team.
- Nick Ongenda (Junior, DePaul). Started the year on a strong note. Then had a very weak month of January (as did DePaul), but came back in February. One of the more interesting Canadian prospects in college from a long-term POV.
- James Karnik (Senior, Boston College). A nice final college year for the Surrey, BC center. Scored in double figures in 9 of his last 10 games of the season. I think he’s on his way to a pro career.
- Ben Krikke (Junior, Valparaiso). Another very solid season. Krikke has looked impressively stronger this year compared to what I remember from previous years (though also a bit heavier) and was able to use his mix of strength, good footwork, and touch to score 14ppg.
A few final words about the coming NCAA tournament:
By my count, there are 32 Canadians on the rosters of teams that made it to the Big Dance. About half of them do not really see playing time or are quite tangential. But there are quite a few others (all mentioned above) who play a central role. So the teams to focus on will likely be (more or less in this order):
Gonzaga (Andrew Nembhard)
Arizona (Ben Mathurin)
Purdue (Zach Edey)
Alabama (Charles Bediako)
Texas (Marcus Carr)
Boise State (Emmanuel Akot and Abu Kigab)
Michigan (Caleb Houstan)
TCU (Emanuel Miller)
A championship game between #1 Gonzaga and #2 Arizona would be my personal favorite scenario. But unlike last year, where Gonzaga and Baylor were not only ranked 1 and 2 but also clearly above the competition, this year it’s a much more even field and there are about 10 legit contenders, even before considering the potential upsets.