Updated: Feb 19
In the latest edition of P.I. Pulse, Pro Insight basketball analyst Henry Ward kicks off ‘The 5-Point Play,’ a new column where our staff (and occasional guests) will share five of their latest observations on the world of basketball — from grassroots to the draft and beyond. In the first edition, Henry shares some noteworthy musings from the NCAA season thus far, including Sharife Cooper’s stylistic brilliance, Moses Moody’s compelling development arc, Justin Champagnie’s pick-your-poison approach, and more.
Without further ado, here’s what’s caught our eye, lately:
Sharife Cooper’s Dennis Rodman-like approach to offensive initiation
Ineligible to begin the collegiate season, Sharife Cooper began his freshman campaign at the turn of the new year and hasn’t stopped opening eyes since. As Auburn’s highest ranked recruit ever, the consensus five-star came in with lofty expectations and has exceeded nearly every one, carrying a 21/5/8 line into the thick of conference play as February begins. While he hasn’t been the most efficient, Cooper has given the Tigers a kickstart every program would appreciate with his relentless advantage creation and elite decision making.
What stands out most about Cooper is the style with which he operates. Cooper’s ambidextrous, reactive approach to ball-handling combined with his court-mapping and fantastical touch as a passer is what makes him so lethal. As hoopheads, we can all recall Dennis Rodman’s ultra-meme’d interview in The Last Dance where he describes his approach to rebounding, describing how he was always able to read the trajectories and call on his bank of experience down low to predict where the rebound would end up so that he could place himself in that exact spot. Cooper’s chess-like approach to playmaking feels eerily similar, with every possession being astoundingly optimized and ostensibly simplified by the 19-year-old freshman, who plays with a maturity level years older than his age would infer.
Each possession that’s initiated by Cooper can be understood as a decision tree, just like Rodman’s rebounding. Once that initial advantage is created, which in and of itself is a mini-chess match of providing carefully plotted weight distributions to get defenders leaning where he wants, Cooper probes inside the arc and orders through his reads patiently yet rapidly. “If the low man tags, I’m going to the corner. If they help from the strongside, I’m kicking to the shooter. If the sinkman tries to play both, I’m looking him off one way and going the other.” When this level of aptitude is paired with his remarkably tight handle, elite passing profile and knack for drawing whistles, the result is a guard who can propel successful offense for long periods without much need for insulation. As long as Cooper is surrounded by shooters and a vertical spacer, there’s no reason to believe this level of impact won’t translate up levels, given his ability to not only conceptualize where the ball needs to go, but act upon it, constantly putting the ball in exact space, whether it be through traffic on a lob or directly into a shooter’s pocket. The efficiency is worth monitoring, but the alarming 63.9% free throw rate, albeit bound to regress somewhat, will buoy his floor along the way.
The consistency with which he makes the optimal play, combined with his obvious technical gifts and low-hanging developmental fruit (he’s shooting 21% from 3 with raw mechanics and special touch indicators), is what makes him an exceptionally intriguing prospect.
Franz Wagner’s scalable skill set
As the NBA moves towards a world where versatility is the ultimate trump card in regards to building for sustained success, wings have become the crown jewel in team construction. The value of having multiple lengthy, athletic, 6’5”-6’9” players with multifaceted, complementary skill sets is hard to overstate given the freedom and flexibility it gives coaches and general managers when it comes to developing schemes and plotting transactions. What makes wings unique is that they are most able, given their frames, to accentuate the two biggest schematic goals on either end of the ball; offensively, they are able to create space with their shooting and closeout exploitation skills while defensively being able to limit spacing with their pairing of size and movement skills. Guards can provide the former here and bigs can provide the latter, but they are much less likely to be able to do both.
This framework allows us to appreciate a player like Franz Wagner — a 6’9”, 220-pound German international who’s taken major strides forward as a jack-of-all-trades wing in his second year at Michigan. A heady offensive player who’s a willing cutter, proactive passer, crafty finisher and easily projectable shooter, Wagner can will the Wolverines into points without having to hold the ball for longer than four seconds on any given possession. While he doesn’t have the ball-handling flair of a self-creator, he finds opportunities to generate advantages with his stellar cutting awareness and subsequent high-level passing savvy, often exploiting holes in the defense while off the ball to force rotations that he’s able to take advantage of once he receives the rock. While the long range shooting percentages aren’t quite there, the stroke is clean, organized, and tough to contest with his frame -- not to mention, his statistical indicators remain strong in their own right, as he’s shooting 42% on 31 self-created mid-range shot attempts and 86% from the line.
Defensively, Wagner is a Big Ten coach’s dream. As smart and versatile as they come, Wagner is a nightmare off the ball, using his incredible wits, preternatural instincts, and functional athleticism to make the most basic offensive actions difficult for opposing teams. Wagner is the type of guy who frustrates his own teammates in film sessions because of how he so naturally makes the correct plays defensively, perfectly measuring his approach to maximize gambles in the correct instances while limiting the associated mistakes that come with this aggressive style of play. His rotations and understanding of team defensive concepts when combined with his size are awesome, often deterring drivers at the nail or forcing finishers into impossible decisions from the weak-side, using the frame of a traditional four-man and the agility of a guard to muck up actions whenever it makes sense. Of course, this also translates to his point of attack defense, where he’s able to nearly guard one through four at the collegiate level due to this mix, and should be able to match 2-4 positions in the NBA given his physical developments. Judging by his brother, Moe, he shouldn’t have too many problems adding some welcomed muscle.
The question of where Franz Wagner fits is a pointless one, because the answer is everywhere. Teams at nearly any stage in their search for a title could use someone who highlights the skillsets of those around them while maintaining a high floor of individual impact, and Wagner projects as someone who will do just that.
Isaiah Jackson’s paint dominance
While this season hasn’t quite gone according to plan for Kentucky, there have certainly been some individual bright spots worth highlighting. UK’s Isaiah Jackson, a freshman who notably shared a court with rookie standout LaMelo Ball for a year at Spire Academy, has displayed a level of control around the key on both ends so far that is quite literally a statistical anomaly for any player in college basketball, let alone for a freshman in a pow