Updated: Feb 19, 2021
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 power five conference. With a defensive rebound percentage of 24.7%, an offensive rebound percentage of 12.3%, and a block percentage of 15.1%, Jackson is the only player since 2010 to reach these marks.
Additionally, what makes Jackson intriguing is the process he uses to reach this level of impact. So much of what he does on the court right now seems to be acting on relatively pure instinct — his rotations aren’t always what you’d like them to be and he’s caught out of position too much — but he eliminates these mistakes better than anybody. Many of Jackson’s blocks happen when he leaves the ground after the ball leaves a finisher’s hand, showing how quickly he’s able to get off the ground once he’s recognized where the attempt is. He’s not exceptionally explosive, but he’s an effortless leaper in traffic, able to high-point balls without much load up through his knees and waist. His wiry frame helps him here as well, as he’s able to track rebounds over defenders who’ve boxed him out and wiggle his limbs free to get to balls he has no business influencing. No matter where he is on the court and who’s on him, Jackson has a chance at a ball in the air, regardless of circumstance.
Jackson certainly has areas of his game that need refining for him to be a positive rotation piece in the league. The offensive skill set remains very raw and he likely needs to improve his technique defensively, both on and off-ball, to maintain a relevant level of impact on this end. With that being said, there is a willingness to shoot spot-ups that separates him from rim controlling big prospects of the past, and this is a skill development very much worth monitoring. Ultimately, the baseline he provides as an athletic rim-runner who inhales rebounds and opposing rim attempts is worth keeping an eye on moving forward, as he’s a likely one-and-done candidate.
Justin Champagnie’s quandary for opposing defenders
One of the fastest risers in this year’s class, Pittsburgh’s Justin Champagnie has been a welcomed surprise for head coach Jeff Capel and company in his second year with the Panthers. The 6’6”, 200-pound forward from Brooklyn has outperformed any pre-college expectations laid out for him as a former three-star recruit, posting season averages of 19 points and 12 rebounds so far this season. While these stats aren’t always particularly representative, Champagnie has asserted himself as not only a box-score machine but a dominant offensive presence, most notably with his brutish grown-man strength mixed with the movement skills of a guard and an especially creative finishing package around the rim, which adds up to make him an impossible cover for most ACC forwards.
Despite his 6’6” frame, Champagnie does most of his damage down low, with 62.3% of his shot attempts occuring around the rim. He’s a dangerous cutter who creates windows near the dunker spot and in the high post before using seasoned footwork to find finishing windows that he exploits with his broad shoulders and physicality. He’s also able to step out and hit threes, which forces defenders into making a Sophie’s choice nearly every time he has the ball: if he’s matched with someone he’s bigger than, he can post them up and take them to work on the block, and if he’s being covered by a big, he can stretch them out, face them up, and operate with quickness. And, above all, his fallback plan can always be to put a shoulder into whoever his defender is and get to the rim at will while being able to convert at a high rate. He’s currently shooting 70.1% on 67 attempts at the rim, only 57.4% of which are assisted.
Long term, one area that would really elevate Champagnie’s projection is his passing. Currently somewhat of a tunnel-vision player, learning to open his vision with the ball would truly make Champagnie a lot to handle at the next level. His game calls to mind that of reigning NBA sixth man of the year Montrezl Harrell’s, as an undersized big who can punish smaller defenders with power and beat bigger ones with finesse. However, what makes Harrell effective is that he’s able to meet a baseline threshold as a passer, hitting corner shooters on short rolls when help commits. If Champagnie can begin to see the floor just this much, to where he can make defenses pay for over-helping, then he certainly has a future in the league as a constant offensive mismatch creator given his funky skillset.
Moses Moody’s tantalizing developmental proposition
As we discussed when talking about Franz Wagner, there’s no such thing as having too many complementary wings in the NBA. But, what about when you can get a high-level version of one of those guys on a rookie contract while his developmental trajectory leads him into an eventual off-ball creator and wing stopper? This would be the argument for Moses Moody, and why I’m happy to boast about my previously taken oath into fellow P.I. contributor P.D. Web’s rapidly growing social club, Moody Mafia.
Hailing from the Montverde Academy school of defensive rotations, Moody provides exceptional defensive value as a 6’6” wing with a 7-foot wingspan, loads of functional athleticism and a remarkably high feel for the game. On-ball, his technique is nearly flawless. He extends his rangy off arm out to maintain pressure on the ball and deter shots while also giving himself room to react, able to square up and take contact in his chest from would-be drivers. His twitchiness allows him to stay with guards of all skill levels and swallow them when they try to attack, while his frame and strength allow him to guard wings with a similar level of success. Off the ball, the technique shines again as he consistently makes rim rotations from the weak side, forces tough decisions from distributors when playing two men, and causes turnovers by digging at post players and swiping down on drivers.
Offensively, Moody has serious potential to be a three-level scorer and secondary playmaker. With an effortless, beautiful shooting motion, Moody is lethal as a catch-and-shoot threat, as well as off the dribble when attacking closeouts. Currently shooting 35% from distance on 88 attempts, he’ll be able to step in immediately and command defensive attention while being able to properly challenge defenses that are forced into rotation when guys fly by on him. Furthermore, Moody does a really noteworthy job of finding himself these closeouts through relocations and a terrific general understanding of offensive spacing. When on the perimeter, he slides away from drivers and reverses direction of his relocations to present easy passing windows for kick-outs while also getting himself cleaner looks in the process. As a slasher, Moody’s fluidity, build, and bounce are on display, often gliding to the rim through contact and retaining balance before finishing over and around defenders of all sizes. While he may not have the elite level handle or shake to create too many shots for himself from a standstill, he can still find ways to pour in points given his simple yet effective offensive package. Most notably, he’s already put together performances of 26, 28, and 25 points in SEC play against Vanderbilt, Alabama, and Georgia, respectively.
With scoring production comes defensive attention, and Moody is also uniquely equipped as a passer for someone in his current archetype. While his assist numbers aren’t eye-catching, anyone who takes the time to watch one of his games is sure to catch a glimpse of what could be. He’s both able to make the simple, effective pass, as he often does once he’s created a closeout, but he’s also flashed some really high level manipulation to find dunkers for easy points. As seen with someone like fellow St. Louis Eagles/Brad Beal Elite alum Jayson Tatum, passing developments can come naturally for someone who’s constantly forced into advantage situations they’ve created for themselves. If Moody can make layered reads a consistent part of his offensive repertoire, there’s potential there for an all-star caliber player.
This is what makes Moody so intriguing in this class. It feels after the third or fourth pick, depending on your evaluations of that group, that you’re forced to pick from a crop of highly flawed but highly worthwhile bets. Of course, ceilings and floors vary among them, but that crop of prospects from about four to fifteen on my rough theoretical board could be ordered a million different ways depending on how lucky I’m feeling that day. With Moody, the developmental path is relatively crystal clear compared to the rest of this group, for reasons stated above. That in and of itself may make him worthy of a top-five pick when it’s all said and done.
Make sure to check back again soon for the next installment of ‘The 5-Point Play.’