4 Big Questions on BC Basketball
Questions by Adam Baliatico
First posted on Bostoncollege.247sports.com
Boston College finished up a disappointing 2016-2017 basketball season a few weeks ago, and with that, it marked the third straight losing season for coach Jim Christian and fourth straight overall. Boston College 247 conducted a 4 question Q&A with its two basketball analysts Evan Gray and Ben Neuwirth to discuss where the team can go moving forward and how they can improve from here.
- For the players currently on the roster, what do you think is the most crucial aspect for them to make a jump from this past season to next year?
Ben Neuwirth: Ky Bowman had an incredible freshman year, finishing 3rd in ACC Freshman of the year voting, ahead of future top 10 pick Jonathan Isaac, but is he’s going to reach his superstar potential he’ll need to improve before next season.
First is his ball security. Due to a lack of depth, Bowman had to handle the bulk of the point guard duties, an unfair request of a freshman, and his inexperience showed as his turned the ball over on a fifth of his plays. Many of these were live ball steals or errant passes and led to opponent fast breaks. While many times he was able to bully his way into the lane and finish acrobatic teardrops, too often he’d find himself surrounded by a thicket of opposing jerseys and forced to fling a wild pass. He flashes brilliant vision but Ky too often forces the issue instead of looking for the simple play and while that can lead to some breathtaking plays, overall it hurts the team.
Bowman was electric in the close game against UNC, scoring 33 points and carrying Boston College to what would’ve been a signature win but turnovers allowed Carolina’s athletes to get in transition and ultimately pull away late. Ky had 8 of the 15 Eagle giveaways and if BC had taken better care of the ball and allowed their defense to set up, there might’ve been a court storming at Conte that afternoon. 8 other games this season Ky had more than 4 turnovers, if he can cut those out of his game Heights fans will witness the blossoming of one of the program’s best players in years.
Jerome Robinson has been the rock of this team for the last two years. Steadily chugging along and scoring his points even as the BC offense combusted around him. Towards the end of the season it appeared that the enormous load that ‘Rome had been carrying was too much and his play slipped towards the end of ACC play, specifically his shooting.
Overall Jerome shot 33.3% from behind the arc but in conference play, Robinson shot only 29.4% on threes on 4.7 attempts a game, much too low a percentage for that kind of volume. He shot 37% from downtown last year and his 72.2% free throw percentage suggests he a better shooter than he showed. It may have been a result of the increased burden Jerome had to take on following the transfer of Ty Graves and the lack of any credible ball handler beyond him and Bowman. Hopefully the Eagles can bring in and develop some more talent to ease the load on Robinson next year but it’s key for him to get back to his previous shooting levels, if not beyond. Much of his game rests of catching defenders off balance and slithering through the gaps, if defenses don’t respect his shot those gaps will evaporate.
Nik Popovic flashed great potential during the season, showing off a surprisingly effective hook shot, credible post moves and a knack for the pick n roll game. In my opinion he was the best big man on the team last year. The problem was he couldn’t stay on the floor. Big Poppa committed 7 fouls per 40 minutes, a ludicrous rate reminiscent of Idy Diallo, and many of them were completely unnecessary reach-ins, illegal screens or other ticky tacky fouls. It was almost cliche to see Nik come into the game at the 15:00 mark, commit 2 quick fouls and be back on the bench before the clock went under 10:00. He’s good at keeping his hands straight up when defending the post and has the quickness to block off drives to the basket but the game can get too fast for him mentally. If Popovic can stop hacking and see more floor time next season he could be a dangerous player.
There were many encouraging things about AJ Turner’s season. He became more efficient, a better distributor and a better defender. However as the highest rated recruit in Jim Christian’s tenure, Turner was expected to play a larger, more integral role. His 14% usage was lower than his freshman season and 10th on the team. 10th! Behind players such as Johncarlos Reyes, Ervins Meznieks and Mike Sagay. AJ was top 5 on the team in TS%, EFG%, AST%, PER and pretty much every other advanced stat. It’s unacceptable for him to play such a small role but a lot of it was his doing. He’d meander around the perimeter in search of kickouts but was too hesitant to aggressively attack closeouts and unleash his athleticism towards the rim. Turner seems to have improved his physical skills but he needs to adopt a more aggressive mentality to make a jump next season and become a building block of the program.
Jordan Chatman displayed a smooth stroke from long range and his spacing was critical to the Eagles’ improved offense this year. However he is very one dimensional, shooting the same percentage inside the arc as beyond it, not good even for such a prolific marksman. His off the bounce game is relatively weak as he lacks the handle and first step to blow by defenders. He could employ more side dribbles and pump fakes to avoid incoming defenders and not have to resort to weak attacks toward the hoop. At 23 years old, Chatman is likely staying roughly the player he is today, who is extremely valuable. If he can continue to build little improvements on his game and maybe even slightly improve his inside game, fans will be happy.
Mike Sagay got scant playing time this season as he was simply too raw. When he was on the court the game sometimes overwhelmed him, understandable for a freshman, leading to mental mistakes. Sagay needs to keep developing physically and improving his overall knowledge of the game, in all aspects. If he wants to carve out a niche for himself he’ll have to become a knockdown shooter to pair with BC’s drive-and-kick guards. If he can hone his shot and become the impact player on the defensive side of the ball many see him evolving into, Mike could find himself with a big role on next year’s squad.
Johncarlos Reyes finished the year strong, recording the best performance of his career against Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament. If he wants to build off that performance next year he’ll have to improve his physicality. At 6’10 Reyes grabbed just 7.2 rebounds per 40 minutes, 7th on the team, and often struggled to finish around the rim and through defenders. The lanky center would go to great lengths to avoid contact, making the shot 10 times harder in the process and handing a mental edge to his opponent. If Johncarlos can fully utilize his imposing stature he could run things in the paint. He’s somewhat agile and incredibly long but his lack of strength and resulting hesitancy towards contact neuters this. This is an essential barrier for Reyes to get past if he’s going to succeed.
Ervins Meznieks also found himself chained to the bench last season, seeing the court in just 9 games. To get himself back into Coach Christian’s good graces Meznieks will have to improve his shooting drastically. A 30.5% 3-point shooter on 5.3 attempts per 40 minutes, Ervins showed promise his freshman year as someone who could hurt teams from the outside. Without much of a driving game and a lack of game changing athleticism, this was the key to unlock his game. Unfortunately he seems to have misplaced it last season, shooting a ghastly 25% on 7.8 attempts per 40. Without a credible jumper he’ll find it hard to see the floor. It’s tough to shoot well when playing such limited, irregular minutes, but it’s Meznieks path to relevance next year.
Evan Gray: The biggest thing that BC struggled with all season, across all players and all positions, were the little things. Last season, this is where BC ranked in different stats in the ACC (15 teams):
15th in blocks, 14th in turnovers, 15th in two-point defense, 12th in 3-point defense, 14th in offensive rebounds, 14th in FTA, 14th in Opp. PPG, 14th in Opp. FTA, 14th in Opp. SPG, 14th in Opp APG, 15th in fouls drawn.
Add all these up and you get a team that 1) doesn’t crash the offensive glass well, 2) never gets to the free throw line, 3) allows their opponents to shoot 54.6% on twos, 4) turns the ball over all the time, and 5) sends their opponents to the free throw line a lot. Does any of that sound like a winning formula? No. In close games this season, whether it was all three Wake Forest games, the UNC game, or the Notre Dame game at home, it was hard to find one thing that the Eagles could hang their hat on.
Sure, they’re in the toughest, most athletic conference in the country, but to be bottom five in essentially every major category is a tough place to start. The only stat the Eagles were in the top half of the ACC in was threes attempted—2nd in the conference with 419 attempts—but our 3p% was 9th in the conference—36.8%.
Heading into next season, the Eagles need to find an identity, something at which they can excel. Look at all of the best teams in the ACC, there is one thing that they all do really well. For UNC, its offensive rebounding and overpowering teams with their size. Duke? They got to the line more than anyone in the conference. Georgia Tech? Best team in the conference in blocks. Notre Dame? Coughed the ball up five less times per game than BC did. And I know you can say that these teams have better recruits, better coaches, better facilities, and better programs, and yes that is true, but we all play the same teams and all have the same goal: to win basketball games.
There is no denying that the Eagles are much more competitive than their 15/16 counterparts, but the mountain to ACC respectability is still just as tall. In order to win consistently in the ACC, we need to find a way to limit our mistakes. It doesn’t matter how talented or athletic you are, that doesn’t mean you can’t limit turnovers and get to the free throw line more. Example, Nik Popovic, the biggest player on this squad, shot just 13 free throws in 265 ACC minutes, while also recording 17 turnovers. Jordan Chatman? He was the worst rebounder on the team, grabbing just 4.0% of all available rebounds while he was on the floor. AJ Turner? 66.4% of his shots in ACC play came from beyond the arc. I know it may sound like I am nitpicking, but in order to be a consistent force in this conference, you have to do the little things right.
2. What does BC need to add to the roster to compete in the ACC next year and begin to think about possibly making the NIT or NCAA Tournament?
Evan Gray: BC has five ACC level players on this team right now: Ky Bowman, Jerome Robinson, AJ Turner, Nik Popovic, and Jordan Chatman. While I like Chatman more as a bench piece moving forward, expect him to start next season unless BC get any decent transfers on the wing. Basically, that leaves us with a bench of Mike Sagay, Johncarlos Reyes, and Ervins Meznieks. Those three players played just 242 of a possible 3,840 minutes last season—so to say they are inexperienced is a major understatement. Reyes—although his 6’10” frame makes him a decent defender in terms of size—is unlikely to develop into anything other than a third center who plays when Nik inevitably gets into foul trouble. Sagay, as athletic as he is, is by far the rawest player on the team, and after missing a majority of the season with mono, he will likely need another year in the development chamber before he is ready to contribute on either side of the floor.
By far, the biggest needs for the Eagles heading into next season are point guard and the 4-5 spot. After the departure of Ty Graves, the Eagles were left with only one point guard on the roster in Ky Bowman. While Bowman is more than capable as a starting point guard in the ACC, Ty Graves’ departure put a major burden onto Jerome Robinson, who had to take over backup point guard duties. Playing such heavy minutes took a major toll on Jerome, who saw his jump shot all but abandon him by the end of the season. Over his last 10 games of the season, Jerome shot a terrible 36.2% from the field—40% from two and 29.6% from three—and was also averaging 3.1 turnovers per game. Having to play such extensive minutes, Jerome is simply being asked to do too much on both sides of the ball. Matching-up with some of the best ACC wings in the country, Jerome was worked like a dog on the defensive end. Coupling this with running the offense and creating his own shots, it’s no wonder Jerome’s efficiency slipped so much towards the end of the season—he was simply exhausted.
Ideally, the Eagles are able to bring in a point guard transfer who is ready to step in right away and handle the offense for 10-15 minutes a night. Point guard is often the hardest position to develop in the ACC, and it’s unlikely we’ll strike gold again with another Ky Bowman, so bringing an experienced floor-general would be the best option for the Eagles moving forward.
With the departure of Mo Jeffers and Connar Tava, the Eagles are left with holes defensively in the front-court, leaving AJ, Nik, and Johncarlos to pick up the slack at the 4 and 5 slots. AJ, versatile as he is, can only do so much, and expecting him to consistently lock down ACC power forwards is not a smart bet to make. The Eagles need a bruiser and a rim protector. Nik, although he has the physical tools to be a great defender, fouled out 4 times in under 12 minutes last season, and can’t be a consistent rim protector until he can prove that he can stop fouling his opponents. At the end of games this season, by the time Mo and Nik had fouled out, the Eagles became Swiss cheese on the defensive end. We saw John Collins go on a 14-0 run by himself on January 31st, and Kennedy Meeks was 6-9 from the field in the second half on January 21st. Ideally, the Eagles could commit two roster spots to bringing in big men to help out defensively. With big men, athleticism and discipline should be the key attributes the Eagles are looking for, as they need someone capable of protecting the rim without fouling all the time. The Eagles already have one big man coming in with Luka Kraljevic of Don Bosco Prep (IN). If the Eagles can find defensive consistency at the power forward and center positions, expect BC to fare much better in close games, as the Eagles won’t have a gaping hole on the defensive end.
Ben Neuwirth: BC had very little depth last season, going only 7 deep most nights, sometimes 8 when they dusted off Garland Owens. That included guys such as Mo Jeffers, Connor Tava and Nik Popovic who really weren’t ready to be ACC contributors. The chief victims of this were star guards Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson, who, after the transfer of Ty Graves, were forced to handle the ball without reprieve. This left them both gassed by the end of the 2nd half where teams would pull away from the Eagles. Adding a backup PG is crucial if this team is going to even get into the conversation for any tournaments. Not only will this give ‘Rome and Ky more energy but both, especially Robinson, are terrific off ball players and this could unlock a new part of their game.
With the departure of Mo Jeffers, Garland Owens and Connar Tava, BC loses approximately 70% of their big man minutes, meaning finding giants down low is a priority. Nik Popovic shows great potential but doesn’t have the conditioning or basketball IQ necessary to play every minute and isn’t yet a deterrent at the rim. Getting a few big, jumpy guys down low will be imperative to helping the team’s defense and rebounding, both atrocious last year. It will also hopefully give them an option against the ACC post up bigs that brutalized the Eagles all season long. Jordan Chapman and AJ Turner are not full time power forwards so BC will have to find another option there as well.
3. What are your expectations for next season? What would have to happen for you to say BC had a good 2017-2018 season?
Evan Gray: If you asked me this question after we were 2-2 in the ACC with wins over Syracuse and NC State, I would have said 8 ACC wins and an NIT birth. Unfortunately, ending the season with 15 straight losses tempered my expectations a little bit. Realistically, with the core of Jerome, AJ, and Ky becoming juniors and sophomores, you’d expect this team to be getting towards the peak of its current form. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much tangible progress in terms of actually winning games—as pretty much all of our ACC victories or close games relied on one player getting extremely hot. The Syracuse game was won because the Eagles hit a school record 16 three-pointers and Ky was 7-8 from deep. These kinds of performances, while amazing, are very hard to replicate on a consistent basis. Case and point, after going 16-26 from three against Syracuse, the Eagles were 5-30 from three in their very next game, including Ky’s 1-8 performance from deep.
Moreover, it’s very hard to gauge the value of a win over NC State, as the Wolfpack had one of the most disappointing ACC seasons in recent memory, finishing 4-14 in the conference despite having one the ACC’s best in Dennis Smith Jr.
A lot of how BC does next season will depend on whether Ky Bowman can sustain his hot shooting. Ky shot a ridiculous 47.7% from three in conference play on 109 attempts. Even more amazing, Ky shot 54.1% from three at home. If Ky can’t sustain such hot shooting—which all signs point to him not sustaining—the Eagles will struggle on the offensive end, as AJ and Jordan aren’t known for their stellar shot creation.
Because the Eagles relied so heavily on Ky’s three-point shot last season, gauging where they will be next year is basically impossible. If Ky continues to shoot this well and the Eagles can find some help in the front-court defensively, I would say they can win 6 or 7 ACC games. If Ky’s 3FG% falls by 5% or 10% and the Eagles can’t step up on the defensive end, we could see this team win only one or two conference games again. Obviously, this isn’t very encouraging, so the one tangible thing I would say that BC needs to do next season is avoid the no-shows in non-conference play. Poor first halves against Hartford, Harvard, Nicholls State, and Fairfield were the obvious stinkers of the season, and the Eagles can’t expect to win ACC games if they can’t even take care of easy opponents at home—Hartford finished the season 9-23 and Nicholls State finished 14-17.
So to answer your question, if I were to give BC some tangible goals for next season, it would be avoid sloppy losses at home and find a way to step up on defense if/when Ky falls back to Earth in terms of three-point shooting. Predictions: Eagles finish 14-17, 3-15 in ACC play.
Ben Neuwirth: The last 3 years Boston College has gone a combined 6-48 in the ACC and 29-67 overall so expectations will understandably be tempered. But they really shouldn’t be. The Eagles have elite talent in Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman, both favorites to make all-ACC teams next year, as well as sharp shooter combo forwards in AJ Turner and Jordan Chapman and a crafty big man in Nik Popovic. An offense built around Popovic pick n rolls and a constant swinging of the ball between shooters could be very effective and if one or two of the young projects or a recruit steps up, this team could have 7 ACC quality players to trot out, each filling their own role. Robinson and Bowman will hopefully reach even greater heights and in basketball top end talent counts for the most and these two guys should be able to go toe to toe with any backcourt in the conference.
The team showed this promise last year, they only got summarily blown out by Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, Virginia and Louisville at home and Florida State in Tallahassee, all teams that either made the tournament or barely missed it (you’re welcome Boeheim). The other 14 games were competitive and through a lack of depth, sloppiness and just plain bad luck the Eagles were only able to pull out 2 of them. If one was to simulate this season 100 times, I bet this year’s team wins at least 4 ACC games more often than not. So for next year the Eagles should seek to improve to at least 6 conference wins and an above .500 record. They have the potential and talent to win much more than that but they’ll still be extremely young and you have to crawl before you can walk.
4. Which player on the roster do you think makes the biggest jump next year in terms of production?
Ben Neuwirth: Young Serb Nik Popovic showed incredible potential throughout the season and when he wasn’t forced off the court due to foul trouble he compiled quality numbers. Per 40 minutes Pop put up a tidy 18 and 10, able to leverage his excellent feel for the game and unique skill set into real production. Just watching Nik move up and down the court, onlookers are struck by his awkwardness but he uses this to his advantage, fooling defenders who never know what to expect. He’ll quickly flip up underhand layups before defenders got a chance to contest, launch wide sweeping hook shots that somehow consistently went in and stumble through the lane on pick n rolls only to finish with a pretty looking layup. He plays a lot like the old guy at the Y, using guile and weird timing to get his shot off against bouncier competition. That’s not to say Popovic isn’t athletic, his thunderous dunk against Virginia Tech is proof of that (https://twitter.com/Zacklopedia/status/835617053709062145) but he also has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, whether that’s being in position to get the game winning tip versus Auburn at Madison Square Garden or to finish an improbable play by Ky (https://twitter.com/BCMBB/status/815678998797631488). Pop flung up some bricks from long range but if he can improve his shot and continue being effective inside, he could provide incredible value as a stretch center with inside moves.
Nik’s excellent court awareness seemingly didn’t translate to the other end of the floor where he committed a multitude of silly fouls that severely limited his court time. However, otherwise he was surprisingly stout. As the season came to a close Popovic got the hang of verticality, putting his hands straight up and forcing his matchup to shoot over his 6’11 frame and more importantly, not putting the competition at the line. More often than not in college ball, forcing a big to make a contested layup is good enough. He also showed impressive ability to move his feet and provide at least a semblance of rim protection and contain screen actions. As he gets more time in the practice gym he’ll get even more comfortable recognizing and controlling these actions. If he can add weight to his current 243 lbs and get the strength to stand up to low post brutes, he could be an defensive anchor down low. For years BC has yearned for a 2 way big man and while he wasn’t ready last season, in 2017-18, Pop could prove to be a game changer.
Evan Gray: Not including any newcomers, I think there really is only one logical choice to answer this question: Rising sophomore Nik Popovic. The only true post presence on this Eagle squad, Pop is gifted with a large plethora of offensive moves in his arsenal. Capable of going up with both hands, as well as flashing some ability to step out of the restricted area and knock down jumpers—even threes—Pop can provide much needed versatility to the offense. Next year, Pop should be expected to start at the center position, but if he wants to take a big jump in terms of overall production, there are a few things he needs to work on.
First, Pop needs to understand that his 6’11” frame is an asset on the offensive end. When he gets the ball in the post, he should be searching for contact and free throws. Unfortunately, during ACC play, Popovic had the lowest free throw rate on the team, taking just .121 free throws per field goal attempt. Beyond the statistics, Pop would often create a harder shot for himself simply to avoid the defender, setting himself up for 1) a tougher shot that is less likely to go in, and 2) no chance of getting to the free throw line.
Obviously, the biggest thing holding Popovic back in his current form is his grotesque foul rate. Averaging 6.5 fouls per 40 minutes in conference play won’t cut it. If you foul so much, you simply won’t be able to play enough minutes to be an effective player, nor will you get much needed development.
The reason I think Pop will make the biggest jump next season of any player is simply because there is so much we haven’t seen with Popovic. We don’t know how reliable he is as an outside shooter, we don’t know how gifted he is as a passer, and we don’t know if he can be a good defender without fouling. Using these three unknowns, if Pop can become great at just one or two of them, he can immediately become a positive player for the Eagles. If he is able to control his rabid fouling and increase his minutes to 20-25 a night, I think we could see Pop step into a role as a main focal point of the offense, playing a 4 out, 1 in approach where we try and get a post touch on every possession.