Key Returners: Payton Pritchard, Francis Okoro, Will Richardson
Key Losses: Bol Bol, Louis King, Victor Bailey Jr., Ehab Amin
Key Newcomers: Chris Duarte, Anthony Mathis, CJ Walker, Chandler Lawson, Shakur Juiston, N'Faly Dante*
*EDIT 8/13: N'Faly Dante, a 6’11 5-star freshman has officially reclassified to the 2019 class. Dante has a 7’5 wingspan and should be immediately weaponized as a defensive centerpiece for the Ducks.
Outlook: To any filmmakers out there looking to capture the 2018-19 Oregon Ducks basketball in movie form, I’d like to propose the following working title: “The Mighty Ducks Hit the Hardwood”
For those unfamiliar with the 1992 Disney classic, it follows the quintessential sports movie plot line: Team struggles at first. Team bonds over extreme adversity and bands together. Team completes turnaround and achieves ultimate goal against all odds. This narrative is directly applicable to the 2019 Oregon Ducks basketball team, who were suddenly strapped to a rocket ship when the calendar turned to March after meddling around in the Pac-12 purgatory for much of the year.
There’s no need to waste time dissecting the root causes of the Ducks’ early season struggles. Not only were there many variables at play, but my colleague Jim Root already waded into this territory last November, a few days removed from an embarrassing home loss to Texas Southern. The light bulb wouldn’t flick on until a few months later, but when it did, that ray of light blinded every team that stood in the Ducks’ way from February 28th onward.
As I cited in my NCAA tournament South regional breakdown, Payton Pritchard is the pulse of the Ducks’ offense. At his core, Pritchard is a pass-first lead guard and willing facilitator, but his innate unselfishness often comes at the expense of not being in attack mode. He’s simply too gifted of a shooter and scorer not to hunt his own shot - when he started to be more assertive offensively, the Oregon offense started firing on all cylinders.
The chart below shows Pritchard’s stat splits from the beginning of conference play until the end of February (‘Before 2/27’), compared to the end of February through the end of the season (‘Since 2/27’). For those who were stuck under a rock during the month of March last year, the Ducks’ rattled off 10 wins in a row before running into the eventual national champion Virginia Cavaliers in the Sweet-16:
To take some of the offensive demands off Pritchard’s plate this season, Dana Altman brought in the top ranked JUCO prospect in the country in Chris Duarte, along with one of the most lethal 3-point snipers in America in Anthony Mathis. Duarte has been on the radar of many NBA draft evaluators for some time now and really turned heads at the All-American Jamboree in Orlando last October:
Givony is one of the best in the business and his succinct description of Duarte is spot on. Duarte’s skill and athleticism combination jumps off the screen when you watch his game tape, but it’s his positional versatility that leads me to believe he’ll flourish at Oregon playing alongside Pritchard. He’s a true combo guard with the size and scoring chops to play off-the-ball, but can also slide over to the point if Altman wants to run Pritchard off screens. At Northwest Florida State, Duarte averaged 19.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks a game while shooting 54% from the floor (40% 3-point range):
Mathis will likely be the third prong in the Ducks’ three-headed backcourt triumvirate. In each of the past two seasons, Altman has struggled with getting an inordinate amount of new pieces to gel quickly but I doubt that will be an issue in this year’s backcourt:
For context, Mathis was Pritchard’s high school teammate at West Linn High School (just south of downtown Portland) before he ultimately signed his letter of intent with New Mexico. Mathis is a dead-eye shooter with range well beyond the 3-point stripe and should be licking his chops at the notion of playing with Pritchard and Duarte, both of whom will draw plenty of defensive attention and part the seas for an abundance of open looks from distance.
Rounding out the backcourt will be rising sophomore Will Richardson, who assumed the de facto 6th man role last season. The lean, lefty out of Oak Hill Academy suffered from common freshman inconsistencies, but there’s no denying his upside. I ultimately think he fits best as the 4th guard in the backcourt rotation, so expect him to resume a similar role as last season.
With the departure of human trampoline Kenny Wooten, the Oregon frontline will undergo a full makeover this summer. Former top-40 recruit Francis Okoro will now step into the spotlight as the featured big inside, who’s a stark contrast to the bouncy Wooten. The 6’10 240 pound Nigerian is a more grounded, physical presence in the paint and while he’s not the shot blocking savant that Wooten was, he’s a superior rebounder on both ends of the floor.
Okoro will be flanked up front by two leaner 6’8 freshmen, CJ Walker and Chandler Lawson, along with the gargantuan last minute pickup of UNLV grad transfer Shakur Juiston. Walker is somewhat of a wing / forward ‘tweener’ at this stage in his development, but he’ll inject a jolt of athleticism to the rotation right away. Walker’s length and activity level project favorably in Altman’s zone defensive scheme and don’t be surprised to see his name pop up on SportsCenter Top-10 with few show-stopping highlight reel throw downs this season - I still can’t believe he did this in a real live game:
Juiston received a medical redshirt last season as he was sidelined for the bulk of the season with a knee injury. A unanimous top-5 transfer prospect on the waiver wire this summer, Juiston’s distinctive style as a 6’7 forward / big hybrid makes him an awkward cover for most forward defenders. While he lacks the verticality of Okoro, his brawny build and relentless pursuit of the basketball has turned him into one of the most ferocious rebounders in the country.
Even with the late addition of Juiston, the one concern I have with this roster is lack of depth. Any injuries will significantly constrain rotation options, but Altman’s molasses pace on offense, combined with his newfound affection for zone on defense, should mitigate the risk of relying on such a short bench. While the ‘pace and space’ movement in college basketball is all the rage these days, Oregon’s average offensive possession length has increased steadily since 2013. This deliberate attempt to slow the pace offensively has coincided with Altman’s increasing fondness for his shape-shifting zone defense:
The zone frequency data is relevant here because teams that lean on zone defensive schemes are typically more equipped to play with a thinner rotation. Jim Boeheim has proved this for decades at Syracuse, often times going through long stretches of the season with a 6-7 man rotation. Granted, I’d argue Boeheim has taken this to the nth extreme, but the point still stands: Zone defenses typically demand less player movement and energy, which allows them to rest and recover more efficiently on each possession.
Bottom Line: If you removed the first three months of the season last year, I think many would have Oregon penciled in as a surefire top-15 team. This roster has the potential to replicate that again in 2019-20, but we’ve seen Altman struggle to integrate new pieces in each of the last two seasons – the first 27 games of last year and the entire 2017-18 campaign. I will likely be a staunch believer in this squad all year long barring any major injuries, which could cripple the depth at Altman’s disposal. The Ducks should be a more balanced team this year, one with a more prolific scoring attack, offset by a slight downtick on the other side of the ball without an elite rim protector like Wooten.