A couple of seasons ago, I suggested in a preseason predictions post that Scott Drew had the roster to implement what I dubbed #WeirdBasketball. The weirdest lineup I could construct involved Ish Wainright at point, Lester Medford at off-guard, Royce O’Neale at the other wing position, Taurean Prince at power forward, and Deng Deng in the middle. At the time, that lineup seemed pretty off the wall, even if mildly plausible. As it turned out, Prince’s best role was as a small-ball four, Medford was a better off-ball than on-ball player (demonstrated by his declined effectiveness from year one to two), and the playmaking of O’Neale on the break was the key to Baylor’s offense in transition and his rebounding from the wing could rescue otherwise abysmal offensive possessions.
This season, Drew has a decision to make. He could rely on a traditional lineup constructed around two big men in Terry Maston and Johnathan Motley, dotting the perimeter with Manu Lecomte, King McClure, and Ish Wainright. If the Maston-Motley combo takes the next step forward, that could be an effective group of five with enough shooting, post play, and passing to scramble a defense.
What if, though, Drew decided to embrace the revolution that is overtaking the sport and forsake (at least for portions of games) the traditional power forward?
In some ways, Drew has already begun to utilize his roster in creative, progressive ways. According to kenpom.com, Ish Wainright soaked up approximately 10% of the power forward minutes in the final five games of the season. Baylor’s fourth most used lineup (which saw the floor about 5% of the time) over the same stretch placed Wainright between King McClure at small forward and Rico Gathers at center. That lineup data is not entirely reliable (it uses an algorithm to estimate the positions), but it does suggest something interesting about Drew’s philosophical approach to positions.
At the start of the 2015-16 season, Prince was the starting power forward on Baylor’s NCAA Tournament squad, an expansion of role he occasionally occupied off the bench the previous season. By season’s end, Drew’s go-to substitute for Prince was not Maston (who struggled to make any impact once teams had more film on him) but Wainright. Playing a 6-8 wing at power forward was progressive, but not exactly revolutionary. The decision to use a player who is essentially a 6-5 guard was quite nearly precocious.
The move is only possible because of Wainright’s incredible strength for his height. Rico Gathers elicited unending commentary for his “football body,” but Wainright’s build is no less extraordinary for much the same reasons. His shoulders are broad and muscular. He has a strong base and knows how to drop his center of gravity to gain leverage against bigger opponents. His arms are incredibly long, allowing his to deter entry passes inside, jam passing lanes, and contest shots from players several inches taller. Wainright’s height suggests his versatility should cap out as a small forward, but his well built frame allows him, at least for limited minutes, to hold his own against players much larger.
That traditional lineup should probably be used to start games, and perhaps close them, depending on Maston’s development. If Drew wants to mix things up, though, he could roll out some units that advance on the now standard idea of a small ball lineup.
Imagine, if you will, a lineup featuring 6-5 ball handler Jake Lindsey, 5-11 jitterbug Manu Lecomte, one of Al Freeman and King McClure (whoever of the 6-3 guards proves to be the more reliable shooter and defender), 6-5 Ish Wainright, and 6-9 Johnathan Motley. Lindey’s lack of shooting is compensated by three capable perimeter shooters at the 2-4 positions (Motley also has a jumper reliable to about 15 feet), there is enough length and toughness to compete on the glass and defend at every position, and four different players can do some playmaking in a pinch.
That sort of lineup doesn’t have to be Baylor’s starter or even its closer, but for about 10 minutes a game it could provide a little spark to shake off poor offensive flow. It might seem risky to play four players all below 6-6, but the versatility of Lindsey and Wainright as defenders and passers - they are likely the two best passers on the team - makes this mini-ball approach viable for short stretches of time.
If you still need convincing, the player who clinched the national title for Villanova was its 6-6 power forward. Kris Jenkins was not exactly your typical big man.
Often enough in college basketball, it’s more about what you can get away with than what you should do most of the time. Scott Drew can get away with playing Ish Wainright at power forward, and he should embrace it.