The biggest surprise for the 2017 Bears was the breakout of Jo Lual-Acuil. The 7-foot junior college transfer earned All-Big 12 defensive honors. Without Lual-Acuil, the Bears don’t come close to achieving what they did in 2017.
With months until play resumes for Baylor football and basketball, we’re going to preview the 2017-2018 Baylor basketball team. We begin with Jo Lual-Acuil.
Baylor had the best defense of the Scott Drew era in 2017. The 2016 Bears finished 84th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, while the 2017 unit finished 16th.
There are many reasons Baylor’s defense was better in 2016, but Lual-Acuil was a huge reason why. Opponents shot 28.6% of their shots at the rim against the 2015-2016 Bears. They shot just 20.1% of the time at the rim last year. That was a smart move considering what Lual-Acuil could do:
Baylor’s opponents sometimes liked to get out and run. Running can prevent the Bears from setting up their zone defense, and some teams assume their guards should be able to outrun Baylor’s big men. Assuming is good for getting blocked by Lual-Acuil:
By limiting easy baskets, Baylor’s opponents were left taking inefficient mid-range shots. And when defending pick-and-rolls, Lual-Acuil’s length meant that opponents struggled to get free and into the paint. It’s hard to build a top 16 defense when you’re 261st in turnover percentage. But Baylor did that because of a top 30 block rate and a top 25 effective field goal defense.
On offense, Lual-Acuil can space the floor. He ended up shooting 33% from 3-point range. But he has a quick release with good form. There’s hope that he can make more deep shots this season, which will be especially valuable if Terry Maston’s range doesn’t make it to the 3-point line this year:
Baylor runs a lot of pick-and-rolls, and Lual-Acuil is a perfect fit for maximizing that play with Baylor’s roster. Manu Lecomte is only 5-feet-11-inches. As a result, teams like to trap him. Even those squads that don’t trap are susceptible to a big man who can slip the pick-and-roll because defenses need a couple seconds to recover after slowing down the ball-handler. Lual-Acuil is a little too fast:
That speed helped Lual-Acuil get to the rim. He took 42.8% of his shots at the rim and made 80.8% of his looks, per hoop-math. He’s fast enough to corral difficult passes and dunk it:
Perhaps Lual-Acuil’s best offensive strength is his ability to run the floor. The Bears play at a slow pace—they ranked 343rd in that category on KenPom. Baylor’s had a top 25 offense seven of the last eight seasons. Only Duke can match that mark. It makes sense Baylor isn’t worried about speeding up the tempo. But Lual-Acuil can:
Baylor will have a tough task replacing Johnathan Motley and Ish Wainright, especially on the offensive rebounding front. Those two were key pieces in Baylor finishing 3rd in offensive rebounding on KenPom.
The 2017 Bears seemed like they would be unable to replace Rico Gather’s offensive rebounding production. But Motley, Wainright and Lual-Acuil stepped up. He finished in the top 200 in offensive rebounding percentage. With his incredible size and good timing, the Bears shouldn’t fall too far in that category next season:
The big man blew away expectations in 2017. But there are a few areas of his game that he’ll work to improve.
Nothing shocks me as much about high-level athletes as their size. I took two non-Baylor friends to the Baylor-Oklahoma football game in 2015. Those friends saw Lual-Acuil and were blown away by how big he was. And if you pass him, there’s no doubt he’s incredibly strong. But as a center in the Big 12, he still needs to add strength.
Charlie Melton is one of the best strength coaches in the country. He’s been vital in helping Baylor’s big men add strength. Lual-Acuil will need to add strength to take over against smaller players in the post. Kansas got away with playing Josh Jackson on him. Jackson could be a future NBA-All Star, but he won’t be one because he’ll defend 7-footers:
While Lual-Acuil is a fantastic defender, he’ll need to add strength to defend the biggest centers on Baylor’s schedule. Big men occasionally got deep position in the post and scored against him:
Not many players have made the switch from junior college basketball to power five basketball as well as Lual-Acuil. But he occasionally made some bad decisions. His most costly defensive decision last season was closing out on Jackson, a streaky 3-point shooter and incredible athlete. It led to a dunk and gave Kansas the lead late at Allen Fieldhouse:
As valuable as Lual-Acuil’s floor spacing can be, he often took 3-point shots at inopportune times. He absolutely should work on that shot, and the Bears will be better if he takes more shots than the 24 he took last season. But too often he fired a 3-point look with a lot of time left on the clock or when the defense was scrambling.
KU’s defense had almost no hope if he hits Manu Lecomte on this play. If he makes that pass, Lecomte either has an open 3-point look, or Motley is right under the hoop with a much smaller Josh Jackson defending him. The Bears did not need this shot:
Jo Lual-Acuil was superb for Baylor last season. He became one of the league’s ten best players, despite not playing on a basketball team in 2016. And the last team he played on before that was at a junior college in Kansas. If there’s anyone I think can improve from one season to the next, it’s him.
Not many guys take Lual-Acuil’s path and end up in the NBA. But NBADraft.net has him as the 52nd selection in the 2018 NBA Draft.
Few men run the floor or block shots like him. And few have adjusted to major college basketball so seamlessly.
Baylor needs to replace Johnathan Motley, who may be the best player in school history. But they still have Jo Lual-Acuil. That fact should give the Bears hope every game.