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The Future Remains Bright: Baylor Basketball After Motley and Wainright

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There are a few paths to replace two of Baylor’s best players

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Tulsa Practice Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

To make a fifth Sweet 16 this decade, Baylor has to find a way to win without Johnathan Motley and Ish Wainright. That’s a tough task. Motley may be the best Baylor player ever. While Wainright was one of the best defenders and passers in program history.

We’ll explore how Baylor can succeed without those two. We’ll look at what Baylor has to replace. Then we’ll outline different areas where Baylor could improve. Finally, we’ll conclude by looking at expectations for next season.

What Baylor has to replace:

Offensive Rebounding:

The 2017 Bears built a top 25 offense by dominating the offensive glass:

Baylor’s 2017 Offenese- KenPom rankings

That was not something new for the Bears. Baylor’s had top 25 KenPom offenses seven of the last eight seasons. Only Duke has done that too. As the next line graph demonstrates, offensive rebounding has been the constant in Baylor’s offensive success:

The last four seasons, Baylor has ranked 4th or better in offensive rebounding. The 2014, 2015 and 2016 teams had Rico Gathers—a monster on the boards and now a tight end for the Dallas Cowboys. Gathers ranked in the top 10 nationally in adjusted offensive rebounding each season. And in his final season, he led the country. Those offensive rebounds guaranteed the team extra possessions, and when Baylor’s shots weren’t going in, a few more shots at the hoop helped Baylor pull out close victories.

The 2017 Bears didn’t have Gathers, but they were just as good at offensive rebounding. Much of that was because of Motley. He went from an offensive rebounding rate of 12.8 to 14.9, which was good for 22nd in the country. He was stronger and determined to grab the ball. TCU found that out:

Motley’s offensive rebounding will be tough to replace, but Baylor should be able to maintain a top 10 offensive rebounding rate for two reasons. First, Baylor has three good offensive rebounders. Jo Lual-Acuil, a 7-foot-1 center, ranked in the top 160 in offensive rebounding rate. When a player is that tall, he’s going to grab a few rebounds by virtue of what God gave him:

Terry Maston grabbed an even higher percentage than Lual-Acuil, and Nuni Omot grabbed over 10% of Baylor’s misses while he was on the court. Those players will form a strong offensive rebounding nucleus.

Second, those players will grab more offensive rebounds when Motley is gone. Only one person can grab an offensive rebound on any shot that remains in play. Motley was a better rebounder from his sophomore to junior season, but he also had a higher offensive rebounding percentage because Gathers wasn’t snagging offensive rebounds. Lual-Acuil, Omot and Maston should all grab some rebounds that Motley is no longer swiping.

Offensive Creation:

Baylor has to find a way to make up for Motley’s prolific scoring. He took over games. From his 32 point and 20 rebound demolition against Texas, to his 9-of-12 shooting against USC, the Bears were blessed with a reliable scoring option. Motley finished 30.6% of Baylor’s possessions—the highest for any player under Scott Drew. Due to that high usage rate, he scored at least a third of Baylor’s points 16 times.

Replacing that scoring load will not be easy. Motley scored efficiently. He got to the line 178 times and made over 70% of his attempts—a strong number for such a high free throw rate. And he also made over 70% of his shots at the rim, according to hoop-math.

To make replacing Motley even tougher, Wainright was a phenomenal playmaker. With the exception of Pierre Jackson, he may be the best passer of the Drew era. Baylor’s most successful set was a rip action play where Wainright would catch a pass on the right side of the 3-point line. He then had several options. The play often led to an open 3-point shot or dunk:

The easiest way to replace Motley and Wainright’s offensive contributions is probably by committee. Manu Lecomte can take over games—he hit the game winner against Iowa State and flipped the USC game—but Baylor will probably want to avoid having anyone attempt as many shots as Motley. In an ideal world, the Bears would probably look for Lecomte to make big plays and have the ball late and for McClure, Maston and Lual-Acuil to provide a few 20+ point nights.

On-ball Defense:

The 2017 Bears had the best defense of the Drew era. They finished 16th on KenPom. The Bears did two things well: effective field goal defense (24th) and free throw rate (59th). Baylor was good at defending without fouling. That’s not easy.

Baylor’s defense improved by 68 spots from 2016 to 2017 because their effective field goal defense went from 240th to 24th and their free throw rate went from 218th to 59th.

The Bears were excellent at forcing opponents to take long 2-point shots—the least efficient shot in basketball. One reason Baylor forced opponents to take bad shots was because Wainright was a menace on the ball. He sealed a big win against Texas Tech with a clean block, and with elite quickness and excellent timing, he was incredibly difficult to score against. According to Synergy, opponents scored just .71 points per possession on plays where Wainright was the primary defender. That put him in the 89th percentile. This superb defensive play by Wainright may be my favorite play from last season:

Baylor’s incredible length also forced teams to take long 2s. Motley had a 7-foot-4 wingspan and Wainright had a 7-foot-2 wingspan. With that duo playing so many minutes, teams struggled to find their way into the lane. 45% of Baylor’s opponent shots were 2-point jump shots. That was 9% better than the next best team in the Big 12. Baylor also defended those shots well—teams shot just 37.8%. When Motley was able to close so quickly against someone as good as Miles Bridges, there was always hope:

The Bears should still be a pretty solid on-ball defensive team next season. Lecomte, McClure and Lindsey are all above average defensive guards. With that trio back, Baylor should be able to limit dribble penetration next season.

Most importantly, Maston has the tools to make a defensive leap. He ranked in just the 10th percentile as a defender, according to Synergy. He won’t have to become Ish Wainright on defense to make a huge difference. Going from bad to average would provide a huge boost. Maston’s defensive tools are too good to be that bad on defense as a senior. He’s quick and has the size to defend college power forwards. Against Louisville, he was engaged and consistently provided quality shadowing of NBA lottery pick Donovan Mitchell. Maston should find a way to be at least an average defender:

Potential Areas of Improvement:

Avoiding Turnovers:

If there was one consistent problem for Baylor last season it was turning the ball over. The Bears went into Morgantown ranked No. 1 and proceeded to turn the ball over 29 times. The 2016 Bears were 84th in turnovers. The 2017 Bears were 261st. They finished last in that category in the Big 12.

The 2014 team highlights how much of a difference turnovers can make. With a turnover ranking of 136th—mediocre but not catastrophic—the Bear’s offense was 9th overall.

Last year’s problem was not about Lecomte as point guard. Drew’s offenses rely on the point guard having the ball and late shot clock attempts after the team has set up a play or given big men position to grab offensive rebounds. Lecomte’s turnover percentage for a Baylor point guard was not a problem.

Instead, a host of other players turned it over too much. I’m buying every share I can of Chuck Mitchell stock, but he had a turnover rate of 31.8%. That’s about as bad as it gets. Lindsey, McClure and Omot also finished with turnover rates far outside the top 500 nationally. That should improve. The first two were thrust into much larger roles and improved dramatically in some areas (McClure as a defender and Lindsey as a 3-point shooter). But they coughed it up too often. Small improvements across the board would make a massive difference. Lindsey became more comfortable breaking down aggressive on-ball defense late in the season. If that continues, the Bears should be worlds better at avoiding turnovers:

Creating Turnovers:

The 2017 Bears were terrible at turning teams over. This is not me hating on that team (it’s possibly my favorite sports team of all-time), but Baylor rarely turned over opponents. The Bears ranked 261st nationally and last in the Big 12 at turning teams over.

Baylor’s 2017 Big 12 defensive ranks

The Bears could improve in that category. Lindsey and McClure jump passing lanes well, and the Bears could mix in some more aggressive defenses. If Omot plays more, Baylor could also trap some pick-and-rolls and generate additional turnovers. But the Bears often ice pick-and-rolls, and every decision creates trade-offs. Play more aggressive defense for turnovers, and suddenly the team may send opponents to the line more than they feel comfortable doing. Regardless of scheme, with the guards a year older, natural progression should lead to some uptick in this category.

3-point Shooting:

Wainright and Motley struggled from deep. Wainright was a good 3-point shooter as a junior, but as a senior he made just 28% of his attempts. Motley made just 25% of his 32 attempts. With two of their best players shooting poorly from deep, Baylor finished the season 157th in 3-point percentage and attempted only 33% of shots from beyond the arc.

Next year’s lineups should feature better 3-point shooting. McClure was a knock down shooter in high school and rained treys on USC. With his uptick near the end of the season, he finished a respectable 37% from 3-point land. Many of us expect him to be the most improved Bear next season—if so, it will start with his 3-point shooting.

Lindsey developed a 3-point shot for his sophomore year, but he took just 50 3-point shots. He should take more this season. Those are quality shots, and he showed he wasn’t just making them when wide open in the corner:

Then there’s Omot, Maston and Mitchell. None of those guys were good 3-point shooters, but there’s some hope with all three. Omot shot an okay 33% last year and one of his off-season focuses is his 3-point shot. Maston is money from 19 feet. He just needs to extend his range two feet. Maybe he won’t be able to. He’s such a good free throw shooter and 2-point jump shooter that he could become passable from behind the arc. Mitchell has good form. He sometimes struggled with decision-making as a freshman (as everyone does), but this is the foundation for the future:

Anyone who makes it this far in the article should be familiar with Lecomte. He makes 3s when guarded, and he makes them from NBA range. He hit 45% of his 3s at Miami and 41% last year. He’s made Belgium my favorite country in Western Europe. With Motley not taking as many shots, Baylor’s offense is going to be a bit worse, but Lecomte will probably fire more attempts. And there’s always a chance when Lecomte shoots:

Conclusion:

Any program that loses two players as good as Motley and Wainright should expect a drop off. The Bears are probably going to be a little worse than they were last season. Motley was the best power forward in the country last season. He was the man on offense and his scoring punch is a lot to replace. Add Wainright’s defense and passing acumen, and the Bears—without that duo—might seem like a bubble team to some.

But the Bears have replaced excellent players before. It’s never fun to lose guys like Motley and Wainright, much as it wasn’t fun to lose Tweety Carter, Pierre Jackson, Quincy Acy, Taurean Prince and a host of others in past seasons.

The 2018 Bears have enough talent that they could surprise the nation again. Nobody gave the 2017 Bears a vote entering the season. By January, a majority of voters had given them a No. 1 vote. If the Bears can make realistic improvements in a few areas, they’ll once again be ready to prove they’re better than people believe.