Before I jump into a rangy discussion of Baylor’s front court, I want to recommend Kendall’s hefty team and season preview. There is a bit of overlap between his player breakdown and what I do here, but I attempted to provide a bit more depth of analysis than a sweeping overview like his could accommodate without becoming comically long, rather than simply thorough.
Now onto the big guys.
A strength and weakness of this year’s roster is a lack of redundancies. Each player contributes a unique collection of skills that no other player on the team can totally replicate, with Leonard Allen perhaps the only exception. Allen seems a close approximation for Jo Lual-Acuil in terms of size and skillset. Otherwise, each substitution coach Scott Drew makes will change the makeup of what is possible on the floor on a play-to-play basis.
In the back court, the lack on redundancy might become an achilles heel. Back court skills — dribbling, passing, and shooting — are base competency skills for a good offense. At present, Baylor has one guy who ticks off all three boxes (Manu Lecomte), one who ticks off two (Jake Lindsey, whose shot in the past has been credible at most), and one who still has to prove he can reliably tick off any (King McClure, who can shoot and can dribble and can pass but who also has gone through stretches where those skills fade in and out). Because there is little overlap on the roster at positions that will make most of the decisions with the ball, losing any one of those players (whether to injury, foul trouble, or simply having to substitute him out) can disproportionately effect what is possible on the offensive end.
The front court is a bit different. While teams want to have a redundancy of skills in their back court, having forwards who can do different things allows for diversity in scheme and attack that can put defenses off-balance. The distinction is a bit like that between starting pitchers and relief pitchers in baseball. Starting pitchers have a much more defined archetype, and every team is trying to find largely the same type of player to fill each spot in their starting rotation. Relief pitchers are much more situational, however, and so teams want to stock their bullpen with a variety of players who can be called on situationally. Front court players are, typically, more like relief pitchers.
In Baylor’s case, the bullpen is deep and varied. The two presumed starters in Acuil and Terry Maston are a classic center — power forward combination. Acuil is the tall man in the middle gobbling rebounds, blocking shots, and finishing above the rim. Maston is primarily a pick-and-pop player who has touch around the basket and a bit more quickness in his feet. At backup, Nuni Omot is a springy flyer who will make hay in the corner and in transition, while Tristan Clark is a bully with a big motor who might be able to flash a jump shot to keep the defense honest. Leonard Allen is, essentially, a more modest version of Acuil who will anchor the defense and finish near the rim; Mark Vital is Mini-Rico, undersized for his position but strong and athletic as all get out.
How Drew employs this variety of talent will be interesting. Maston and Acuil will eat up a lot of minutes when not harried by foul trouble — something both have struggled with in the past, if for contrary reasons. Acuil’s trouble is rooted in an overaggressive mindset of trying to block every shot rather than simply maintaining his position and reaching his massive arms to the sky. Maston almost draws fouls for being under aggressive, allowing the offensive player to dictate too much the terms of engagement and putting him in poor position to make a play on the ball. If they can avoid foul trouble, however, each has a chance to be brilliant and impactful.
Acuil is the ideal type of center for Drew’s zone. The perimeter defenders have only to funnel drivers in his direction, and he will swat the heck out of anything less than a floater the height of the St. Louis arch. Last season Acuil averaged 2.5 blocks per game with a block rate above 10.4%, 17th nationally according to KenPom, and the Bears as a team managed to hold opponents to a 46% effective field goal percentage and a lowly 45% on two-point attempts. Acuil brings enforcement and deterrence inside. If he has one weakness, it is jumping in pursuit of the unattainable block rather than contesting from the ground and positioning for the rebound. With Johnathan Motley gone, Baylor will need Acuil to grab lots of rebounds.
The same could be said about Maston, who will need to average a lot more than 2.2 defensive rebounds per game. Maston is not a particularly physical player, but he does have enough smarts and quickness to get into good position. Last season his offensive rebounding rate nearly matched his defensive rate,12.9% and 15.6% respectively, suggesting that the issue with his defensive rebounding was either effort or the consequence of playing next to Motley, Acuil, and Ishmail Wainright, a strong rebounder from the wing. Baylor will be relying on an improvement from Maston in this area.
Where Acuil is the beneficiary of Drew’s hybrid zone scheme, Maston is certainly put in the toughest position for what his capabilities are. The 1-3-1/2-3 zone configuration puts Maston on the wing and corner, where he is asked to close out on shooters when the ball swings to the weak side. Typically the guys he is closing out against are much quicker than he is, so Maston is caught where he either doesn’t close out far enough — allowing the three-point shot off — or he closes too much and can’t recover in time to contain the drive — putting the defense into a scramble. He has flashed some ability to defend in the pick-and-roll, but even that is inconsistent. Maston is just not meant to defend on the perimeter.
Offensively, Acuil and Maston work beautifully together. Both have showcased reliable jumpers, allowing the other to play around the basket without being too crowded. Maston is the more skilled of the two and a bit ground-bound, but he has immense touch around the basket and an assortment of moves to make up for his lack of explosion. Acuil, on the other hand, is tall and long enough that he can get his shot up over the defender, making him tough to stop when he keeps the ball over his head. When Acuil and Maston share the floor, Baylor’s offense has the potential to be beautiful.
The four backups all bring different looks. Omot is the likeliest to see a bulk of play time, while Vital, Clark, and Allen will have to battle it out to establish the rest of the hierarchy.
Omot’s appeal is obvious: he is athletic, long, and can shoot from the outside just well enough to keep his defender honest. He can be a bit wild at times and be prone to charges, but he should be fairly comparable to Taurean Prince when he was a sophomore and junior, if a bit weaker physically. Omot will fill time at both small and power forward, a bit of versatility that Drew should happily utilize.
Vital will similarly bounce between the forward positions, although it is tough to know whether he can be truly successful at either. His outside shot is unproven, making him tough to play consistently at the three, but his 6-5 height is well below what a team typically wants in its power forward, no matter how strong he is. Vital does seem to be a bit of a bulldog, though, and he will be an exciting player when he drives the lane or gets going in transition. As long as he utilizes his strength to bully opposing power forwards, there’s a chance he can reprise Rico Gathers’ role as the undersized bully who commentators always recommend to play football.
Tristan Clark and Leonard Allen are both dealing with health issues, so minutes at backup center might come down to who is healthy enough to get on the court. Clark’s situation seems much more positive. He has been day-to-day with a shoulder issue, whereas Leonard has been sidelined with potential heart issues, something that has plagued an alarmingly high number of Baylor players in the last four years. It’s tough to know if Leonard will be able to contribute at all this season, which is too bad, both for the obvious personal tragedy for him and for basketball reasons. Baylor has never had two centers who were both 7-foot shot blockers on the roster at once, and it would have been fascinating to see how strong the defense was when it could sub out one 7-footer for another.
Clark seems like the quintessential motor guy, much like Motley and Cory Jefferson from years past. He will be a good pairing with either of the starting bigs, and he might be just good enough to play alongside oddballs like Omot or Vital, though it seems unlikely that Drew would put his freshman big in a situation that challenging. Clark is a program guy with potential to be more, and Baylor’s history suggests he’s in the right program to develop into a big-time college forward.
Baylor’s front court has a lot of exciting players. Drew will have fun mix-and-matching them to craft traditional and small ball lineups alike. The Bears should have the talent to match up with just about any front court in the country, and it will be up to health luck and the incremental improvement of Maston, Acuil, and Omot to determine just how high this Baylor team can rise. The back court is a known commodity. Can the front court prove itself to be elite? Let’s hope so.