Let’s be honest: you’re excited about Baylor Bears basketball this season. Not only is there a new arena on the way, but this men’s team is loaded with talent and fit that will almost certainly deliver this season.
@BaylorMBB’s 23-34 edition is deep. Has six guards who will all contribute. And size & experience up front, also. Much higher ceiling in January & February than last year’s Bears. Freshman guards @JaKobeWalter1 & @MiroLittle23 are mature beyond their years. And, Foster Pavilion…— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) October 11, 2023
There are a lot of new faces on the team this year, particularly in the back court. So in preparing for the season, we’re going to break the roster up into three parts: guards, wings, and bigs. It’s a pretty classic formula. Guard is being defined as a primary initiator/ball handler, wing and off-ball cutting/shooting threat, and big as a screener/dunker. They’re loose categories, and like Fran Frascilla says in the tweet above, Baylor has six guards who can all be contributors this season.
For our purposes, we’ll split those guards up, focusing on the offensive initiators this week and on the off-ball specialists next week. Don’t think we’re trying to sell those guys short on their own ball skills, though. Any one of Baylor’s six guards can put it on the deck and get a bucket, but these three will be the ones primarily tasked with setting up their teammates.
Oh, and if you haven’t already introduced yourself to the new kids on the block, Jed Johnson has an expansive Big 12 new players preview ready and waiting for you.
6’ 2”, 180 lbs
Projected role: Starting point guard
RayJ Dennis, along with Max Abmas at Texas, will be a prime test for how mid-major maestros translate against top tier competition. And while Abmas has proven himself on the biggest stage in the NCAA Tournament, Dennis was actually the most efficient offensive player in the transfer portal this offseason, according to evanmiya.com. And unlike Abmas, Dennis also managed to rate out as a net positive on defense while being the hub of Toledo’s 5th rated offense, per kenpom.com.
His raw stats are impressive enough: 19.5 points, 5.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game demonstrate his control and impact on every part of the game. Despite shouldering such a large role (28.7% usage rate), Dennis rocked a pristine 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. He does it all with crafty hesitations, backdowns, spin moves, and misdirection that generate lanes to the basket and open threes for his teammates.
The argument for Dennis is pretty clear. He’s just a dang good basketball player with old school craft, a calm demeanor, and strong leadership qualities that have led to both individual and team success. Baylor coaches have commented on the connection and impact Dennis is already having on the team. And he’s a hand-in-glove fit with how Baylor wants to operate on offense. He can score at the rim (62.9% FG last season, per hoop-math.com) and he can move around off-ball for catch-and-shoot threes (36.6% FG, with 64% of those coming of an assist). Baylor was perhaps the best offense in the country last season at maximizing the three to create space for its guards to operate. This season’s team doesn’t have Adam Flagler or LJ Cryer on the perimeter to pull defenders away from the paint, but there are enough weapons that Dennis should have space to get into the paint, suck in the defense, and find the open man.
If you want to deflate the Dennis hype, there’s a pretty obvious weakness in his resume. In his last two seasons at Toledo, Dennis was a rousing 0-1 against Power 5 competition. That single game was against Michigan in his final game as a Rocket in which he went 5-19 from the floor in a 10-point loss in the NIT. On the one hand, that’s a tiny sample size, and he did manage eight assists against a single turnover. It wasn’t like he choked the game away. On the other hand, he’s unproven against a high level of athleticism. Sure he can use craft to get into the paint, but what happens when the defense recovers half a step faster or can reach in a few inches further? Can Dennis adjust?
My money is on “yes”. Experience and IQ still reign in college basketball, and the talent around him will draw away enough attention that opponents can’t simply blitz Dennis and throttle the offense. Plus, he’s a competent defensive guard. That will be a massive part of this team’s improvement on last season’s abysmal defense.
6’ 4”, 185 lbs
Projected role: Backup point guard
Speaking of talent — are you ready to ride the hype train? Little is one of Baylor’s three dynamic freshmen and just might be the guard version of what Jeremy Sochan was two seasons ago. He has FIBA experience playing against grown men, a smooth, team-centric Euro-style game, and might have the nastiest handle on the roster:
That practice highlight isn’t meant to besmirch Jayden Nunn. What the video doesn’t show is that there’s a screen being set to Little’s left. That pick plus the Tom Brady-esque look-off from Little gets Nunn to turn his hips in anticipation. Bye-bye.
Little isn’t just a practice warrior, either. His experience at the national level will be invaluable this season. While I expect him to come off the bench, I don’t expect that to mean there’s a drop-off when he subs in for Dennis. Little has the same craft, but he’s also got a little more size and athleticism that lets him blow by defenders with a quick step or finish over the top. He’s got experience setting up talented wing scorers (like Finnish national teammate Lauri Markkanen) in the half court.
Little has real play at being the conference 6th Man of the Year if he can carve out a place for himself in what is shaping up to be a very deep rotation. His versatility will allow him to play both alongside just about any combination Drew wants to put on the floor.
6’ 2”, 190 lbs
Projected role: Reserve point guard
It’s tough to say that Grimes is probably going to see little floor time, but given the talent and depth at the guard position and on the wing, there just might not be enough minutes to go around. Still, Grimes was a NJCAA Second-Team All-American. He’s got a lighting first step that he showed off at last summers GLOBL Jam and took last season to redshirt, something that has typically led to success for players under Drew.
The big thing is that he provides quality depth. Dale Bonner wasn’t supposed to have as big a role as he did last season, but injuries happen. When his moment arrived, Bonner was ready to contribute. I expect Grimes to be the same way. He’ll have moments this season, either due to injury or foul trouble, where he gets to run the team a little. In GLOBL Jam he looked like a guy who can get to the rim and score. The Bears will need that on occasion this season.
And who knows? Grimes might just be the next big redshirt success story at Baylor.
In recent seasons, Baylor’s guards have been known as knockdown shooters. This season, the shooting talent from the lead guards won’t be what drives the offense. Instead, the offense will come from passing and creativity.
But it won’t be any less fun.