Every year it seems like Pat Chambers is just a player or two short. Last year's team went 7-13 in Big Ten play, but the efficiency margin (-0.02) suggested this was more like a 9-11 team. Even if the Nittany Lions had not been so unlucky in conference play, their close non-conference losses to DePaul and Bradley likely doomed any chance of making the NCAA Tournament. It's not hard to see, however, that if the Nittany Lions had just one more shooter (the team was 303rd in effective field goal percentage), then maybe a few of those games go the other way.
Will it be the same this year? The good news is that the Lions are no longer young. Last year, freshmen Rasir Bolton, Myreon Jones, and Myles Dread played heavy minutes. Dread was the only one capable of making a shot in conference play, and maybe for that reason alone I'm looking his way for much bigger things this season.
Jones' ability to see the floor is going to rise and fall on his outside shot. Although I'm sure there will be article after article about how he's "not just a shooter," I do not believe that it's in dispute that if he wasn't a shooter, he wouldn't be playing at Penn State. Despite the fact that Jones made just 28 percent of his 3s last season, his free throw shooting (77 percent) hints that he has real shooting ability. Expect him to be much more accurate this season.
That brings me to Wheeler. He's something of a unique player in that he's a 6-1 defensive stopper. He frequently saw himself matched up with the other team's best player, which is rare enough for a player his size, and especially so for a freshman.
Wheeler's defense comes with a cost, however. In conference play, the guard made just 44 percent of his 2s. Not crazy for a 6-1 guard, I suppose, but when coupled with his non-existent outside shooting (3 for 19), it's a real problem. He was also very turnover prone, though that may sharply decline with experience.
Penn State's need for outside shooting is exacerbated by the loss of Josh Reaves, a 35% three-point shooter in Big Ten play. You wouldn't think Reaves would have left State College as a dangerous outside shooter over his final two seasons, considering how he started (3-39 from 3 as a freshman). Like Wheeler, has was always a dominant force on the defensive end, so there is some precedent of a defensive specialist finding an offensive game in time.
But time is not on Chambers' side, because his two best players are seniors. Mike Watkins has had a number of off-court and mental health issues over his time in State College, but it hasn't overshadowed his productive play on the court. He's shot over 60 percent from the field in his 3 years, and he's been the Big Ten's best rebounder over that time as well. He blocks shots, gets steals, draws fouls...it really is a complete package for a prototypical 5-man. So why does he only play about 20 minutes per game? The lazy answer is "fouls," and sure, his foul rate is a little high. And maybe there's a conditioning issue, though that hasn't been a hot story we've seen in the media. Further, Kaleb Wesson plays more than Watkins, despite fouling more than the Penn State player and with a very public conditioning narrative surrounding him.
So what's the deal with Watkins? Maybe Chambers is really leaning into the "post post" era that basketball seems headed for, and has little need for the prototypical center. But it does feel like a stretch to suggest that a player that makes 60 percent of his shots, rebounds at an elite level, defends, and draws fouls, doesn't have a seat at the basketball table in 2019.
Admittedly, this is a puzzling situation on paper. After looking at some film, however, I have a theory. Against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament—a loss ended Penn State's season—Watkins played sparingly in the first half. In the second half, he gets some run, and this is what we see:
Watkins lazily sets...well, I hesitate to call these screens, but I suppose his occupation of physical space provides some obstacle for the defense. Then it's a very low-effort post up. He's walking through all of this until it's his turn to receive a screen. Then he's running, posting up strong, and makes a move for a score. Once Watkins gets a couple scores in, this is what we see:
This is a bad shot, plain and simple. I think that's the roller coaster you get from Watkins. If he's not scoring, he's not interested. But once he does start scoring, the train can run off the rails and he's looking to make every play, even the bad ones. He plays a mercurial brand of basketball, one that can flatline and then, in an instant, become the loudest action on the court in both productive and unproductive ways.
I can see why a coach might opt to leave that sort of uncertainty on the bench. But truth be told, it's not in Penn State's interests for Watkins to sit all that long. One aspect we haven't mentioned is his ability to draw defensive attention, which is critical for a team that relies so heavily on a single playmaker. I'm talking, of course, about Lamar Stevens. Stevens has been a gravitational force for PSU's offense ever since he was a freshman, and last year he pushed his usage up to 30 percent of the team's possessions whenever he was on the floor (which was pretty much "always.").
But his efficiency did suffer for it. His two-point shooting in Big Ten play plummeted from 55 percent to 45 percent. His three-point shooting fell from 33 percent to 24 percent. In every other area, he improved, which suggests to me that he has too many eyeballs on him. The challenge for Stevens this year will be transforming his game from a fringe outside shooter to a capable one. His shot chart suggests that he settles for too many mid-range attempts:
The color-coding for efficiency is a measure of how Stevens ranks comparatively. In other words, shooting 46 percent on long 2s might be really good inasmuch as most of Division I shoots worse than that on long 2s, but it's not as good as his shooting 33 percent on corner 3s—the corner 3 delivers more points per attempt.
What's especially maddening is when Penn State runs isolations for Stevens, only to have him shoot a bad contested jump shot:
Stevens frequently has 4s, and sometimes 5s (especially when Watkins is sitting) guarding him, so he's able to wiggle free for long range shots quite a bit.
I also think there's an opportunity for the Lions to run more empty side ball screens with Stevens. The defense has to respect his ability to slash to the hoop, so the popping action should be there.
Now, another route to Stevens improving his efficiency is by taking more shots in close. But I don't see that happening. For one, as the chart above shows, he's already taking a fair amount of shots from up close. Squeezing more out of that might be a challenge. Further, while Stevens is a plus defensive rebounder, he's more of an opportunistic offensive rebounder:
The team calls on him to create offense and handle the ball quite a bit, so when he's around the paint area, it's usually with the ball in his hands.
I should probably also spill some digital ink on the newcomers, because there are a few. Back to the Big Ten after a year in Stillwater is Curtis Jones, the former Indiana Hoosier. He was essentially a non-factor at Indiana, and there wasn't much he did at Oklahoma State to suggest big things are coming. Izaiah Brockington is a wing that is now eligible after sitting last year after transferring from St. Bonaventure. He made 3s at a high rate for the Bonnies, but his terrible FT shooting does cast some doubt on that as a skill moving forward. Seth Lundy, a combo forward, is probably the jewel of the freshman class. I don't expect him to play much, largely because it would likely require Stevens to come off the floor.
Other than that, the Lions are hoping leaps from Dread, Wheeler, and/or Jones will be enough to overcome the loss of Reaves. Reaves was a fine player and all, but that is a very achievable goal. But the real measure for success will be getting to .500 or better in Big Ten play, which is generally enough for an NCAA Tournament berth. Pat Chambers hasn't been dancing since he did in 2011 with Boston University, and now in his 9th season with Penn State, I'd imagine time is running short. Stevens and Watkins are seniors, and are not the kind of players that typically come to the Penn State program. Chambers is already showing up on various hot seat lists, and it would be hard to disagree if another March goes by with Penn State uninvited.