The School Year is Starting, Time to Look Forward to BB

Photo from UNM Lobo WBB
I have had a chance to see several workouts/practices, we saw a little feedback from the European trip, and the WBB media posts have provided lots of little insights. But we are still three months away, four players have yet to practice, and there has not been a single recorded game to watch. In other words, it is far too early to actually know a lot. But such things have never stopped fans from wild speculation—that’s what fans do in the off season. So I decided to compile my notes, my own speculation, and a healthy dose of the cloudy crystal ball to see what we might come up with. Here it is, in no particular order, and with absolutely no money back guarantees.
Quick observations:
This roster continues the trend towards more athleticism and speed. No one on the roster is as fast as Aisia, but top to bottom the roster is the fastest Lobo roster ever. The drills and scrimmages so far—from 3-3 to the limited 5-5 ones—have emphasized pushing the ball at every opportunity. I watched one set of drills where in 20 consecutive repetitions the offense went full court and got a decent to good shot off in under 1o seconds. This wasn’t only the first team (if such a thing is identifiable yet), but it was whoever was up next. Most the time it was two passes to the front court, swing the ball to the top of the key, over to the other side or into the middle of the lane, and a shot.
Every player I have seen has something about them to like. There are some who show the inconsistency of freshmen, but every one has the appearance of someone who can compete now or in the not too distant future. The competition for playing time will be fierce. Last season by the end of the summer four starters looked to be pretty much set—Jaisa, Aisia, Nike, and Jayla. That isn’t the case this season. Every practice I can make an argument for a different set of starters, and listening to the feedback from Europe the same was true there. Talking with Bill, he said the coaches have a similar feel, that it is far too early to identify starters, and as soon as they start to get an early feel, someone else steps up to put their claim in.
The coaching staff continues to show that they are flexible in pursuing a long term plan, taking temporary detours when necessary.
2016-17: Played to the strength inside with Richelle, and the rebounding with Kianna and Jaisa.
2017-18: Not a good rebounding team, but could score. Defense was only tolerable, so outgunned teams to 25 wins.
2018-19: Back inside. “Give the ball to Jaisa”, and feed the defense into Nike. 24 wins.
2019-20: The strength of this team will be on the offensive side again. Similar to two seasons ago. The physical skills are there for the D to develop, but early on they will go as far as the O will take them.
Watching the leadership emerge on this team will be interesting. With the addition of Jordan Hosey we have four senior. One injured, and three yet to play a game for the Lobos. The typical dynamic of senior leadership will be challenged. Looking at the interpersonal interactions gives some hint, but it doesn’t completely tell the story of what happens on the road and in the locker room. If I had to guess Bride, Naj, and Jaedyn are likely to take on a lot of that role, but likely in different ways. Bride and Jaedyn are both vocal, and both have been shepherding many of the younger posts and guards respectively. Naj is quieter, but has an Eileen Weisman kind of physicality in her play. And then there is Corina. She may not be the leader in November, but I would wager this will be her team by February.
Dissecting the positions:
The post:  Early on it’s Bride. Azaria looks like she may be in game shape in February, and is a big enough body to play the five some. Celine is tall enough, but the video clips look more like a Mogan Tobin 6’3” wing. Bride has a physical streak, and can score out to 15 feet, including an occasional three point shot. Closer to a Jordan Adams offensive player than to Jaisa. Defensively and offensively Bill has a couple times compared her to Katie Powell (minus the purple-gray hair). The question initially will be how many minutes can she play per game at the pace the team will run. She has had some back problems in the past. If she can give the team 25 min a game I would think that is reasonable. After that, at least until Azaria is in game shape, whoever subs in for her will be a very different type of post player.
The forwards:  Ouch! Six players for one and a half spots. Predicting things here is hard. AT clearly has the most experience, has the height, and her defensive athleticism should let her defend most fours and some fives. She has shown a little more comfort in her left hand, but is still very right hand dominant. Her mid range jump shot has looked good especially when she flashes into the paint and gets a feed from the low block.
Shai remains the most athletic forward (not counting Jordan who I have not seen). She is still very aggressive on the glass, and looks a little more comfortable overall. Her athleticism makes up for the height difference with AT, but AT’s experience probably still tips the scales if it was just one v. one.  Which it obviously is not.
Autumn looks more ready than I would have guessed. With Azaria not cleared yet, Autumn is probably the second most physical post on the roster. She is an aggressive rebounder and attacks when she gets an offensive board—and has a better outside shot than I initially thought. Her playing style reminds me a lot of Bre’Asiajah, thought Autumn is a more polished player that Bre was last season. She will probably see time matched up against some taller, bigger players this season, just out of necessity.  How she defends those matchups will be a key.
Jordan and Celine are unknowns, except by reputation. I would expect the staff thinks Jordan can contribute starter-like minutes when she gets in game shape and learns the system/teammates, but how fast that will happen is unknown. Nike came up to speed right away, as did Richelle, so Mike is not afraid to put a senior/grad player in right away. If she starts the season coming in off the bench, and the team does well that way, that role may stick.  It worked alright for Manu Ginobili.
The wings:  Another crowded field with five players for 2+ spots. It gets more crowded if the size difference up front means we see some line-ups with Bride and two of the forwards playing at the same time. But conversely, some of the wings might see time out of position at the four if the speed mismatches work in our favor. Translation: Who knows yet? Jayla seems to be a known commodity and one of the wings.
Ahlise struggled in some of the early workouts, but has looked better later, and in Europe played well. Normally that would be a safe bet to keep the starting spot she had last year, but she may not—someone else may wrest it away from her. Personally I think Ahlise’s defense will make it hard to take her spot from her, but if she has the shooting troubles she had the second half of last season it is a definite possibility.
Naj is going to get playing time. She is too well rounded a player, and rebounds too well not to. The question is whose minutes. Against Turkey she played as a post, and the Turks are bigger than any team we are likely to see this season. But that makes the Lobos a very short team. It is probably a tactic that has niche applicability. But as a wing, that rebounding ability would be a boost since neither Jayla nor Ahlise are bug rebounders. Naj can also handle the ball on the break, and could give the Lobos three legitimate players on the court at a time who can push the ball up court with tempo, and make sound decisions.
Andriana is, I believe, a very interesting freshman to watch. She is not consistent yet, looking good on a couple repetitions, and the next time struggling. Typical freshman issues with being out of position in the team construct on defense is the most common problem—just like Shai last year, Jaedyn the year before, and so many other freshmen over the years (Julie Briody comes to mind). Those problems are fixable.  She can shoot, she can jump, she moves very fluidly. This is someone who can project to be a very complete player similar to Jayla in due time. The physical skills are there, but not the polish yet.
And then there is Jaedyn. To be honest, she has probably played the most consistently good basketball from the practices and workouts I have seen. More vocal, more confident in what she is doing. I don’t know that she is quicker, but she is taking better routes on defense and moving with more purpose on offense so she seems quicker. Ball handling is good enough for a combo guard, doesn’t make a lot of judgement mistakes, but is an average passes, not a dynamic one. Right now I would consider her the second best option at the point and likely to spell Corina when (if) Corina gets a rest. Jaedyn & Corina may start in the back court, but with the short front court that would be a really size-challenged way to go.
The Point:  Jaedyn, Jayla, and even Naj could bring the ball up court when needed, but the reality is until Aisia is healthy this team has ONE point guard. Corina has a non-verbal presence to her when she’s on the court that makes it pretty clear that she has the keys to the van. The ball just belongs in her hands, and the other players seem to sense it. On fast breaks if someone else gets the outlet and starts up court, you can see them glance quickly at Corina, almost as if subconsciously seeing if they should give the ball up to her. She has been described as a “pass first” PG, but I am not sure that is completely accurate. That described Mandi Moore, but Corina has more of a feel to take her shot if it’s there than Mandi did early on. But she is more of a passer than Amy was as an upperclassman. I rarely see her force a shot, but if the drive is there she will take it. Her outside shot is a bit inconsistent, but when she is squared up her range is deep. As a passer, she has already improved. The first couple times I saw her she made the right reads, but often looped the pass cross court where D-1 opponents would steal them and break the other way. She also had better vision to her left compared to her right and passed up easier feed to the right in favor of harder ones to the left. In even a few weeks her passes were crisper, and her vision was improving to both sides. Corina will make some mistakes as she grows, but she is going to be fun to watch her mature. Barring unexpected turns, I expect this to be her team for the next four years—she has that kind of presence, like Mandi, Katie, and Cherise.
Keys to 2019-20:
–Rebounding. I expect this team will be outrebounded, but they will have to keep it reasonable. If they keep the offensive pace very high, their quickness should get a lot of offensive boards, but they will be challenged on the defensive glass and it will be a constant struggle to overcome size with positioning and effort.
–Outside shooting. The team has to shoot better than last season from outside. They will move the ball well enough to get a number of open shots, but they will have to make them. So far that has been streaky.  There is no Jaisa to bail out a cold shooting game, and if the opponent can pack in the defense against a shorter Lobo lineup it could make for some painful nights.
–Post defense. Against bigger opponents (Boise) Bride will need some help being physical inside. And will need to stay out of foul trouble. Will the team use its greater depth to pressure and turn over opponents more aggressively? I don’t know, but we are not well positioned to let opponents get inside our defense and expect to survive.
–Lastly, as always, chemistry. And health. Only four players return who played big minutes (7+ per game). Only AT among the front court players. Will Aisia or Azaria be back health enough—early enough—to strengthen the point and the five? If not, those two areas will be very thin all season. How long will Jordan take to shake off the rust, and how will she and Celine meld into a team that has not had much time to learn how to play with them?
Two months to the Howl. Lots of questions yet to be answered.