Not many centers in college basketball possess the skills that Dusan Ristic has. The Arizona Wildcats' center has terrific touch around the rim, impeccable footwork in the low block, can score with both hands, and even hit jumpers from all over the floor.
It's fun to watch the 7-footer operate and, generally speaking, when he gets the ball, good things are going to happen, as you can see below:
Scoring the basketball isn't -- and never will be -- Ristic's problem. However, it's the other facets of the game -- passing, rebounding, defending, etc. -- that have prevented him from becoming a dominant player.
After Ristic's freshman season, it was clear what his weaknesses were. He was a liability on defense and a decent, but not spectacular, rebounder. He also rarely ever gave up the basketball or created an open look for others, as evidenced by his extremely low 1.3 assist percentage.
To help fix some of these issues, especially his defense, Ristic worked on getting into better shape as a sophomore. Adding strength and improving his lateral quickness were the goals.
And, at the start of the season, Ristic looked like a different player. In Arizona's Red-Blue game, Ristic scored 15 of his team's 49 points, while tracking down five rebounds. In the first game of the season against Pacific, Ristic grabbed 11 rebounds in 16 minutes. In the next game against Bradley, he scored ten points and had five rebounds. Two games later against Northwestern State, he'd have ten rebounds with nine points.
It had seemed Ristic was going to take a major step in his development as a sophomore, and he'd be given a huge opportunity to showcase that when Kaleb Tarczewski would miss eight games with a broken foot, pushing Ristic into the starting lineup for the first time in his career.
But, in the first four games as a starter, Ristic was unimpressive. He failed to reach double-figures in any category and his defensive struggles were highlighted when Arizona lost its first game to Providence, which shot 50 percent in the game. He was then limited to nine minutes (and zero points) against Boise State, when he proved he was incapable of guarding the Broncos' stretch-five, Nick Duncan.
It was a discouraging development, to say the least, but Ristic improved. In his last four games as a starter -- versus Missouri, NAU, UNLV and Long Beach State -- he scored in double-figures in each and every one, including a career-high 20-point outburst against UNLV. He also had two blocks in three of the four games.
However, Tarczewski returned at the start of Pac-12 Conference play, and Ristic's effectiveness was never quite the same. Not to mention that he had a rough end to the season, failing to score more than six points in Arizona's last seven games, and the team's defense allowed 2.1 more points per 100 possessions when Ristic was on the floor.
Essentially, Ristic's improvement initially appeared to be evident, but now, at the end of the season, it's not really clear how much -- if at all -- he improved. From his freshman year to his sophomore year, his rebounding percentage dropped from 15.1 percent to 13.1 percent. His field goal percentage dropped from 61.5 percent to 56.5 percent, and though his assist percentage drastically rose from 1.3 percent to 9.4 percent, so did his turnover percentage, which ballooned from 8.5 percent to 16.7 percent.
Stats aside, the improvement I noticed from Ristic the most was his passing from the low post. As a freshman, when Ristic got the ball, very rarely did he look to see how the defense was reacting or if any of his teammates had been left open. Most of the time, he was going up with the shot no matter what. And, even though his post-game works more often than not, being able to pass out of the post would take his post-game to another level. It would limit turnovers and actually allow Sean Miller to run his offense through Ristic, rather than having Ristic just be a scoring outlet.
And we did see Ristic get a better feel for when to pass and when to shoot, and how to react to double-teams, but there's still plenty of room for improvement in that area.
Defensively, Ristic also improved some. Obviously he provides length, and he was somewhat more agile as a sophomore than he was as a freshman. But honestly, as a whole, he didn't improve enough to be completely sold on him as a starter moving forward. Opposing teams were continually able to take advantage of his lack of quickness, especially in the pick-and-roll, where he's not the best at hedging, recovering, or containing the basketball. And, despite adding strength, Ristic is still apt to allowing the player he's guarding to get favorable position in the paint, allowing easy baskets and offensive rebounds.
His "feel for the game" on the defensive end isn't great either.
vs. Missouri: 12 points, 4-5 FG, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks
vs. UNLV: 20 points, 6-8 FG, 1-1 3PT, 7-8 FT, 2 rebounds, 2 blocks
vs. USC: 9 points, 3-5 FG, 9 rebounds
vs. ASU: 16 points, 6-11 FG, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks
With Kaleb Tarczewski graduating, Arizona's starting center spot is up for grabs. Many had planned on Ristic being Tarczewski's successor, given that Ristic will be a junior, but I don't think it'd be wise to assume that just yet. Chance Comanche, a more athletic and better defensive player, could very well be more appealing to the defensive-minded Sean Miller.
We know what Ristic offers on the offensive end already, and it's possible that he'll get even better on that end, but before he truly becomes an impact player, he'll need to become more well-rounded.
The hope is that with another offseason of workouts, Ristic gets stronger and continues to improve his lateral quickness, therefore helping him be better as a rebounder and defender. But, at some point, you have to wonder if he'll ever become a solid defender and an above average rebounder.
I don't think anyone expects him to be the next Tarczewski defensively, yet, if his improvement on that end is limited, will he ever be worthy of being a starting center for Arizona? Probably not, so it's possible that this offseason will be make-or-break for Ristic.
A successful offseason could mean him becoming a two-year starter, otherwise he may just remain as a good backup center, rather than a starting-caliber one.