Now that Rawle Alkins has returned from a foot injury, it’s time for Sean Miller to sort out the Arizona Wildcats’ rotation before conference play begins on Dec. 30 against a top-five ASU team.
Miller said Monday on his radio show that Arizona will likely trend toward having an eight-man rotation, occasionally mixing in a ninth guy depending on matchups and foul trouble.
“If you look right now across the country and you pick five of the best teams you respect the most, most of the time they’re settling in on a rotation of about eight,” he explained. “If a ninth player plays, he might get in every game, but not as much and they go from there. I think that’s the direction we’ll move. It’s who’s in that is not determined quite yet.”
So let’s try to determine that right now.
We can assume that Alkins, Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier, Dusan Ristic, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, and Brandon Randolph have their secured place in the rotation, but what about the other 2-3 spots?
Let’s see what each candidate can offer.
2017-18 stats: 15.5 MPG, 4.1 PPG, 3.4 REBs, 0.6 ASTs, 0.5 STLs, 0.5 BLKs, 48.6 FG%, 60.0 FT%
Why he should be in the rotation: Lee is an energy player, boasting the fourth-highest rebounding percentage on the team and is improving defensively as he has gotten more games under his belt. He rates as Arizona’s No. 2 defender (based on defensive box plus/minus) only behind Keanu Pinder.
Lee already seems to have a step up on the other reserve big men for a spot in the rotation based on the number of minutes he is playing. Lee has played no fewer than 11 minutes in a game this season.
Someone has to be Arizona’s third big and it will either be Lee, Keanu Pinder, or Emmanuel Akot. So far, Lee has been Miller’s preferred option and it’s hard to see that changing since the other two options aren’t that appealing.
Why he shouldn’t be in the rotation: Lee has a hard time producing offensively, scoring just four points in the last three games. He does not pose any threat as a shooter, and usually only scores cutting to the basket or on a tip-in (though he is better than Pinder on offense).
While Lee has improved defensively, he still has trouble defending without fouling, as evidenced by the four quick fouls he picked up against Alabama. And while he has become solid at things like rebounding and defending, he’s not necessarily “good” at them just yet.
2017-18 stats: 15.6 MPG, 5.2 PPG, 1.2 REBs, 0.7 ASTs, 0.1 STLs, 38.5 FG%, 32.0 3PT%, 81.8 FT%
Why he should be in the rotation: Smith is the best all-around scorer on this list and just had a season-high 13 points against Texas A&M in what was Arizona’s most important game of the season.
The UNC Asheville transfer has proven to be solid as a spot-up shooter and has the ability to shoot off the dribble. He has shown he is capable of driving and dishing, too.
On defense, his 6-9 wingspan has gotten him some blocks and steals and allows him to guard two to three positions. That can come in handy in a three-guard lineup featuring Smith along with Alkins, Trier, or Randolph. Miller had enough confidence in Smith as a defender to sub him in during crunch time against A&M.
Alkins gives Arizona another player that can create for others, and Smith can be a beneficiary of that. To be a useful player he just has to cut down on the silly mistakes on both ends of the floor.
Why he shouldn’t be in the rotation: As just mentioned, Smith has been prone to making careless errors. He played just one minute against Alabama after getting an entry pass intercepted. He had three turnovers against Texas A&M while reversing the ball around the perimeter. In that same game, he misplayed an out-of-bounds play leading to an easy basket (and Miller smashing his clipboard).
Only Jackson-Cartwright and Randolph are rebounding at a worse rate than Smith (and Miller said UA’s guards need to improve in that area), so while Smith has shown offensive prowess, he might not do enough in the other aspects of the game to deserve a spot in the rotation.
2017-18 stats: 15.0 MPG, 3.7 PPG, 1.8 REBs, 1.9 ASTs, 0.5 TOs, 0.2 STLs, 36.4 FG%, 36.4 3PT%
Why he should be in the rotation: Barcello is the best shooter of the bunch, hitting 36.4 percent of his 3s this season. He is the only player in this group that Miller seemingly trusts to play point guard in a meaningful game, so that certainly helps his case for getting minutes. Miller has also lauded Barcello’s effort on defense, even if he doesn’t rate too highly on that end of the floor. Barcello also rarely ever turns the ball over, committing just five all season.
If Barcello can make close to 40 percent of his 3s and play acceptable defense, he fits well alongside Arizona’s ball-dominant players like Alkins, Ayton, and Trier.
Why he shouldn’t be in the rotation: Barcello has been streaky and downright awful away from McKale Center this season.
The freshman is 1-11 from 3 in non-McKale venues this year, essentially being unplayable when UA is on the road since he does not have much offensive utility when he’s not hitting shots.
Can Arizona rely on a player like that in big games? Maybe not. Barcello played just four minutes against Alabama and eight minutes against UNLV.
2017-18 stats: 12.8 MPG, 2.1 PPG, 1.6 REBs, 0.9 ASTs, 0.9 TOs, 29.2 FG%, 33.3 3PT%
Why he should be in the rotation: The only argument here is that Akot has shown flashes of being a good on-ball defender, and perhaps with more playing time he will turn into the lockdown defender that Arizona desperately needs and Miller has said Akot has the potential to be.
That’s really it, though.
Why he shouldn’t be in the rotation: Aside from those occasional flashes, Akot has not done anything well on the court this season.
The freshman is shooting a dismal 29 percent from the field and 33 percent from 3, and has literally taken just one free throw (which he missed) all season.
Akot has a lower defensive rebounding percentage than everyone but Smith on this list, and has not rated well on that end of the floor, despite his noteworthy physical tools. Plus, Akot’s previously-touted passing skills have not been on display, either, tallying just eight assists to eight turnovers in 115 minutes.
Akot is dealing with knee tendinitis which is likely causing some of his poor play, so perhaps he will turn things around when/if his health improves. Until then, he is basically unplayable and Miller presumably thinks that too as Akot picked up his first DNP of the season against Alabama.
2017-18 stats: 11.3 MPG, 1.9 PPG, 2.6 REBs, 0.4 STLs, 0.7 BLKs, 58.3 FG%, 37.5 FT%
Why he should be in the rotation: Defense. Defense. Defense.
Pinder statistically is Arizona’s best rebounder behind Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic, and he also rates as Arizona’s best defender for the second straight season with a 5.2 defensive box plus/minus. The 6-foot-9 Australian’s size and quickness can be useful when the Wildcats face smaller frontcourts (which happens more often than not).
Sure, having Pinder on the floor hurts Arizona’s offense, but if Miller wants stops above everything else, Pinder is his man.
Why he shouldn’t be in the rotation: Aside from the occasional layup, dunk, or tip-in, Pinder is a non-threat on offense. And while he might be a slightly better defender than someone like Lee, the discrepancy might not be great enough to outweigh his offensive deficiencies.
Another problem Pinder has is he fouls a lot, averaging 9.4 fouls per 40 minutes, which negates some of his defensive ability.
He already looks to be fading out of the rotation, playing 10 minutes or fewer in three of the last four games. An appearance here or there when one of UA’s frontcourt players gets in foul trouble seems to be the ideal role for him moving forward.
In my opinion, the top two options on this list are Lee and Barcello, with Smith being the ninth guy that Miller is referring to.
Simply, Lee is the most dependable frontcourt option compared to Pinder and Akot and it doesn’t seem all that close.
Meanwhile, Smith and Barcello are pretty close and I actually think Smith is the better player, but Barcello is Arizona’s only true backup point guard unless Trier and/or Alkins take on that role, but they are obviously better playing off the ball.
That said, Barcello has not had one good, or even decent, game against the top teams Arizona has faced which obviously can’t continue if he expects to play during the most crucial points of the season. We saw that Saturday when he only played three minutes against Alabama.
In all, this Arizona team clearly isn’t as deep as many (including me) thought it would be, and the Wildcats need one or two of these guys listed above to step up if they are going to achieve the lofty goals they have set for themselves this season.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire