With Kadeem Allen off to the NBA, the Arizona Wildcats have lost their best defender from a season ago and one of the best defensive players of the Sean Miller era.
Allen, now with the Boston Celtics, led Arizona in blocks and steals per game, as his 6-foot-9 wingspan coupled with impressive lateral quickness allowed him to cover ground and guard multiple positions at a high level.
The Wildcats’ defense as a whole was uninspiring, however, finishing 28th in efficiency.* They will need to find a way to improve on that mark, and finding someone who can fill Allen’s void on the perimeter will be vital.
Here’s who may be able to do it:
Statistically, the 6-foot-9 Pinder looks like the best option.
The soon-to-be senior actually led Arizona in defensive box plus/minus — a stat that estimates the defensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league average player — as a junior, as well as block percentage and was third on the team in steal percentage.
Pinder has a nice combination of size and athleticism and he was able to guard both on the perimeter and in the paint.
There are a couple issues, though.
First, he has to avoid foul trouble. The Australian averaged a team-worst 6.6 fouls per 40 minutes last season, nearly two fouls more than Chance Comanche who was second-worst on the team.
Last March, Pinder made his first career start against Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament, and was tasked with guarding Dillon Brooks.
He picked up three fouls in five minutes.
Another question: Does Pinder’s defensive ability outweigh his offensive deficiencies?
While Pinder measured as an extremely effective defender, he was by far the team’s worst offensive player. The forward posted an offensive rating — the estimate of points produced per 100 possessions — of 96.9. Kobi Simmons was second-worst on the team at 106.2. Arizona’s offensive rating as a team was 113.8.
The Wildcats are expected to have much more depth in 2017-18 than they did last season, and thus Miller may opt to use a more balanced player — like Brandon Randolph or Ira Lee — than someone like Pinder, who doesn’t produce offensively.
Simply, between foul trouble and more/better roster options available, it may be difficult for Pinder to get enough playing time to be Arizona’s defensive stopper.
Like Allen, the 6-foot-3 Alkins has a 6-foot-9 wingspan.** He’s also strong enough to guard some forwards and quick enough to defend guards. Plus, he has that New York edge to him and, most importantly, he’s already a proven defender.
Alkins was third on Arizona in defensive box plus/minus last season (4.0) and fourth in steal percentage. He only averaged 3.1 fouls per 40 minutes, too.
And with Allonzo Trier alongside him on the wing, Alkins shouldn’t have to overexert himself on offense to the point that it negatively affects his defense.
Add that to another offseason of development, and Alkins is in a good spot to fill Allen’s shoes in his sophomore season.
Trier has continually improved as a defender during his first two seasons at Arizona, but he still rated as one of UA’s worst defenders in 2016-17, finishing slightly above Simmons with a defensive box plus/minus of 1.4.
Trier had an extremely low steal percentage (0.7), too.
Barring major improvement, the 6-foot-5 wing doesn’t profile as a “lockdown defender”, though being above average certainly isn’t out of the question, and he showed some encouraging spurts throughout his sophomore season, such as when he helped Allen hold Markelle Fultz to 16 points on 23 shots.
Yet, given how much of the offensive load Trier is expected to carry next season, it may be difficult for him to consistently defend at a high level.
The incoming freshman and four-star recruit has been lauded for his defensive ability — and intensity — and he has the physical tools to be a versatile defender, measuring at 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan with explosive athleticism.
Miller did say Randolph is a “thin guy” — Draft Express lists him at 168 pounds — so that may be his biggest hindrance to being a dominant defender in his freshman season.
If you believe what Miller says, Lee could very well be Arizona’s best defender.
“From a defensive perspective, he has a chance to be great,” Miller said in November. “Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Aaron Gordon, if you’re watching Keanu Pinder learn our system, Ira has that type of athleticism, size, quickness, mostly a mindset, a toughness, that we really, really love.
“He’s also a versatile player, where I think he can play more than one position. He gives us tremendous versatility in that regard because you can play with a lot of different types of combinations. He’s not a one-position player.”
Lee, a four-star recruit, measures at 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, so he could guard three to four positions, depending how athletic he truly is.
Jackson-Cartwright rated well as a defender last season, posting the fourth-best defensive box plus/minus on the team, but because of his size he is relegated to defending point guards or smaller 2-guards.
The 6-foot-8 guard/forward has the potential guard three to four positions, but probably isn’t ready for that yet.
Akot skipped his senior year of high school to re-classify to 2017 and is listed (depending on the reference) around 175 to 190 pounds.
Miller said Akot will “gain a lot” from UA’s strength and conditioning program, but will likely be behind the rest of the team from a development standpoint. So it seems unlikely that he’ll get many minutes in his first year on campus.
“I think anytime you replace your senior year of high school with coming into a college program like ours, certainly from a development perspective, it’s going to be sped up astronomically,” Miller said.
The UNC-Asheville transfer didn’t post the best defensive numbers in his lone season with the Bulldogs, but he did have a knack forcing turnovers, averaging a steal a game.
Smith is thin, but is a lanky 6-foot-5 guard and theoretically could guard multiple positions, depending on his athleticism and how much weight he has added since arriving in Tucson.
He was listed at 170 pounds at UNC-Asheville.
Smith sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, but still practiced with the team so he may not have a steep learning curve in his first Pac-12 season.
All things considered, Arizona’s defense may improve even if it can’t replace Allen’s production. Trier, Alkins, Jackson-Cartwright, and Dusan Ristic are all a year older, plus DeAndre Ayton should be an upgrade defensively at the 4 over Lauri Markkanen.
The team will have more depth, too, as it adds a top-five recruiting class, giving Miller more flexibility with matchups.
That said, Arizona’s defense is still one of its biggest question marks heading into the 2017-18 season.
Only one team in the KenPom era (2002-present) has won a national championship with a defense ranking outside the top 20, and the Wildcats have finished 29th and 28th the last two years.
An improvement is needed, and it will have to be made without Allen’s help.
Who will be Arizona’s "defensive stopper" in 2017-18?
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Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire
*based on KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metrics
**all measurements via Draft Express