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What Kerr Kriisa’s commitment means for Arizona

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The Estonian guard fills a couple of needs

U18 FC Bayern Munich v U18 Zalgiris Kaunas - EB Adidas Next Generation Tournament Photo by David Grau/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats added a third member to their 2020 recruiting class on Saturday, picking up a commitment from Kerr Kriisa, a 6-foot-3 point guard from Estonia who is considered the top international prospect to go the college route, according to ESPN.

Here’s a look at what his addition means for the Wildcats.

Much-needed backcourt depth

Before Kriisa’s commitment, Arizona was believed to have one of the best backcourts in the Pac-12, but it was contingent on two big ifs—Georgetown transfer James Akinjo being immediately eligible and Brandon Williams being able to perform at a high level coming off knee surgery.

And not your typical knee surgery. It was the second time Williams went under the knife to correct a congenital condition that has hindered him since high school.

Is it finally behind him? We’ll see, but with Kriisa and Seattle graduate transfer Terrell Brown now in the fold, the Wildcats are better equipped to handle the worst-case scenario—Akinjo having to wait until December to be eligible and Williams being limited or, gulp, unavailable because of his knee.

Kriisa told ESPN that college basketball is “a completely different style” than he is used to, but he did get some run in the LKL (Lithuania’s top league) and the EuroLeague (the second-best league in the world), so he should at least be able to handle his own.

A 3-point marksman

Other than size (we’ll get to that in a second), shooting is arguably Arizona’s most pressing need, and Kriisa provides that. Oh, does he provide that.

The Estonian averaged 6.5 3-point attempts in just 24.9 minutes per game with Zalgiris II in the NKL. He converted 39 percent of them, a very high mark given the sheer volume of shots. And if you watch his highlight videos, they aren’t exactly the easiest looks. Many of them are contested and/or off the dribble. Kriisa was a featured player on Zalgiris, averaging close to 15 points per game.

When Kriisa played for Preinai in the LKL and EuroLeague, he shot a respectable 8 for 23 (35 percent) from behind the arc.

Assuming EuroBasket’s stats are correct, Kriisa only attempted 86 2s with Zalgiris II (compared to 121 3s) and made 44 percent of them. While highlights show Kriisa has a smooth mid-range game, there aren’t many instances of him scoring at the rim.

Height isn’t an issue in that regard, but he is listed at 165 pounds, so finishing through contact could be a problem. Nothing that strength and conditioning coach Chris Rounds can’t help him with, though.

Another playmaker

Kriisa is not a 3-point specialist. He apparently impressed with his defense at the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camp, and averaged a team-best 6.0 assists with Zalgiris II, an impressive number considering assists aren’t typically handed out as liberally in Europe as they are in the NBA. That makes his 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio even more impressive.

The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie says Kriisa is a good passer with a good feel for the game. ESPN’s Mike Schmitz said similar things on Twitter, saying Kriisa’s “shotmaking ability, competitiveness, and passing instincts should allow him to be very successful at the collegiate level.”

Video shows Kriisa likes to drive and dish, and has a flair for flashy passes. (My favorite highlight was a one-handed skip pass to a shooter in the corner.)

Of all of Arizona’s guards, Kriisa is the purest of point guards. Akinjo had a 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio at Georgetown, Brown’s was 1.8 at Seattle this season, and Williams’ was 1.9 as a freshman.

It’s not a one-or-the-other situation, though. In today’s game, the more playmakers you have, the more dynamic your offense is, and the Wildcats have a collection of them. They didn’t this year when Nico Mannion and Jemarl Baker Jr. were the only ones consistently capable of creating shots.

Also, don’t forget about incoming freshman Dalen Terry, a 6-foot-7 wing who plays more like a point guard.

Size is now Arizona’s biggest need

Arizona can still use some more 3-point shooters, but at least one of its last three scholarships has to go to a big man, preferably one who can provide a scoring punch.

Currently, the Wildcats only have Jordan Brown, Christian Koloko and Ira Lee in their frontcourt, a trio that can be dominant when it comes to defense and rebounding.

But when it comes to putting the ball in the basket? Not so much.

Brown, a former McDonald’s All-American, is the only one who figures to be an above-average offensive player in 2020-21, but even he has a lot to prove since he only averaged 3.0 points in 10.1 minutes at Nevada and his shooting percentages—50.6 percent from the field, 63 percent from the free-throw line—were pedestrian.

Arizona’s only reported frontcourt target at the moment is Purdue graduate transfer Matt Haarms. He’s more known for his shot-blocking than his scoring, but he’s still passable in that regard, averaging 8.6 PPG last season with the ability to step out and hit the occasional 3, something Arizona’s three other big men cannot do.

Experience on the wing is another need

Arizona is also thin at the 3 where its players who best fit that position in terms of size— Terry and Bennedict Mathurin—are incoming freshmen.

Arizona has obviously been fine giving heavy minutes to freshmen before, but Terry and Mathurin are four-star recruits, not as highly-touted as guys like Josh Green, Stanley Johnson and Allonzo Trier, who were rightfully penciled into the starting lineup from the moment they committed to Arizona.

So it would behoove the Wildcats to add a grad transfer who has already proven to be a solid contributor at the collegiate level. No uncommitted transfers have been reported to be on Arizona’s radar, but the market is fluid so some targets will emerge eventually. If not, expect to see a lot of three-guard lineups.

San Francisco’s Charles Minlend would have been a good option, but he surprisingly committed to Louisville despite not having them in his Top 7.

Arizona may have benefitted from an NCAA waiver

A day after the NCAA waived standardized testing score requirements for incoming freshmen, a measure implemented because of the coronavirus crisis, the Wildcats landed Kriisa.

A coincidence? Maybe.

Right now, the requirements for international recruits are a 2.3 GPA and passing 10 NCAA-approved core courses before their senior year, seven of which must be English, math and science.

Another Kerr!

If you attended Arizona basketball games in McKale Center in the 1980s, you’re familiar with the famous “Steeeeeeve Kerrrrrrrr!” chants that used to echo throughout the arena anytime Steve Kerr was introduced or made a shot.

“Kerrrrrrr Kriiiiiiiisa!” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite the same way, but many of the same fans who attended Kerr’s games in the 80s are season-ticket holders today, so it’s still a small dose of nostalgia. Same with having another Terry on the roster.