Transitioning from being a role player at Nevada to a featured scorer at Arizona was going to be an adjustment for Jordan Brown. As the calendar turns to 2021, it appears he is settling in.
The redshirt sophomore forward has scored in double figures in three straight games heading into the new year, including in Arizona’s Pac-12 wins over Colorado and Washington.
That was after Brown went three straight games without scoring in double figures, when teams became dead set on drawing charges against him after seeing him have some big scoring nights early in the season.
And Brown, a physical player by nature, was having trouble avoiding them.
“(I’m) getting better at double teams, but I really just learned to slow down, kind of take my time, and just to pick and choose when I use my body and try to be physical and when I have to use skill and try to get around the charges,” he said after posting 12 points and seven rebounds in the 80-53 win at Washington.
This approach isn’t that foreign to Brown. That’s actually how teams defended him in high school when he was on his way to being a McDonald’s All-American.
“Surprisingly my freshman year when I first got into high school, I’ve noticed people taking charges because I’ve always kind of played physical,” he said. “So I had to find ways around it. That’s where floaters and stopping and just throwing a hook from wherever I’m at. It’s kind of different things you learn.”
Brown is shooting a crisp 61% from the field and is Arizona’s top scorer on a per-minute basis, averaging 20.6 points per 40 minutes.
Per Hoop-Math.com, Brown is shooting 83% at the rim and making 47% of his 2-point jumpers, which consist of hooks and mid-range shots. His ability to hit from that range makes him a tough cover when he’s placed in the middle of zone defenses.
“I want to reiterate this point: you forget that Jordan is a very young player,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “Although he was a part of Nevada’s program, he had a smaller role there. He was a freshman on a great team. And then a year ago, although he practiced with us, he got no game experience. So, like some of our freshmen, every time that Jordan has the opportunity to play in a game, he gets smarter, he learns from his mistakes. He’s one of those guys that I’m talking about in that he works hard at it every day, shows up eager to become a better player every day and you’re starting to see that. In and around the basket, he is a very good low post scorer.”
Tubelis showing off unique skill set as starter
Azuolas Tubelis is not your average 6-foot-11 post player. That was evident Thursday when he grabbed a rebound and pushed the ball coast-to-coast before shifting a no-look pass to James Akinjo for a transition 3.
You don't see many 6-foot-11 forwards handle the ball the way Azuolas Tubelis just did.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) January 1, 2021
Impressive play by the freshman (and obviously a nice shot by James Akinjo too). pic.twitter.com/SgSPWgh1zc
It wasn’t the only time Tubelis, who is uniquely mobile for his size, tried to make something happen on the run.
“When you saw him dribble the ball full court and attempt to dunk the ball over Nate Roberts or Hameir Wright, whichever one of those two guys is back, I think that play really shows you Azuolas’ upside and his talent,” Miller said. “He has a unique way of playing in that he can really go north, south, with the ball, driving and running the floor, and he’s a good athlete. He is the furthest thing from a below-the-rim player. Especially off one leg, he can really jump.”
Like Brown, Tubelis seems to be finding a groove. Since replacing Christian Koloko in the starting lineup at the start of this three-game winning streak, he is averaging 9.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 blocks and steals.
The freshman has scored eight or more points in four straight games. He’s also had at least six rebounds in five straight games while also posting a pair of three-assist games, showing an ability to pass out of the high post.
“He’s just becoming more sure of himself,” Miller said. “I just was talking about our defense. I would put him at the front of the line in he’s really made a lot of improvement here over the last month and it’s nice to see.”
The next step for Tubelis is raising his field goal percentage. He’s shooting just 43% from the field despite only taking seven 3s (and only making one).
While he’s shown an ability to hit jumpers, catch and finish at the rim, and even drop in some floaters, he’s just not making them at a high enough rate. Yet.
Road trips are “refreshing” this year
In a normal year without COVID-19, playing at Washington—or anywhere on the road—would be an uneasy experience for Arizona’s unseasoned roster.
This year, the absence of hostile crowds means it’s just a welcomed opportunity to get out and about.
“Our guys, I think they enjoy traveling a little bit more right now because we’ve been in Tucson and nobody really comes and goes like we used to,” Miller said, referring to COVID-19 protocols that require players and coaches to live an isolated lifestyle at home. “So, I think just being together, being on the road is in some ways refreshing. Going to places, it’s interesting to see our team because we have so many new players and so many international guys, to see their face when they’re in Seattle for the first time. Now it’s going to be the first time that they’ve had a chance to go to Spokane and Pullman and play Washington State, so it’s kind of fun traveling with this group, because there’s not a lot of guys that you can say they’ve been here and done it.”
Of course, there are downsides to this new reality. UA guard Terrell Brown, a Seattle native, wasn’t able to spend time with his family because of COVID protocol.
And, yes, not playing in front of fans is a bummer too—even if they’re rooting against you.
“I would never admit it’s better without fans,” Miller said. “I don’t think any of us can wait another day before we can play in front of our crowd or packed house. Even on the road, that’s part of the challenge of sports, especially college sports, being able to go on the road and win. Now, winning on the road whether there’s people or not, I think it feels very good either way, but it’s more difficult, more challenging with fans for sure. I think all of us just look forward to the day when that returns to sports in general.”