The transfer portal season brought panic into the world of Arizona basketball fans for the second straight season. While men’s basketball has been dealing with the fits and starts of the transfer merry-go-round for decades, women’s basketball is relatively new to the disruption. Besides, it has gotten worse for both sexes since the pandemic and the introduction of the transfer portal and name, image, and likeness money.
The merry-go-round has started to slow now. The world isn’t spinning so fast. Fans are getting their bearings back. So is Wildcat head coach Adia Barnes. Her team is taking shape. Most importantly, it’s showing some promise and even some surprises.
With the late commitment of incoming freshman Skylar Jones, there’s now a clearer view of what fans can expect when the Wildcats take the court this fall. At this point, Arizona has 12 players. Barnes previously said that she would have as many as 13 as long as they were the “right players,” but her comments about having difficulty finding the right players in the portal indicate that’s in no way guaranteed at this point.
Starter: Courtney Blakely or Jada Williams
Backups: Helena Pueyo, Kailyn Gilbert, and Blakely or Williams
The point guard position will be the position that is most in flux for the Wildcats. For the past five years, there’s been no question who Barnes was going to have as her starting point guard. For three years, it was Aari McDonald. For the last two, it was Shaina Pellington. Now, Barnes has decisions to make.
Will Barnes go with the most talented true point guard on her team even if she’s a freshman? Will the young players be able to play the kind of defense Barnes requires? Those are likely to be the biggest questions she has to answer.
Blakely will see time at both guard positions. Barnes especially likes her defense which makes it highly likely that she will start at one of the guard positions. With the kind of ball pressure Barnes likes, a defense-first guard will always find her way into the starting lineup. In years past, she has started Bendu Yeaney and Lauren Fields primarily for defensive reasons.
According to Her Hoop Stats, Arizona had two of the best assist-to-turnover ratio point guards in the country last season in Pueyo and Pellington. Pueyo had 2.61 assists per turnover, good for the 99th percentile in Division I, and Pellington was in the 98th percentile at 2.18. Pellington was in the 95th percentile with a 26.6 percent assist rate, while Pueyo was in the 78th percentile with a 17.8 percent assist rate. Pellington was also in the 91st percentile in turnover rate at 12.3 percent. That’s one area that Pueyo needs to improve on, as she turned the ball over on 19.1 percent of plays last season, landing in the 48th percentile.
Those are things that both Gilbert and Blakely will need to improve on, as well. Gilbert had a relatively high assist rate at 19 percent, but her assist-to-turnover ratio was just 1.06. Her turnover rate was 16.9 percent, but her limited minutes allowed her to keep her total turnovers relatively low compared to her peers. On a per-40-minute basis, she turned the ball over 3.9 times per game, landing in the 19th percentile. It’s true that her 1.0 turnovers per game looked relatively good in the 75th percentile, but that does not take into account that she played just 10.6 minutes per game.
Blakely may add a lot on the defensive end by turning people over, but her own turnovers will offset that unless she greatly improves. The transfer from Middle Tennessee State had a 1.32 assist-to-turnover ratio, which doesn’t put her anywhere near either of Arizona’s primary point guards last season.
As for Williams, she showed a willingness to look for her teammates first in the McDonald’s All-American game. Her teammates weren’t always able to convert those into assists for her, but she put teammates in a position to at least get fouled and pick up points at the line.
That willingness to look for teammates first shows up in her high school stats, as well. Last year at La Jolla Country Day School, Williams was very effective in distributing and taking care of the ball. She averaged 4.4 assists against 2.7 turnovers per game for a 2.16 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Williams is taking a big step up in competition level, though. She will have better defenders both on her and on her teammates. How fast can she adapt to that? If it’s fast enough, she may step into that starting role sooner rather than later.
The other elephant in the room for Barnes will be Williams’ profile in the NIL space. Williams and her family moved across the country because of California’s laws allowing high school players to take advantage of NIL opportunities. She makes a great deal of money already. How patient will Williams be if she is not the starter fairly early in her career and how much will Barnes be concerned about that?
There are certainly reasons to think that will not be a huge concern. Williams’ online stats indicate that she averaged just 15.8 minutes per game as a senior, pointing to her willingness to share minutes.
This position is the most open to debate. There are a lot of ways Barnes could go, but her past choices and her comments about Blakely would seem to point to the transfer as the leader in the clubhouse. Williams may force a different decision if she can translate her skills to the next level quickly, though.
Starters: Gilbert and Pueyo
Backups: Sali Kourouma, Montaya Dew, Jones, and Blakely
Barnes said that the shooting guard and small forward positions are fairly interchangeable in her system. The truth is that those positions are often interchangeable with the point guard, as well. Examples of wings who played as facilitators include Sam Thomas and Pueyo.
Arizona has two freshmen who are reputed to have similar skill sets: Dew and Jones. Jones was meant to be a point guard at Missouri, and scouting reports of Dew have mentioned her tendency to set others up to score as a big component of her game. Dew has also talked bout how important it is to her to get her teammates involved.
Pueyo’s ability to facilitate doesn’t have to come from the point guard position, especially when Arizona has other options there. Her size also makes her more suited to guarding bigger guards and small forwards. With the players on the roster, it makes the most sense for the 6-foot Pueyo to play the three.
While in the past Barnes has said that she thinks Pueyo may prefer to come off the bench, last year’s team captain says it doesn’t matter one way or the other to her. With this roster, it may be time for her to step into the starting lineup, though. Arizona needs the continuity and the skill she brings with a second straight season of massive roster changes.
Pueyo also has shown to be a better 3-point shooter than Kourouma, who Barnes brought in the play the three. Barnes has often used a wing whose primary focus is defense in the past, but if she’s going to play Blakely a lot, she will need scoring to come from elsewhere. Blakely is not someone who is going to stretch the floor with her 6.1 points per game and 22.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc over her career. She will be out there for her defense.
With the weaknesses elsewhere, Pueyo would be the most logical answer as the starting three.
As for the two, Gilbert was the only Arizona freshman to appear in every game last season. She lost some of her minutes to Paris Clark late in the year, but Clark isn’t around anymore. Gilbert needs to improve on both defense and ballhandling. Her biggest recommendation is that she can score from anywhere on the floor—and she’s not afraid to do it. Although Barnes has said that Arizona’s identity will be strong defense, points will have to come from somewhere. Gilbert has a proven ability to get points at the college level. She needs to be on the floor.
In a larger lineup, Dew will play the three. At 5-foot-11, Kourouma will see most of her time at the three, as well. Jones will be able to play both positions, giving Arizona size and scoring.
Starters: Esmery Martinez and Maya Nnaji
Backups: Isis Beh, Dew, Breya Cunningham, and Fanta Gassama,
This group is a bit of a toss-up. Martinez is as close to a guaranteed starter as there is on the team. Even Pueyo could end up coming off the bench if Barnes thinks she needs her to run the second unit and keep the team from having lulls when they have to go to the bench. Martinez comes in as the best returning player on the team, and she had a huge impact in her first year at Arizona.
The second post will likely be between Nnaji and Beh, although Cunningham has a good chance of sneaking in to play the position. With Cunningham not playing on the USA Basketball U19 team this summer, she may be able to get acclimated faster and find time earlier in the season. The freshman is a traditional five, so she can play with Martinez. Nnaji can play either the four or the five and Beh can, as well.
Barnes said that Dew will play the three and the four, so it’s less likely that she and Martinez will start in the frontcourt together. That’s not to say they both can’t be starters; Dew could end up as the starting three with Pueyo as the starting two. That would give the Wildcats a lot of length, and they know how difficult that can be to play against.
Gassama will have to find her time here, but how much time she sees is open to debate. Barnes said that the juco transfer is raw and will have to be developed.
The Wildcats scored a total of 2,370 points last season. The players who either exhausted eligibility or transferred to other programs scored 1,585 of those points. That’s 66.9 percent of the scoring that is now gone.
Both of Arizona’s leading scorers were fifth-year seniors with Pellington accounting for 13.7 points per game and Cate Reese scoring 13.2 points per game. The leading returning scorer is Martinez, whose 10.5 ppg were third-best on the team.
The Wildcats must have Gilbert improve enough in other areas to keep her scoring on the floor. They also need Pueyo to finally shake off her hesitancy to score. There is no longer a Reese, a Pellington, or a McDonald to rely on to do it. Pueyo needs to take some of that responsibility on herself.
Rebounding is in better shape simply because Martinez decided to return. The fifth-year forward led the Wildcats with 8.6 rebounds per game last season. Her 274 total boards were 23.5 percent of Arizona’s rebounds. On the offensive boards, her 97 rebounds made up a full 25.1 percent of Arizona’s output.
In total, Arizona lost 46.5 percent of its rebounding from last season. In addition to Martinez, the return of Nnaji was critical to not taking a bigger dive here. The sophomore averaged 9.8 rebounds per 40 minutes in her rookie season, putting her in the 86th percentile.
If Beh is able to be effective and play more minutes, she will help the Wildcats in this area, as well. She averaged 8.6 rebounds per 40 minutes last season at West Virginia. The problem was that she played just 10.2 minutes per game. Part of that was probably related to Beh coming off two years of not playing due to a broken femur, but there are other possibilities, as well.
Beh’s lack of playing time may have been simply a case of playing in Dawn Plitzuweit’s system, which was a guard-focused offense that is often found at the mid-major level. Plitzuweit’s one year at WVU came after six years at South Dakota. Except for her final season there, the Coyotes shot at least 20 3-pointers per game every year. WVU jumped from 15 3PA per game in 2021-22 under former head coach Mike Carey to 23.2 in 2022-23 under Plitzuweit. It may not have been a style that suited Beh.
Cunningham’s size should also help Arizona inside. The freshman is known as a traditional center. She’s not looking to shoot 3-pointers, according to Barnes. She knows her game and wants to play that game to the best of her ability. How fast she adjusts to the speed and strength of the college game will be key for the Wildcats.
The Pac-12 is likely to be as difficult as ever next season. Although Stanford lost a few players to transfer and saw Haley Jones forego her fifth year to head to the WNBA, it returns Cameron Brink and has had top 10 classes every year in recent memory. Losing a few is unlikely to hurt the Cardinal significantly. They should still be among the favorites, although they definitely have company this year. Seeing another team or two get first-place votes in the preseason polls would not be a shock.
The reason for that is largely in Los Angeles. UCLA got stronger in the offseason with the return of Charisma Osborne and the addition of Lauren Betts. USC should take yet another step forward, especially with the addition of the No. 1 recruit JuJu Watkins. Both teams should be fighting for spots in the top four if not the top two. Utah also has a strong chance to remain in the top four of the league. The Utes return Alissa Pili and a strong supporting cast.
Arizona will probably be battling those at the next level. Oregon lost a lot of scoring and experience to the portal, but it returns Grace VanSlooten and Chance Gray. Washington State returns Charlisse Leger-Walker to its Pac-12 Tournament championship team, although the losses of Bella Murekatete and Ula Motuga will hurt. For the first time in several years, Oregon State didn’t lose major pieces to the transfer portal. Washington looks to be on the upswing. Colorado will have almost everyone back from an impressive team. Beyond Arizona State and California, the league will be full of landmines yet again.
Arizona will need to put things together quickly to compete in a dangerous Pac-12. It would not be a surprise to see the Wildcats play on the first day of the conference tournament for the first time since 2018 despite bringing in one of the best groups of freshmen in the country. A second straight season of adding seven new players can have that effect.