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Uptick or Improvement: Part 1

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NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Boston College vs Pittsburgh Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, it’s good to hop back in the saddle with the Pittsburgh Panthers men’s basketball team just 15 days away from playing games that officially counts for something. Despite the disappointment of losing out on guard R.J. Davis to the North Carolina Tar Heels yesterday, Pitt has landed some nice pieces for their 2020 class. There’s also a lot of excitement around the Panthers that will actually be taking the court this season.

While it’s fun to image junior transfer Ryan Murphy splashing three-pointers, graduate transfer Eric Hamilton contributing right away in the front court, or even freshman Justin Champagnie, fully healthy, and slashing from the wing for some jaw dropping dunks, all of that is just speculation for now. It isn’t quite as hard to envision how the four primary returning contributors can be factors this season, however. So for the purposes of this article, let's take a look at how those four players - just the guards in this one - can impact the team with an uptick versus an improvement.

By all accounts, an uptick is a small increase in production or consistency, while an improvement represents a much larger increase. For example, if a player boxes out a majority of the time, an uptick would see them become a player that consistently boxes out. If that same player seldom boxes out, then an improvement is needed to become consistent in this manner. This doesn’t include something that sits outside realistic expectations; I won’t be suggesting junior forward Terrell Brown improve dramatically as a three-point shooter, as that may only marginally help Pitt as a whole and would likely come at the cost of improving upon something more relevant. Keep in mind, this isn’t a comprehensive list. I’ll save that for later in the season.

Xavier Johnson - Uptick:

  • Left-hand finishes at the rim - With 48.3% of his field goal attempts at the rim, Johnson got to the rim a fair amount last year. However, he only converted 51.9% of those attempts. A little more creativity and better use of his off-hand will see that conversion rate increase enough to raise his overall efficiency.

Xavier Johnson - Improvements:

  • Conditioning that matches workload - Now, I fully expect Johnson to handle the workload that is about to be thrust upon him once again. A small uptick won’t cut it here. He didn’t have the same spring in his step once the calendar rolled over to February against better competition. Johnson shot 45% or better from the field just twice in his final 12 games, and reached his season average of 75.1% from the charity stripe just three times in that same span. Again, the Panthers were in the heart of ACC play and I am in no way questioning Johnson’s commitment to being in best shape possible, but an improvement here will allow him to get to spots on the floor where he’s the most effective, at any time in the game and at any point in the season.
  • Late game decision making - Johnson was prone to over dribbling late game possessions in close games. Early in the season, this anecdotally paid off more times than not. By the end of the season, it wasn’t nearly as “effective”. Not all of this is on Johnson. Not having a consistent secondary playmaker, multiple shooters, and a complementary big in screen-and-roll situations certainly contributed to this. Still, keeping the team in some kind of offensive flow allows everyone around him to stay relevant on the offensive end.

Trey McGowens - Upticks:

  • Footwork around three-point arc - Too many times it seemed like he launched from a good several feet behind the arc on catch-and-shoot triples (not overly contested). While he has a compact stroke with strong follow-through, a 32.7% conversion rate for the year wasn’t ideal. McGowens did convert 10-23 (43.5%) over the last 8 games, so it’s definitely possible he could shoot closer to 40% this season if he helps himself out a little more.
  • Finishing at the rim - Like Johnson, he didn’t have any problems getting to the basket as a freshman (50% of his attempts) but only converted half the time (50%). McGowens had no problem trying to finish through contact, but was prone to off-balance, leaning attempts at awkward angles.

Trey McGowens - Improvements:

  • Better control of hard dribbles off the floor - This is the key to him becoming (only the start) a consistent playmaker, getting to all spots of the floor, and also his ability to finish at the rim (among many other things). While McGowens was able to finish through contact, he had a harder time dribbling through contact and traffic. He was so explosive though, that often times he forced his way to the rim. But there were times that when he rose he wasn’t quite sure where he was in relation to the basket. That led to those aforementioned awkward angle finishes.

There’s almost no way that I won’t be expanding on all of the above throughout the season. Again, this wasn’t meant to be a detailed write-up. I’ll be sure to post part 2 of this article featuring sophomore Au’Diese Toney and junior Terrell Brown sometime later this week.

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