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Washington State men: Veteran leadership, exceptional recruiting class mean high ceiling for Cougars

The offseason came with mixed results for Kyle Smith.

The second-year Washington State coach spent most of the summer anticipating a decision from star forward C.J. Elleby, who flirted with a return to Pullman before ultimately keeping his name in the NBA draft. Elleby’s next venture is professional basketball and Smith’s first order is replacing the All-Pac-12 selection who last season became the third-quickest Cougar to 1,000 career points.

The immediate future of the basketball program in Pullman took a hit, but Smith also addressed the long-term outlook in a way few probably thought capable of a Washington State coach not named Tony Bennett.

When the Cougars got a pledge from center Dishon Jackson, the Northern California native became the 11th highest-rated player to commit to the school. Smith went on to sign two other players, Andrej Jakimovski and Carlos Rosario, who rank in WSU’s top-six all time, according to 247Sports metrics.

While Smith has shown he can attract a higher caliber of player, his second season on the Palouse will be defined by how quickly he can get the freshmen up to speed, how the younger players jell with the older ones and if the Cougars, despite losing one of the conference’s most dynamic scorers, can improve from their 66 points-per-game average in Pac-12 contests last season.

Smith will also miss the team’s opener after announcing Wednesday he tested positive for COVID-19.

Backcourt

It must have been refreshing to see solid defense from the guard positions last season. Isaac Bonton was a willing on-ball defender, Jervae Robinson deservedly earned all-defense accolades at the end of the year and Noah Williams demonstrated a level of defensive acumen that was rare for someone his age.

The Cougars lost Robinson, but Bonton and Williams return to make up what could be one of the best defensive backcourts in the conference. Bonton, recently named to the All-Pac-12 preseason second team, was the conference’s fifth-best scorer in Pac-12 action last year. He has indicated he’ll spend time at point guard in the wake of Robinson’s departure, but also anticipates he’ll work off the ball – something the Portland native did effectively last season.

“Yeah, mix it up, get off the ball some, get the ball to my hands like last year,” Bonton said. “There was a lot of times I had the ball in my hands a lot. So it’ll change up. We’ve got some guards that can take pressure off me and help us out in that way. Definitely will be on the ball still, so it’ll be a mix up, but it’s going to be good because we’ve really got some guards that can handle the ball.”

Regardless of Bonton’s position, or production, if the Cougars wish to reach the next level, they’ll need more offense from Williams, who averaged 6.2 points last season and was less than 15% on 3-point attempts.

Frontcourt

Smith’s first season was revealing in more ways than one. At the University of San Francisco, his teams frequently played Stanford, Cal and a variety of other Pac-12 teams during the nonconference slate, but facing off against the conference nightly twice every week showed Smith what his roster lacked and what it’d need going forward. Size, first and foremost. Athletic size, if possible.

“We’ve got a lot of big bodies out there. It’s hard for us to get enough reps for a lot of our bigs,” Smith said during a Pac-12 webinar. “We’ve got just too many up there and we’re a little thin in the backcourt. … So it’s hard for us to get a full practice. We’ve got to do extra individual time with those guys, but there’s definitely some length and size around the rim that we look like a high-major team.”

Senior forward Tony Miller, a former walk-on who transferred from Montana, seems to be a lock for the starting lineup after scoring in double digits eight times last season despite battling injuries. Seven-footer Volodymyr Markovetskyy was solid down the stretch but needs more time to develop his feel around the basket.

Miller, Markovetskyy and sophomore D.J. Rodman provide experience to what should be an otherwise young group. Jackson, Rosario and Jakimovski are ready to help the Cougars in some capacity, but it’s unclear how. Jakimovski, who played in Italy’s second pro division, seems to be the most versatile of the three and is the third highest-rated recruit in school history. Another intriguing prospect is three-star Efe Abogidi, a Nigerian-born center Smith considers one the most athletic players he’s recruited.

Coaching

While Smith has recruiting well, he insists his programs in the past have improved as his players get older. The four-star players are talented but will need at least a year or two to realize their potential within the coach’s system. Smith’s dedication to defense, rebounding and taking care of the ball paid dividends in 2019-20 with 16 wins and the program’s first victory at the Pac-12 Tournament in a decade. The youth of the 2020-21 team will show, but this freshman class has more promise than any the Cougars have seen in some time. After last season, fans trust the man in charge to develop it.

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