Midway through the second half of Harvard’s game against Boston University last Monday, the Crimson were in trouble. The Terriers, who came in as double-digit underdogs, had just tied the game with a 10-2 run. Harvard’s offense stalled after a timeout as the shot clock ticked away. Handed a hot potato with a hand in his eyeballs, Wesley Saunders had no choice but to launch a flat-footed moonshot from 22 feet away.
Across the court, even though his defense had just forced the toughest possible look, Boston U. coach Joe Jones had a feeling it wouldn’t end well.
“I knew that shot was going in,” he said. “I’m not even joking. I’ve seen him make so many of those shots, I just knew it was going in.”
Sure enough, it dropped cleanly through the net, putting Harvard ahead for good. With one flick of the wrist, Saunders neatly summarized the first month of his season — being the go-to guy in pivotal spots, making tough shots as the focus of opposing defenses, and engineering victories. Harvard enters Sunday’s showdown at No. 6 Virginia with a 7-1 record and a six-game win streak, and their star senior’s evolution is the biggest reason why.
College basketball guru Ken Pomeroy bestows an annual Player of the Year award (dubbed the kPOY), which is based on advanced individual stats as well as team performance. So far this year, his top two players are college basketball’s biggest stars, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. Third in the kPOY rankings — ahead of Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell, Virginia’s Justin Anderson and everyone from top-ranked Kentucky — is Saunders.
New offensive heights
In each of the last two seasons, Saunders used a fairly high volume of possessions with solid efficiency; he was the best player on two NCAA tournament teams, earning first-team All-Ivy honors in 2013 and the Player of the Year award in 2014. As a senior, however, Saunders is being asked to do more than ever before — and he’s doing so at an even higher level:
|Season||Min./Gm||Usage Rate||Off. Rating|
Data via College Basketball Reference.
With the graduation of Brandyn Curry and Laurent Rivard, Harvard’s guard depth has turned from an asset to a relative weakness, causing Saunders to lead the league in minutes per game. And with defense-first teammates like Agunwa Okolie, Evan Cummins and Andre Chatfield playing more, Saunders is carrying a higher share of Harvard’s offense. Yet his offensive rating has jumped significantly from past seasons — which is rare for any established senior, much less one using more possessions.
At his new level, Saunders is in rare company. Only seven qualifying D-I players can match both his usage rate and offensive rating, and only two of them do so for top-50 teams (Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer and BYU’s Tyler Haws):
Data via College Basketball Reference. Min. 5 games played, 20 mpg, 20% usage rate
Saunders has improved his assist rate and cut his turnover rate in every season, a trend he has continued this year despite using more possessions and occasionally serving as a full-court press-breaker. But most of his efficiency gains have come from shooting. The senior’s 20.1 ppg (tied for 18th-best nationally) haven’t been wasteful; his true shooting percentage has been 50% or better in each game.
The mix of his shot selection has hardly changed. Though Saunders has become more willing to take three-pointers over the course of his career, they still represent a small fraction of his attempts (16%), and he still takes about 40% of his shots from the death valley of two-point-jumpers. But he’s become a lethal finisher when he gets all the way to the rim, converting 71% of his shots there, up from 55-60% in past years and 11 percentage points above the national average (per hoop-math.com).
The shot chart of Saunders’ most impressive performance to date — a 27-point explosion against UMass — is representative of his season distribution: Lots of layups, some contested shots further out in the paint, and a couple open threes sprinkled in:
A true two-way threat
Boston U. wing Cedric Hankerson entered last Monday’s game averaging 19.9 ppg, and he started out hot again at Lavietes Pavilion, drawing a jump-shooting foul on Saunders on the first possession and blowing by him three more times for layup attempts or free throws early on. But after the first timeout, Saunders locked in, holding the Terriers’ star to two more points, 0-6 shooting and a pair of turnovers.
Hankerson wasn’t the first Bay State wing to struggle against Harvard.
(Harvard’s other opponents didn’t have such high-scoring wings, so Saunders’ assignments were more fluid, though wings from Florida Atlantic and Houston played well.)
Saunders isn’t solely responsible for defending perimeter scorers; Agunwa Okolie spells him for significant stretches, and both have the safety net of one of the nation’s best shot-blocking frontcourts. But the 6’5” Saunders is a plus defender on the wing.
“He’s strong, he’s got great size, and he’s athletic,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “He’s got really strong hands; he can slap at the ball and deny things, he gets his hands on the ball and usually comes up with it. We talk a lot about how concentration leads to anticipation; when he’s concentrating, which he does a tremendous job of, you can anticipate better.”
With two ace rim protectors behind him in Steve Moundou-Missi and Kenyatta Smith, Saunders has the liberty to jump passing lanes, and he has a knack for finding loose balls. Consequently, he boasts a 4.8% steal percentage, 36th in the nation (per KenPom.com), including seven in a double-overtime win at Vermont.
And one of his biggest improvements has come on the glass, where his defensive rebound rate has spiked to 15.3% (though it has been falling lately, with big men getting a greater share of Harvard’s boards). “I think I’m rebounding better than in the past, but I think that’s more out of necessity,” Saunders said after a double-double against Houston, his third in four games. “We don’t have some of the guys like Kyle [Casey] back there who used to grab pretty much everything, so it has to be more of a team effort.”
Throughout his career, Saunders has had a reputation for flying under the radar. In part, that reflects his stoic on-court demeanor — especially contrasted with flashier teammates like Siyani Chambers — but it also reflects his role in Harvard’s offensive scheme. Isolation sets and static pick-and-rolls are rarely found in Harvard’s playbook, so Saunders must find his shots in the flow of the Crimson’s offense.
With talented teammates to rely on, Saunders can wait for those chances to come — which often happens in the second half, as opponents lose a half-step and transition opportunities often open up the floor. In the first half, he averages 8.1 points on 49% shooting; in the second (including two overtime periods), he averages 12.0 points on 61% shooting.
“He’s an even-keeled person, so the highs and the lows aren’t drastic with him, which is a tremendous quality to have for someone with his talent,” Amaker said after the Crimson’s win over Northeastern, in which Saunders had zero points at halftime but finished with a team-high 12. “So he takes it in stride.”
Saunders’ second-half heroics were critical in Harvard’s signature victory against UMass. With the reeling Crimson trailing by nine points, Saunders zipped a cross-court pass to Corbin Miller for an open three; went coast-to-coast for a layup; stole an entry pass and dished it over the top of the defense for a Cummins basket; and finally flicked a finger roll off the glass and through the net. The Minutemen’s lead was gone in 90 seconds, almost entirely due to Saunders.
And in final minute of that game, the senior took over on both ends. Tied at 71-71 with the shot clock winding down, Chambers handed the ball to Saunders, who dribbled into the lane, got leverage on Derrick Gordon with a behind-the-back crossover, and made a tough floater through contact for a three-point play.
After Gordon beat Saunders for a layup on the other end, Chambers missed a free throw, giving UMass a chance to win. On his biggest defensive possession of the year, Saunders showed all his tricks: He anticipated Gordon’s drive, getting in position early to cut off his right hand; after biting on a half-spin into the lane, he was quick enough to recover and contest Gordon’s shot, then secure the loose rebound and the win.
Highly respected, highly decorated
Despite Pomeroy’s efforts, Saunders likely won’t appear near the top of many national POY ballots this season. But opposing coaches have long raved about Saunders, and their praise has only grown louder this year.
Holy Cross coach Milan Brown: “For a minute there, I thought Saunders was just going to say, ‘I’m just going to beat you guys all by myself.’”
UMass coach Derek Kellogg: “He’s a tough player who knows what he’s doing, and he’s probably the best player in (Harvard’s) league and maybe one of the better players in New England, if not across the country.”
Northeastern coach Bill Coen: “He’s a Player of the Year candidate each and every year. He’s a terrific player, and he’s got so many ways to beat you.”
Boston U. coach Joe Jones: “He’s so freaking good.”
And Saunders certainly isn’t lacking respect within the Ivy League. Last year, he was named the Ivy League Player of the Year despite finishing outside the top 10 scoring leaders, the first player to do so this century. This year, he’s on pace for a season unparalleled in recent Ivy history:
Highest Ivy PERs since 2009-10; data via College Basketball Reference
If Saunders stays near these heights, he’ll surely earn a third all-conference honor and a second POY award. And if Harvard stays near its pace, it’s likely to reach a fourth straight NCAA tournament — and possibly even a third straight Round of 32 — making Saunders one of the most decorated players in the Ivy’s modern era.