As I spent time watching NEC basketball over the past week, I wondered who the most invaluable players throughout the league were.
Of course, there are the obvious guys—for example if Jerome Frink, Michael Carey or Nisre Zouzoua went down, their respective clubs would definitely suffer. But in digging through the NEC only numbers, I wanted to construct a list of lesser known players who are pivotal to their team’s success. Sure, some of these guys aren’t exactly under-the-radar, but I bet most fans wouldn’t consider them as NEC all-conference first team talents unless you watch them every game.
Here are four players who make their teams quite formidable when they’re playing at a high level.
Chris Wray, Mount St. Mary’s
Arguably, Jamion Christian is coaching the most complete Mount team during his tenure, especially when you factor in grittiness, overall depth, and defensive tenacity. Some would still give the nod to the 2013-14 championship team when all-conference talents Julian Norfleet and Rashad Whack led a potent Mount offense to an unlikely title.
The current version of Mount Mayhem may not be as explosive offensively, yet players 3 through 9 or 10 bring more strengths that fit into the overall framework of the rotation. Think about it: in previous years Will Miller, Charles Glover and Khalid Nwandu all had pivotal roles. Now the depth is so good these upperclassman have been assigned much smaller ones.
The balance of the team has been fantastic with six players averaging between 5.6 and 14.4 ppg, yet if there’s one player who has demonstrated the most value, it’s Chris Wray. The 6-foot-8 athletic freak doesn’t need to score to make his impact felt; in fact, the junior finds himself in the NEC top six in 2-point FG% (65.4%), offensive rebound rate (11.6%), block rate (6.2%), steal rate (2.9%) and fouls committed per 40 minutes (2.0). Quite simply, his skill set is unmatched not only on the Mount, but throughout the entire league. The advanced numbers derived by John Templon’s computer surely don’t lie:
- Wray ON the court: 106.5 points scored per 100 possessions, 92.3 points allowed per 100 poss
- Wray OFF the court: 95.1 points scored per 100 poss, 106.5 points allowed per 100 poss
The difference is staggering on both ends of the floor! What Wray gives Christian is an unmatched athlete who can protect the rim, generate second chance points, create turnovers, and finish in the open floor.
Some coaches would argue that Elijah Long or Junior Robinson is the most irreplaceable piece, and that may true, but based on the plus/minus indicators, you’re foolish if Wray isn’t part of that conversation, at the very least.
Isaiah Blackmon, Saint Francis University
I’ve long been an Isaiah Blackmon fan, to the point where I’ve even taken to Twitter to argue with a stubborn, opinionated beat reporter. Twitter beefs aside, my love for Blackmon as a player has only grown in his sophomore season. The guard’s provided value on the Red Flash this conference season is undeniable:
- Blackmon’s numbers in SFU wins: 18.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.9 spg, 52.3% FG
- Blackmon’s numbers in SFU losses: 9.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 0.5 spg, 44.1% FG
If you extrapolate the numbers out further, Blackmon’s impact only grows stronger. When he’s scored in double figures for a contest, SFU is 12-2 over the past two seasons in league play. When he registers less than 10 ppg, or worse, he doesn’t suit up due to injury, the Red Flash dips to a ghastly 3-14 mark.
Along with rookie sensations Keith Braxton and Randall Gaskins, Blackmon gives Rob Krimmel the versatility and flexibility needed within the team’s rotation. All three of these players do a number of things well on the court and they all can slot in at multiple positions depending on the game situation. Furthermore, this group plus point guard Jamaal King possess steal rates over 2.0%, giving the Red Flash the ability to generate turnovers, get in transition and manufacture easy points. As I explained earlier this season, no one has generated more offensive opportunities in transition than Krimmel’s group. The athleticism at the wing, led by Blackmon, has a lot to do with that.
Mike Aaman, Wagner
It’s only been three years, but it seems like Mike Aaman has been part of Wagner’s roster for much longer. Ever since his name was brought up as a high schooler offered by Dan Hurley, Aaman’s ability to carve out space in the paint has always been well known. In the New Jersey native’s senior season, his impact has helped keep the Seahawks in contention for another top 3 finish.
Case in point: when the senior stays out of foul trouble and averages at least 20 mpg, Wagner is a perfect 7-0. In games where that isn’t the case, the team has slumped to a 1-6 mark. Of course, the correlation isn’t that simple, but Aaman’s impact is evident when he serves as Wagner’s back-to-the-basket post presence in the half court.
Even when he isn’t targeted down low, Aaman is nearly impossible to box out. In league play, 16.0% of the team’s misses end up in his hands, good for second in the league. Overall for the season, Aaman is 26th nationally in offensive rebound rate at 14.6%. Additionally, Aaman ranks third among NEC players in put-backs (31), behind only Tidell Pierre (41) and Mike Holloway (34). And that’s despite only playing 52% of Wagner’s minutes! The longer Aaman stays on the floor, the tougher Wagner is to beat.
Mario Matasovic, Sacred Heart
Overall, it has been a tough junior season for Mario Matasovic, who came in with high hopes as a critical cog of the Pioneers’ rotation. Injuries have derailed that train for much of the season, although a healthier Matasovic recently has shown what he’s capable of. During the Pioneers’ current four game winning streak, Matasovic has averaged 11.8 ppg and 4.8 rpg with 8 combined blocks and steals. Not only has he been efficient around the rim (61.1% 2PT) over that time frame, but he’s also stretched the defense out with five makes behind the arc. We haven’t seen this impressive two-way ability from a player 6-foot-8 or taller since Elijah Minnie’s rookie campaign.
Barring injury, it’s a safe bet that NEC opponents will continue to see Matasovic on the floor–when the Croatian is playing 20+ mpg in league play, the Pioneers are 4-1. Matasovic’s emergence has essentially cast De’von Barnett, once thought of as a bona fide all-conference player, as the sixth or seventh man in the rotation. Because of Barnett’s struggles with staying healthy, his explosiveness and athleticism aren’t what they used to be when he took the league by storm as a NEC Rookie of the Year finalist. Barnett still has value in other facets, but a career low offensive rating of 88.3 in league play portrays how far the once electrifying junior has fallen.
For now, Matasovic gives Anthony Latina more firepower and versatility down low with Joseph Lopez. Pairing those two with the sharp shooting Matej Buovac, Barnett and the bouncy Shawn Montague gives Latina plenty of options at the 3, 4 and 5 going into the final stretch.
Did I miss anyone who you would consider? Feel free to voice your opinions in the comments section!
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride