In 2020-21, Kyle Smith deployed 10 different starting lineups throughout a 27-game season and still managed to secure Washington State’s first winning record (14-13) since Ken Bone achieved the same feat with the 2011-12 team.
The Cougars should have more depth and flexibility with their starting five in 2021-22 and from top to bottom, WSU’s roster is littered with exciting young prospects, returning players who’ve earned their stripes in the Pac-12 and transfers who come in looking to give Smith’s squad the boost it needs to secure the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in 14 years.
Point guard Isaac Bonton has yet to announce whether he’ll keep his name in the NBA Draft or return to school next season, but we’ll perform the following exercise presuming Bonton is planning to embark on a career in professional basketball. Bonton’s decision will come inside the next 24 hours, with Wednesday being the NBA Draft’s early withdrawal deadline. Below, we explore the potential lineups Smith could roll out next season.
Set in stone
Earlier this month, Dishon Jackson participated in the United States’ U-19 camp in preparation for the 2021 FIBA World Cup. Meanwhile, frontcourt mate Efe Abogidi joined his countrymen in San Francisco for Nigeria’s pre-Olympics camp, and received rave reviews from Nigeria coach and top Golden State Warriors assistant Mike Brown.
It seems all but a given that the two underclassmen will return to the Palouse this fall as more polished versions of their freshman selves.
Unless the Cougars feel the need to go uber-small, you can all but book the 6-foot-10 sophomores into the starting lineup. Abogidi started for the Cougars off the bat and Jackson, after dealing with minor injury setbacks at the start of the 2020-21 season, eventually worked his way into the lineup and was arguably the team’s most improved player by the conference tournament.
Jackson and Abogidi were able to coexist because of the latter’s ability to play away from the basket. Although Abogidi will have to develop a stronger, more consistent post-up game if he wants to play at the next level, it’s not a necessity – not usually, at least – at WSU because he’s typically on the floor with Jackson.
From our view, WSU’s power forward and center positions are settled, and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out who the Cougars will deploy at point guard and shooting guard.
Michael Flowers still hasn’t signed a letter of intent with the Cougars but has reported to campus, according to Cougfan.com, and it’s unlikely the South Alabama transfer who was fourth in the NCAA in overall scoring (588 points) last season spurned Arkansas, USC, Miami, Texas A&M, Florida, Colorado and Marquette to sit on Smith’s bench.
How Flowers meshes with Noah Williams, WSU’s projected starting shooting guard, will be an intriguing storyline early in the season. Flowers and Williams are both capable of 30-point outbursts, but Williams’ best offensive outings came when Bonton, WSU’s ball-dominant point guard, was injured. WSU’s top two guards can’t both be 20-point-per-game scorers, but it doesn’t mean both can’t flourish and create a partnership that allows the Cougars to improve on the 68.6 ppg they managed last season.
Smith should be able to plug in four starters without much trouble, but the fifth is where it gets hairy. Hairy in a good way, though.
Before Andrej Jakimovski entered the transfer portal, the Cougars had a logjam at the small forward position. In some ways, it’s still a logjam, with three or conceivably four players fighting for one spot.
Aside from Jakimovski, nobody logged more starts at small forward last season than DJ Rodman, who’ll be entering his third year with Smith’s program. Rodman’s a proven three-and-D option who was almost always a plus player when he was on the court in 2020-21. Rodman has the most knowledge of Smith’s system and of the options we’ll list here, he’s the only one with Pac-12 experience.
Rodman is a strong defender but not an elite one, and he doesn’t have much experience playing in big games – the kind WSU hopes to be in toward the end of the regular season and postseason. Meanwhile, Eastern Washington transfer Kim Aiken Jr. fills both voids as the reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year who helped guide the Eagles to a win over Montana State in the Big Sky Tournament title game and almost stunned Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.
A third option is Mouhamed Gueye, who has something – or potentially a lot of somethings – Rodman and Aiken Jr. don’t have as the program’s highest-ranked recruit since Klay Thompson. The Prolific Prep product who’s originally from Senegal indicated to The Spokesman-Review in an interview after committing to the Cougars he could play the power forward, and potentially center, but feels more comfortable at small forward. In a separate interview, Aiken said he, too, is flexible but prefers small forward to the other positions. If the Cougars were to start Gueye, they’d be putting a 6-11 small forward next to a 6-10 power forward and 6-10 center, and wouldn’t have to sacrifice 3-point shooting given that both Abogidi and Gueye are solid from beyond the arc.
If we had to take a guess, two of Rodman, Aiken and Gueye – or perhaps all three – will get cracks at the starting lineup early on.
R egardless of who wins the job permanently, each will be a big part of the equation for WSU in 2021-22. And don’t forget about sophomore Carlos Rosario, a former four-star prospect who should’ve benefited from a full season in WSU’s weight program.
If Aiken can make a seamless transition, and if the Cougars are OK with relinquishing some 3-point shooting at small forward, we think the EWU transfer has a slight upper hand on Rodman and a larger one on Gueye.
Aiken has the ability to step out and hit the occasional 3, but he shot at a 30% clip in the Big Sky last season, whereas Rodman connected more consistently, making 41% of his attempts. But it doesn’t mean the Cougars are diminishing their offensive potential with Aiken on the floor over Rodman. In 2020-21, Aiken scored 11.3 ppg and just 38% of his made field goals came from beyond the arc. Rodman is more efficient from distance, but not as polished inside the arc and 59% of his total FGs came from the 3-point line.
The combinations for Smith are endless and though we’ve established a starting five in Flowers, Williams, Aiken , Abogidi and Jackson that could help the Cougars break their 14-year tournament drought, Smith’s roster packs a level of depth the program hasn’t seen in years.
Jefferson Koulibaly, a second-year combo guard who spent the entirety of last season nursing an injury, was one of the most explosive prep scorers in Canada before he came to Pullman.
UCSD transfer Tyrell Roberts was a Division II All-American whose 3-point shooting prowess (4.5 3s per game in 2019) shouldn’t be harnessed and the Cougars are counting on offseason development from sophomore TJ Bamba, a physically gifted guard/forward who combined for 26 points in the team’s final two games.
Just from an optics standpoint, we’d love to see Smith trot out a lineup featuring Williams (6-5) at point guard, Bamba (6-5) at shooting guard, Gueye (6-11) at small forward, Abogodi (6-10) at power forward and Jackson (6-10) at center.
Nonetheless, the Cougars should have the flexibility to deploy smaller lineups against teams looking to spread the floor. Conversely, the size, length and athleticism of Gueye, Abogidi and Jackson should be troubling for even the most talented teams in the conference.
With a rare combination of talent and depth that hasn’t been seen on the Palouse in years, the Cougars may be one of those in 2021-22.