Washington won’t have a chance to ease into the 2019-20 men’s basketball season.
The Huskies open in the Armed Forces Classic against No. 16 Baylor on Friday night, giving a young, talented roster a chance to make a statement from the year’s opening tip.
UW was picked to finish third in the Pac-12 in the media’s preseason poll. It also opened the season just outside the AP top 25 and is expected to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. National basketball analyst Jeff Goodman even picked the Huskies to reach the Final Four.
With a top-10 recruiting class highlighted by two projected lottery picks set to make its debut, here are three questions that will define the Huskies season.
What does a step forward look like for Nahziah Carter?
Junior Nahziah Carter is the only player on Washington’s roster who averaged at least 3.0 points per game last season. He averaged 8.1 points per game in 2018-19, shooting 47.8 percent from the field and 31 percent from beyond the arc.
But Carter wasn’t the Huskies go-to offensive option. That distinction belonged to leading scorer Jaylen Nowell, who was almost always the player with the ball in his hands when UW needed a basket. This year, the Huskies might turn to Carter.
He’s shown the ability to score at will. He had a career performance at Oregon State last season, finishing with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting from the field. His athleticism was on display during the victory over the Beavers as he threw down several highlight-reel dunks, including one over 7-foot center Kyle Kelley.
Carter reached double figures in both of UW’s NCAA Tournament games. He sparked the win over Utah State, scoring 13 points off the bench. He was one of the few players to find offensive success in the loss to first-seeded North Carolina, finishing with 10 points.
Last season, Carter often ignited the offense off the bench. But as he enters his junior season, that role has shifted. For Carter, perhaps the next step centers around consistency. Head coach Mike Hopkins seems confident in Carter’s ability to not only adjust, but also excel in his new role.
He pointed to Carter’s points per minute last season: 2.53. His number was higher than Nowell’s 2.1 points per minute and right in-line with Matisse Thybulle’s 2.54. Point guard David Crisp averaged 2.7 points per minute. Noah Dickerson averaged 2.1.
“With the ability to have big games, Naz is an elite player,” Hopkins said. “He’s a guy that has taken a dramatic step forward. He’s been really good in practice. He’s been really good when we’ve scrimmaged and played. He’s been in control. He’s taken the right shots and most importantly, his leadership is the biggest thing.”
Asked what he was focused on improving heading into this season, Carter pointed to leadership. He knows UW lost its biggest voices, and he’s hoping to fill the void.
“You know how David (Crisp), Matisse (Thybulle) and Jaylen (Nowell), they had to make sure we were good in tight game situations, controlling the clock and knowing when to do certain stuff,” Carter said. “That’s what I put focus on with the coaches: Trying to be a sponge with all that I can learn about the rules and regulations of everything. All the physical attributes and aspects I work on all the time. I’m always in the gym, so I don’t like to talk about that part. I like to grind in silence.”
How quickly (and how well) will the Huskies jell?
There is no doubt UW is talented. And even if there were, the Huskies’ exhibition game against Western Washington would have eliminated most of it.
It wasn’t necessarily the 87-63 victory that was convincing. UW just did what was expected. But the exhibition also provided the first in-person impression of the Huskies new-look roster. Freshmen Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, both five-star recruits, lived up to expectations.
Stewart finished with a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds. McDaniels had 13 points, eight rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block. UW also got a strong performance from sophomore guard Jamal Bey, who came off the bench to score a team-high 20 points on 5-of-7 shooting.
But there were still moments when the Huskies looked like an experienced team, particularly defensively. After the game, Hopkins was quick to point out Western Washington’s eight 3-pointers in the second half. That’s where the youth comes in, no matter what the talent level.
“With some young teams, you get a lead and you take some things from granted,’ Hopkins said. “Have to play for 40 minutes. Doesn’t matter if you’re up or down 20, have to play the same. There will be growing pains and we need to stay on them every possession.”
UW is also replacing four starters. Among this season’s starters, only Carter and Hameir Wright played significant roles last season. Point guard Quade Green, who transferred from Kentucky midway through last year, will make his debut against Baylor. The NCAA only granted his eligibility waiver last week, so he missed all five of the Huskies exhibition games — four in Italy and one at home.
The Huskies will need time to sort out their rotation and figure out what their identity. Last year, UW peaked early in Pac-12 play and faltered down the stretch of the season. This season’s group could be primed to play its best basketball at the right time.
“They’re going to make mistakes, Hopkins said. “But how quickly can we get to the point where we’re not making the same mistakes and get more consistent? The way we share the basketball, we have a lot of ways we can go. And when you pass the ball you get better shots and you make more. You have good court balance. When you add in an elite defense, we can be a tough team to beat if that all comes together.”
How good is Quade Green?
Green could end up being the most important piece for UW this season. Crisp is gone, leaving the Huskies without their leader and experienced point guard. Green’s backup, sophomore Elijah Hardy, has only played in 11 games in his career. He did start in the exhibition win over Western Washington, finishing four points and five assists. Behind Hardy is true freshman Marcus Tsohonis.
During his freshman season at Kentucky, Green averaged 9.3 points, 2.7 assists and 1.8 rebounds per game. He reached double figures in scoring 17 times, including six of his final 11 games. He also had three or more assists in 17 games. In nine games as a sophomore, he averaged 8.0 points while shooting 44.9 percent from the 3-point line, including 42.3 percent from beyond the arc.
Led by Stewart, McDaniels and Carter, the Huskies have more than enough scoring options. But they need Green run the offense effectively. They also need him to be a reliable shooter, especially beyond the arc. UW’s best 3-pointer shooters from last season — Nowell (44 percent) and Crisp (37.4 percent) — are gone now. The Huskies have to find a way to match, or surpass, that production.
Asked what Green would bring to the floor now that he’s eligible, Hopkins didn’t mince words.
“Arguably, your best shooter on the team,” he said. “A guy that can make open shots and space the floor. He’s really good in transition, and he makes the game easier for others.”
Carl Arrigale, who coached Green at Neumann-Goretti High School in Philadelphia, analyzed his time at Kentucky during a phone interview this week. While Green opened his career by starting 13 of his first 15 games at point guard, he was eventually replaced by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and moved off the ball. The Wildcats mostly used him as a shooting option. At UW, Green will be counted on for both.
“He’s got leadership qualities now,” Arrigale said. “He’s a good shooter, so he’s a scoring point guard that can really shoot a high percentage from the foul line. … Being out west, a little more open style of basketball will definitely lend to him being able to push the ball a little bit and make plays for himself and for others. I expect him to do well there.”