I’m going to reuse the first sentence from last year’s preview, with a minor edit: “this is the first time in
three four years Texas will be starting a season without a lottery-level freshman in the paint…”. Look Ma, all better. Kai Jones might make me eat these words, but I feel kinda (a bit) safe-ish in saying this is the year the Texas freshman bigs lottery streak ends. That’s not to say there’s a lack of talent on hand, just that the group lends itself more to the multi-year starter type of player than the transcendent teenager. It’s also the section of the team with the most variety in potential starting lineups. In the backcourt, Courtney Ramey, Matt Coleman, and Jase Febres can pretty much write their name in the starting lineups in pen; in the frontcourt, there’s a lot more parity at play. Whether that turns out to be a strength or a weakness will help define this season.
Jericho Sims (6-9, Junior)
The question of the hour is which Jericho Sims Texas will get this year. If it’s freshman-year Sims, Texas will have a decent rebounder and shot blocker with minimal offensive game. If it’s early sophomore-year Sims, Texas will have a tentative, thinking too much, splitting the Netflix bill in Shaka’s doghouse player. If it’s late sophomore-year Sims, Texas will have a guy who remembered he can outjump anyone for a rebound, a willing screener, and actually-kinda-decent-at-free-throws starting center. Here’s hoping for the latter, because Sims can be the starting five all year if he wants it. Sims needs to get better at his post-up game; he has moves, but he was clearly predetermining his move regardless of what the defense was doing which blunts the effectiveness of the moves (not to mention drives up his fouls committed rate). He also needs to get better at grabbing offensive rebounds. Frankly, every big in this article needs to step it up on the rebounding because Dylan Osetkowski is gone and he was by far the most consistent rebounder last year. Sims is a decent roller in the PnR, but could get better at it. He’ll never be Jaxson Hayes in that respect, but basically nobody in the college ranks is. Simply catching the ball and flushing it in one motion rather than bringing the ball down before jumping a second time will do a lot to help his effectiveness. You have the hops of a roided-out kangaroo, man, slam that ball home. Sims struggling could be an issue as there doesn’t appear to be a Jaxson Hayes clone walking through the door to save the team’s ass, but I’m hopeful Sims has figured it out.
Kamaka Hepa (6-9, Sophomore)
Kamaka Hepa was brought to Texas to do two things: shoot threes and play defense like a crab with scoliosis. He accomplished one of those things regularly, but the shooting came and went. You can see the shooting stroke is there; his form is pure, but the game was moving too fast for him to really be an offensive force for most of the season. The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores, and if Hepa’s shooting percentages take even an average increase he’s going to become a solid offensive option. If he starts hitting 35%+ from three this year (which seems very reasonable to me), imagine a lineup of Ramey, Coleman, Febres, Hepa, and Sims on the floor. That’s 4 shooters sitting on the perimeter who all rank somewhere between respectable and fearsome available to make it rain. Defensively, Hepa is always one of the most talkative which is such an underrated aspect of team defense. Every coach worth their salt spends half their waking life screaming at his players to talk to each other more, and another vocal voice on the defensive end of the floor can help improve a defense which faltered in the last half of conference play. If he can improve his defensive anticipation, he could be a pretty solid defender on his own as well.
Will Baker (6-11, Freshman)
Will Baker is a five-star, top-30 recruit, which makes you think he’ll come in and have an immediate impact. And he might! But he also might play a complementary role as he acclimates to the college game. Baker has shooting range out to three, is a true 7-footer, and was offered by half the Big 12, North Carolina, and a host of others. It’s easy to see why coaches wanted the guy on their squad. What’s interesting to me is that he might be one of those five-star recruits who isn’t on a bullet train to the pros. He’s not singularly athletic, his quickness is good but not elite, and he doesn’t appear to be the product of a Chinese experiment fusing Manute Bol with a pterodactyl. One of the things I’ve always envied about Kansas - other than the Amex Centurion card they get from Adidas - is that they seem to always have a guy or two who is a five-star recruit who usually leaves after 1-2 years at most schools but sticks around Kansas for 3-4 years. Texas almost never has that; I mean, they have Andrew Jones, but I’m looking for a guy who sticks around for non-life-threatening illness reasons. Will Baker could be one of those guys, which would be great for the program. I think Baker is likely to contribute as much as his conditioning allows, which may be somewhat limited as he gets into D-I shape.
Gerald Liddell (6-6, Sophomore)
Texas is undefeated in games where Gerald Liddell hits a three, so clearly the key to going undefeated this year is Drayton Whiteside starting and immediately passing the ball to Liddell in the corner. Gerald Liddell was a bit of a project at the start of last season; when asked about him going into the season, Shaka Smart basically made it known that Liddell was going to have to make some significant strides to see the court much his freshman year. That bore out as Liddell didn’t play in 18 of the first 22 games, and prior to the NIT run he didn’t really play in any situation other than blowouts or serious foul trouble. Once the NIT games began though, Liddell started to see a significant increase in minutes, and just as importantly he was reasonably effective in those minutes. His defense still has some significant strides to make, but if he’s able to make those strides and be as effective on offense this season in a larger sample size then he has an important role to play. There aren’t many guys with his combination of length and athleticism, so it behooves the Texas coaching staff to do everything in their power to nudge him along. I’m optimistic Liddell is going to take a leap this year, the question is how big it will be.
Kai Jones (6-11, Freshman)
I expect a lot of those who cover Texas Longhorns basketball are going to slot Kai Jones into the “next Jaxson Hayes” spot in their previews and it’s not entirely without reason. He’s incredibly long, very athletic, skinnier than a Highland Park soccer mom’s Starbucks latte, and raw as hell. That may be where Jones resides this year, and if so that’s a real bonus to the program. I don’t think he becomes that, the reviews I’ve heard of him are all over the map; half the people who have watched him think he’s got a straight line to the NBA, the other half think he never sniffs the next level. He’s going to prove *somebody* wrong this year, I just don’t yet know who. My guess is he plays some minutes - almost all of them as a wing - but doesn’t break out for at least a year.
Royce Hamm (6-8, Junior)
Coming into this offseason, I expected some attrition. I expected Elijah Mitrou-Long to move on and I expected Royce Hamm to move on. From an outsider’s point of view, the math seems pretty clear; Jericho Sims & Will Baker are going to be splitting time at the five. If Hamm is thinking in terms of minutes, it’s readily apparent there will be few available unless he makes a significant leap between his sophomore and junior years. Pair that with the lack of seniors in the frontcourt and the offseason after the second season usually being the last, best time for someone to transfer (unless they grad transfer) and it made sense that Hamm would seek greener pastures. Hamm decided to stay; I won’t pretend to know his motives for doing so. He’s really good friends with some of his teammates so maybe that’s it, maybe he loves Austin and wants to get his degree from Texas rather than a mid-major. There are a myriad of reasons Hamm could decide to stay on the Forty Acres, but whatever the reason, it’s an unexpected bit of depth that could pay off in a crucial moment. Frankly, he’s better than most teams’ 3rd or 4th big. Maybe he just spends the year getting more tattoos with Jase Febres, which is always an option.
Brock Cunningham (6-7, Redshirt Freshman)
Brock Cunningham spent last year working on strength and learning how to effectively cheer on his teammates from the Minister of Culture, so he should be D-I level in both those areas now. Whether he contributes much this year probably depends on how well he’s able to facilitate the offense and defense through things like rebounding and weakside defense. (This is my way of not calling him a glue guy or an intangibles guy, because I want my writing to be a half-step above ‘supremely lazy’.) Cunningham has a very high basketball IQ so he could be a guy who goes in for 5-8 minutes a game to provide an infusion of energy and effort. If he turns into a plus rebounder, he could help fill the gap left by Dylan Osetkowski. I know the coaches love him, I’m just not yet sure who loses minutes to give him more time.
I’ll get into how the minutes are distributed across the team in an upcoming piece. in an upcoming piece.