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McDaniels, the new zone, and more questions before the season

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McDaniels 10-29

Freshman Jaden McDaniels reaches to dunk the ball during Washington's Oct. 22, 2019 practice. McDaniels was a top-10 recruit from Federal Way.

The Washington men’s basketball team will kick off its season on Thursday when it takes on Western Washington in an exhibition game. It will be the first time the Huskies have played at Alaska Airlines Arena since they were upset by Oregon at the end of last season

So as the Huskies enter this year of transition, here are five questions fans might find the answer to when Washington takes the court for the first time. 

How does Jaden McDaniels fit in?

This is probably the most important question in the mind of Husky fans. 

Washington has already played four games this season and one secret scrimmage against TCU with its revamped roster. Jaden McDaniels has played in none. 

When the Huskies left for their tour in Italy, their highly touted freshman stayed behind for personal reasons. While the Dawgs didn’t necessarily miss him, going 4-0 and decimating their competition, any success will likely be dictated by how quickly he can be integrated into the game plan. 

A 6-foot-9-inch phenom with guard-like ball skills and shooting ability, McDaniels was a top-10 prospect for a reason and will likely start. But there are some questions about where that will be. Junior Hameir Wright and freshman Isaiah Stewart look entrenched down low, and junior Nahziah Carter has played well in preseason at his normal small forward position.

McDaniels’ skill set makes him seem destined for the wing, so will head coach Mike Hopkins move Carter up and potentially sacrifice some of the junior’s explosive play around the rim? Or does he play McDaniels as more of a shooting guard and sacrifice his height? And that leads into the next question. 

What does this version of the 2-3 zone look like?  

Ever since Hopkins arrived at the UW, the 2-3 zone he brought with him from legendary Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has been a staple of the Huskies’ resurgence. Last season, on the way to his second-straight Pac-12 Coach of the Year award, Hopkins’ defense was second-best in the Pac-12, holding opponents to just 64.4 points per game. 

That was due in large part to Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Matisse Thybulle. But with him now gone to the NBA, there will be questions about whether the defense can be as effective. 

And it has to be asked who takes Thybulle’s place, specifically as part of the two in the 2-3 zone. McDaniels has the length, but does he have the anticipation that his predecessor did? Or will Hopkins turn to Carter, who has more experience in the system and played both as a guard or a forward in the zone last season?

Replacing Thybulle was always going to be difficult, but there is another player they need to replace that could be even more challenging. 

Who steps up as the sixth man?

After showing flashes of his ability as a freshman, Carter stepped into an expanded role last season as the sixth man, providing a burst of energy with his electric dunking skills and occasionally some shooting. 

And with Carter’s playing time looking set to go up again, the Huskies will need a new leader on the bench mob. There are several options. Sophomore Jamal Bey played sparingly as a freshman but did start, presumably in McDaniels place in Italy. He scored 13 points against the Series A Peak Warriors and showed an ability to create his own offense by driving the lane. 

Another player on the radar as a bench contributor would be redshirt freshman Nate Roberts, who was almost unanimously picked by his teammates and coaches as the most improved player over the offseason. And if the Huskies need to spread the floor, freshmen Marcus Tsohonis and Raequan Battle pose interesting options as well.

While all of the young players above have the potential to step into a contributing role, it remains unclear if any of them can have the same impact Carter did last year. 

What does the center rotation look like?

If there was anything fans can truly take away from the Italy tour, it’s that Stewart is going to be a problem. Similar to McDaniels, Stewart is a 6-foot-9-inch walking double-double, but the Rochester native has about 50 pounds on his fellow freshman. And while McDaniels has the skills to be a star on the wing, Stewart was built to do the dirty work in the post.  

As of now, Stewart could star and play in the middle. And the Huskies will want to keep him on the floor as long as possible, and while it seems like nothing will move him down low, one big question will be whether he can play with taller centers. Many college teams play with at least one seven-footer, and it’s unknown how Stewart will fare against a player with three or more inches on him. 

But the Huskies have a few giants of their own. Senior Sam Timmins was a starter for most of the 2017-18 season and played significantly last year too, though his time went down with the emergence of Wright. Redshirt freshman Bryan Penn-Johnson is also listed at seven feet, and after spending a year in the weight room, he might be ready to play significant minutes too.

In his preseason press conference this year, Hopkins stressed their length on the low block. And in Italy, he occasionally moved Stewart out to one of the forward spots to play with Timmins or Penn-Johnson. Fans will find out Thursday if that’s something that might continue into the future.

Where will the shooting come from?

Last season, the Huskies had five players shoot over 30% from three on more than 10 attempts. Of that group, only Carter, who was at just 31%, returns this season. 

With a team as dominant inside as the Huskies could potentially be, three-point shooting won’t make or break this iteration of Washington basketball. But it will make it even more deadly if they can find some contribution behind the arc. 

First of all, Carter needs to up his percentage, especially if he starts. McDaniels can also shoot from three, but didn’t need to much in high school. Wright shot just 24% on 58 attempts last year. Sophomore Elijah Hardy might be a decent shooter, and Bey has shown some three-point range too in a limited sample size. 

Battle and Tsohonis are advertised as sharpshooters too, but will only be freshmen. 

That leaves sophomore transfer Quade Green, from Kentucky. He shot 37% as a freshman in Lexington, and in the nine games he played before transferring to Washington, he was shooting the three-ball at a clip of 42%, more than enough to take advantage of kick-outs and keep defenses honest. 

Reach reporter Andy Yamashita at Twitter: @ANYamashita

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