The Pitt Panthers had a chance to keep recent frustrations simmering for days. Last Wednesday, the Panthers lost their first game of the season to unranked Long Beach State, 86-76. Six days later, they got a chance to redeem themselves, squeezing out a 73-69 win over LaSalle. It can’t have been pleasant to spend nearly a week reflecting on the mess of turnovers and illusory box-outs that resulted in defeat, especially to find some of the same problems resurfacing against LaSalle.
Of course, early season struggles do not make for a season derailed. There are issues to be addressed, but the Panthers have tons of talent and should be a fixture in the Top 25 all season. Nasir Robinson is back and out for blood. Sophomore Lamar Patterson seems ready for a gargantuan leap forward. Freshman Khem Birch is among the most talented newcomers in the Big East, and Ashton Gibbs has his eyes set on an All-American selection. But the most important Panther this season may be Tray Woodall.
Woodall is a 5-foot-11 junior who spent last season coming off the bench, leaving nary a trace of positive production. In 21.6 minutes per game, he shot 36.4% from the floor and 29.3% on three-pointers, and handed out 6.4 assists per 40 minutes while turning the ball over on 21.3% of his possessions. His performance had put him so far off the scouting radar that DraftExpress.com didn’t even have a profile of him available to start the season.
Last year, Gibbs was the Panther’s point guard in title only, with Brad Wanamaker responsible for much of the the ball-handling and offensive initiation. To begin this season Jamie Dixon relented in calling the kettle black, identifying Gibbs as an off-guard and moving Woodall into the departed Wanamaker’s slot as de facto point guard. Through four games he’s been a revelation. In 31.5 minutes per game, Woodall is shooting 62.5% from the floor and 58.3% on three pointers, while handing out 11.0 assists per 40 minutes and turning the ball over on 27.7% of his possessions. At this moment, he has the 15th highest PER in the nation, at 34.79. Other than the giveaways, it’s hard to find fault with his contributions thus far.
His statistics have certainly been inflated somewhat by the level of competition, but Woodall’s line is swelling like a balloon. The table below shows the percentage increase he’s seen in a handful of those numbers.
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That’s more than just hot air from beating up on mid-major opponents. Woodall is playing better because he’s made some improvements. You can start by looking at the much smoother outside stroke he’s showed off, connecting on 14 of 24 three-pointers so far this season. He’s also moving the ball much more effectively than ever before, with his assist percentage jumping from 28.5% to 50.0%. Having the ball in his hands more often is a factor, but that jump along with a corresponding bump in his turnover percentage reveals a more aggressive and assertive basketball player.
Woodall is not Chris Paul and won’t be regularly conjuring layups for his teammates with ankle-breaking ball-handling skills or unique vision. But he does have the ability to be a steady triggerman for the Pitt offense. His responsibilities this season really break down into three areas - minimizing turnovers, finding the open man and knocking down outside shots. So far he’s mastered two of three. The system does much of the heavy lifting in creating open shots, but Woodall has been consistent in delivering the ball to Robinson, Patterson and Gibbs on time and on target. When the ball is swung back to him he’s knocking down shots, open or not.
The last piece of the puzzle is concentrating on protecting possessions. His five turnovers against Long Beach State showed a healthy mix of inattention and over-reaching, a pattern that will need to be disrupted if the team is to be successful when conference play starts. More responsibility has meant more opportunities for bad decisions. A steady demeanor needs to wriggle it’s way onto the couch in between that assertiveness and aggressiveness.
Through its first four games, Pitt has outscored their opponents by 45 points with Woodall on the floor. With him on the bench, Pitt has been outscored by 10. Those numbers speak as much to the Panthers’ depth at point guard as they do to Woodall’s individual brilliance. Backup John Johnson is a true freshman and, although talented, doesn’t appear to have found his sea legs yet. Playing 36 minutes a night like Woodall did against LaSalle may prove to be more the rule than the exception. His importance to the team is not a function of his potential for dominance, but of the relative scarcity of his skill set. Woodall doesn’t have to be the 15th best player in the country for Pitt to have a special season, but that doesn’t make him any less valuable.
Woodall is like that utilitarian Lego piece; nothing overly ornate or exotically unique, just a regular old gray 2 x 4. But it’s the only one in your collection and without it the wings won’t attach at the right angle, which obviously leaves your spaceship with out any attack lasers. Trying to build a suitably stable and destructive spacecraft without that piece proves impossible. Next thing you know you’re hurling your creation at the wall, swearing off Legos forever. Then comes that long period of introspection when you begin to wonder howa thirty-year old man could allow himself to get so frustrated by something as trivial as a college basketball team, er. . . I mean Legos.