by Bradley Fernandez for Inside the Red Raiders
With such a deep roster bolstered by exciting new talent, some Red Raider veterans are being overlooked. Each has a chance of making an impact on this season; and as returners, they have experience within Chris Beard’s system.
Two of these players were buried on last year’s roster, leaving many to believe they will repeat so this season. The other two were absent last season, leaving fans with little familiarity.
While their impact could be minimized by the roster’s talent, the impact could be the difference maker in certain situations as some could have surprising seasons. It’s important to acknowledge Beard’s history of player development, making a breakout season realistic for these buried players.
The fan favorite from Arkansas grew his popularity last season as his minutes and impact increased. This was exemplified in Texas Tech’s upset win over Louisville when Benson executed some big plays vs the No. 1 ranked cardinals. His performance was highlighted by hustle plays, a style that’s remained since his redshirt freshman season.
The redshirt junior represents Beard and Mark Adams’ culture better than any of his teammates, giving full effort and putting his body on the line constantly while acting as an example-setter and leader for his team. This has earned Benson the trust of Beard, an accomplishment that’s worth bragging for, as seen by his scholarship offer last season after entering the program as a walk-on.
Hustle isn’t Benson’s only contribution, progressing in statistical areas as well. The lefty’s shooting percentages spiked from his first to second season, with a shooting split of 38.5/0/20 in 2018-19 and 46.3/39.1/88.9 last season while more than doubling his minutes per game. You read that right, Benson’s three-point percentage increased from 0% to 39.1% while his free throw percentage rose from 20% to nearly 90%. These percentages are resulted from few attempts per game, but a drastic shooting increase like the one he enjoyed last season certainly points to improvement. He also tamed himself offensively, lowering his turnover rate significantly.
What could prevent Benson from earning more minutes is his tendency to over-play his opponents defensively, leading to a high foul rate of 4.7 fouls per 40 minutes. The guard has the heart and desire to be a lockdown defender, he just needs to compose himself at times.
Competing for Big 12 rotational minutes will be difficult for Benson as his lack of skill will be overshadowed by the large dose of talent this roster holds. Still, expect him to commit some key plays that could change the momentum for the Red Raiders. It’s not a stretch to vision him as a three-and-d off-guard who cracks the rotation his senior year.
Imagine a more athletic, skilled Avery Benson that just needs some experience and tame. That player is Clarence Nadolny, whose first season resembled Benson’s first rodeo. Like Benson, Nadolny was aggressive and hungry, but to a fault. The Frenchman struggled to press on the breaks and calm himself. This led to Beard yanking him off the court after seeing little time.
After being considered as a dark horse to contend for a starting gig, the sophomore compiled a disappointing freshman campaign. Comparable to Benson, Nadolny shot the ball poorly (0% from three and 61.8% at the line), coughed up the ball too often (0.5 turnovers to 0.5 assists) and fouled at a high rate (6.4 fouls per 40 minutes).
The similarities between the two guards are there, but there’s a reason Nadolny was expected to contend for significant minutes last season. The ceiling is simply higher for him than Benson, being quicker and more athletic than his teammate. He also flashed solid basketball IQ in high school through tremendous playmaking.
The tools are there for him to be an elite stopper, with a muscular frame and quickness. Combine that with his desire, and it should be expected that Beard and his staff capitalize on Nadolny’s physical gifts.
Barring his playmaking abilities come to fruition, he should develop a niche offensively as a slasher and driver. He flashed an ability to create contact nearly every time he drove to the cup, highlighted by his high free throw rate of 9.4 attempts per 40 minutes. If he can fix his free throw shooting woes, Nadolny could become a dangerous finisher.
The ceiling remains high for Nadolny. It’s all about taming himself and capitalizing on his perks while improving his shot.
A leg injury kept Smith off the court last season, thus being pushed into the back of everyone’s mind. This has set him up for a potentially surprise season as he’s healthy and itching to play.
Of course, having skills and tools helps with having an impactful season, and Smith certainly has some to offer. As a crashing, hustling, high-jumping forward, the Louisiana prospect fits the mold of some previous Red Raiders who thrived under Beard. Smith’s athleticism, quickness and length at the four gives him the potential to be a matchup nightmare for opposing big men.
As a rebounder and high-energy defender, the redshirt freshman has the chance to crack the rotation on this talent-filled squad and contribute some key minutes. With a roster comprised of multiple offensive weapons, players like Smith can find minutes through off-ball contributions.
Adding range to his jumper could be the factor that takes the former Texas A&M commit from a role player to potential NBA prospect, an achievement that’s reachable considering Beard’s ability to develop explosive athletes such as Zhaire Smith and Tariq Owens.
If he tunes his skills and holds his competitive, electric style of play, Smith has the potential to become quite the weapon. Don’t be surprised if he squeezes his way into the rotation this season.
Unlike Smith, Ntambwe sat out last season due to ineligibility. The former Running Rebel eagerly awaited the NCAA’s decision on his waiver, and after multiple denials, he was unable to see the court.
As a freshman, Ntambwe received NBA looks following a solid season where he was third on the team in scoring, showing the ability of a modern, face-up NBA four with deep shooting range, terrific touch, and an ability to put the ball on the floor and create a shot. Having an extended offseason provided him more time to advance his game, making for some scary potential out of the Congo native.
Scoring the ball isn’t Ntambwe’s only ability. The former unranked recruit averaged 9.2 rebounds per 40 minutes, despite his slender frame. Having a lengthy wingspan certainly helps in that regard.
While his ceiling is high, Ntambwe needs to raise his floor. Outside of shooting and rebounding, he was ineffective in nearly every other aspect at UNLV. He only generated 0.9 steals and 0.6 blocks per 40 minutes while committing 4.3 fouls at the same rate, struggled with facilitating, averaging 1.2 turnovers to 0.6 assists, and was a poor finisher, shooting 42.4% on two-pointers.
With a sweet touch on his jumper and the length and quickness to be a reliable finisher and defender, Beard and his staff have a player with the potential of being a terror on the court.