Brice Sensabaugh's Emergence For Ohio State | The Morning Dunk
Now fully in the conversation as one of the Big Ten's top prospects, Brice Sensabaugh is proving to be one of the best scoring prospects in the 2023 NBA Draft.
Wings with elite touch rarely fail in the NBA.
That one sentence defines Ohio State freshman Brice Sensabaugh, one of college basketball’s most effective scorers over the last few weeks.
Not only has he become a household name across the country, but Sensabaugh is also rapidly rising up draft boards after being under-discussed preseason.
Now that was to be expected, as the “highly touted freshmen” generally rank inside the RSCI Top 25, not outside of it. Sensabaugh just snuck into the Top 50 at 49, much further off from better-known prospects like Dariq Whitehead, Dereck Lively, Nick Smith Jr., and Cam Whitmore, among plenty of others. Granted, Sensabaugh isn’t a complete unknown; he was a 25.1 PPG scorer for Lakeland High Prep, which led to him winning Gatorade’s Player of the Year award in Florida during his senior campaign. But clearly, enough stock wasn’t put into just what he could become as a dynamic offensive talent.
Each season, there are always a handful of freshmen who prove they’re worthy of more attention than what they received during recruiting periods. This year, Sensabaugh stands with other hot commodities like Jett Howard and Taylor Hendricks, players who seem equipped to handle the rigorous jump to the NBA based on a combination of size, strength, and shooting ability.
And while those other two names have gotten off to great starts of their own, with Howard holding the most value right now as a lottery target, it’s Sensabaugh who has really caught my attention because of how he’s burst onto the scene as a forward capable of carrying a team in a great conference to legitimate heights and ultimately into the NCAA Tournament.
That’s not to say the Buckeyes don’t have the juice. Experienced forwards Justice Sueing and Zed Key have help from not only Sensabaugh but also Bruce Thornton and Sean McNeil. There’s real talent on the floor for Ohio State night in and night out, but none of them possess the same level of upside that Sensabaugh does as a 6’6” do-it-all scorer.
I got to see Sensabaugh up close and personal at Madison Square Garden against North Carolina, a team that possesses real size up front in Armando Bacot and Pete Nance but also arguably the best wing defender in college basketball in Leaky Black. None of that opposition kept Sensabaugh from establishing himself as a number one option that afternoon.
Even though the Buckeyes couldn’t secure the overtime win, Sensabaugh finished with 22 points on 9-for-17 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and three assists. He hit 2-of-6 threes, but he was incredibly efficient inside the arc, getting to his spots around the free-throw line for pull-up jumpers he’s become so accustomed to knocking down with ease.
Sensabaugh’s balance to stop and pop on a dime is what intrigues scouts the most in terms of his shooting projection. He can knock down open spot-up threes, and he has even connected on some looks from distance off the bounce. But his mid-range arsenal gives him the type of touch and scoring package NBA teams covet from its top scoring options.
The mid-range game is far from dead in the NBA. While the game is about spacing and pace at its core, the top scorers in the league take advantage of that space by getting to the paint or elbow extended areas and picking apart defenders one-on-one for pull-up looks that are among some of the toughest shots to guard if set up correctly. Sensabaugh’s high school tape had examples of these shots in spades, and now he’s started to find his groove for Ohio State as well.
While Sensabaugh didn’t get off to the greatest of starts on the year, he quickly turned that narrative around in the Maui Invitational, dropping 44 points in three games San Diego State, Cincinnati, and Texas Tech. All three teams may not be of the same caliber as Houston, Arizona, etc., but they’re experienced groups that make their wins off defense and toughness.
Despite going up against older guards and wings capable of pushing Sensabaugh off his spots and forcing him to adjust on the fly, he still shot 14-of-25 from the floor, which included 7-of-12 from distance.
Fast forward to recently, and after a pedestrian performance against Duke at Cameron Indoor where he was in foul trouble all night, Sensabaugh is back to putting up outings similar to what he did in Hawaii.
Over Ohio State’s last four, Sensabaugh is averaging 14.8 PPG on 52% shooting from the field, which includes 52% from three-point range.
All of these performances I’ve outlined have led to Sensabaugh’s commanding efficiency that’s rarely been seen from a wing like him to this point in a first college season, let alone at all.
Sensabaugh’s shot profile is as diverse as they come, ranking in the 91st percentile on all field goal attempts as well as in the 96th percentile on jumpers, 94th on dribble jump shots, and 84th or above on isolations, spot-ups, and post-ups per Synergy Sports. While I’m disappointed in some of his numbers at the basket and getting to the line (more on that later), Sensabaugh has been near automatic from 10 feet and out for the Buckeyes.
These numbers come back to my original sentence to start the column: guys with his size and elite touch DO NOT FAIL in the NBA!
But if you still remain unconvinced, I’ll throw out another statistical query before I start breaking down more of just who Sensabaugh is as a player.
Everyone loves to look up BartTorvik stat references, so I did the same for Sensabaugh to see if there were other wings who could match the same levels of offensive efficiency over the last few drafts. Going back to 2017, there are two wings/stretch forwards who match on a search with a FG% of 51%, a BPM of 11.5, an offensive rating of 125, and a 3PT% of 40%: Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson.
Both are really interesting comparisons for different reasons. In Johnson’s case, he was drafted in the lottery despite heavy amounts of criticism due to “limited upside” as an older forward who lacked defensive acumen and ball skills. Even though he was a lights-out shooter in his final season at North Carolina who also stood 6’9”, the public critique went against drafting a player thought of as a pure shooter that high in the draft when other possible star gambles could’ve been made.
Now, Johnson is set to command a new contract that could pay him upwards of $75-80 million over four years, as he’s improved as a team defender, provides value on the boards, and has shown a little more off the bounce and passing off a live dribble—all while having the ability to shoot better than 40% from deep.
Bridges, on the other hand, was viewed much more highly in his draft class and was taken with the 10th overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers before being flipped on draft night to the Phoenix Suns (the team that also drafted Johnson, interestingly enough). Bridges WAS given the more lucrative contract extension because of his improvements as a mid-range shotmaker off the bounce to go along with quick decision-making AND NBA All-Defense upside.
Sensabaugh’s potential falls in between both players, which is a pretty safe camp to be in for someone who came into the season outside of upper half of the first round consideration.
Offensively, I’ve already outlined his perimeter touch, which stands in a ranking of its own given the variety of shots he can hit. Sensabaugh can come off screens, fade out of the post, face up his man, or catch and shoot from distance, all at a high level. Shooting versatility is important for wings because not every player has the freedom within an NBA offense to dribble the air out of the ball while looking for the perfect timing to rise and fire over their defender.
Sensabaugh doesn’t have to dance with the rock to be effective on offense. Have Sensabaugh operate a dribble hand-off with a guard or screen at the top and catch off the short roll. Let him play in the post, flip, and re-establish position on the interior to box out and grab an offensive board for an easy score around the basket. It’s not just the on-ball equity as a pull-up jump shooter that has evaluators like me excited about his long-term upside. The fact he can play alongside other high-usage offensive talents while still providing plenty of spacing and value of his own is incredibly enticing.
Here’s where his offensive case gets really interesting, however. Yes, he has value away from the hoop, but given his build (235 pounds of man strength), Sensabaugh still can get better as a finisher off drives to the basket. Sensabaugh is more than capable of absorbing contact and getting to the line; now, it’s a matter of him doing so more often. Going back to high school, Sensabaugh has always sat around near 80% from the foul line, but even this year, he’s only getting to the charity stripe just over three times.
That number needs to change to unlock more of his potential as a primary or secondary option, especially at the next level. Sensabaugh doesn’t possess one of the quicker footsteps in the class, but he’s good at choosing WHEN to take that step to catch his defender off guard. All he needs is that initial bit of space or contact because he can bump guys off of him and keep them behind him, given his size and strength.
This form of space creation isn’t conventional because it’s not done by dribble craft and speed but rather through body control and will. That type of craft can serve Sensabaugh well, and he has just enough wiggle when he gets to that next layer of the defense to pull up or get to the rack for a deuce. All of this sets up the “three-level scorer” label I firmly believe Sensabaugh possesses as we get closer to the draft.
Now despite the tantalizing scoring package Sensabaugh possesses, there are two main drawbacks that he’ll need to figure out how to improve in order to fully command lottery attention.
The first would be his passing, and there is good news to report on that front. Against Maine on December 21st, Sensabaugh piled up SEVEN (!!) assists to just ONE turnover. Considering he’s had five games with no assists, and his prior high on the year was three, that’s a massive jump in one contest. And while the definition of that performance is a small sample size, it’s still worth dissecting to see just what he can take away from the tape and put into practice during conference play in the Big Ten.
The biggest thing that stands out to me in this game was that Sensabaugh shut off some of the tunnel vision, made it an emphasis to get in the paint, and then used the attention from the defense that wanted to double him to get that ball where it needed to go for the easy score.
Because Sensabaugh can score one-on-one through an individual defender around the basket, as well as stop and pop with two feet in the paint, it sets up defenses to collapse in and try to force the ball out of his hands on a double. In the examples above, Sensabaugh turned that into a strength and found guys on the move, and he even got some high-low action going between him and Key off the catch.
My favorite dime was when he drove, turned his back to the basket, and found a cutting man off the post-up. Being able to draw doubles on the block and find the right man for the score is an incredibly useful skill no matter what level of basketball, as Sensabaugh should also be able to take mismatches into the post in the NBA, albeit at a lower volume than in college.
In games I’ve seen of Sensabaugh prior, he hasn’t used his threat to score in the same way. His determination to get the bucket himself hasn’t necessarily led to poor shots on his part, because he’s a very capable scorer in one-on-one situations, but it has led to missed opportunities to get even better looks for his teammates. Carrying that vision over to the pick-and-roll game, and figuring out how to better use screens up top to generate offense, is one area in particular that needs to come along for him on top of enhancing his passing vision.
Along with emphasizing a balance in playmaking, Sensabaugh’s defensive efforts have also come into question early on at Ohio State. Seeing him in person, I actually thought he was able to hold his own defending on the ball in certain situations. He’s able to body up his man and wall off drives, leading to contested jump shots off the bounce. And when he’s near the basket, Sensabaugh is great at boxing out his man and securing defensive rebounds. In any situation where it’s one man for Sensabaugh to help on or guard, he’s capable enough to at least hold his own despite not having excellent foot speed or lateral mobility.
BUT where those things come back to bite him is when he has to cover ground and rotate/help cover multiple positions on the perimeter. There were a number of breakdowns against North Carolina where Sensabaugh lost track of the ball and couldn’t keep up in calling out switches and recognizing when/where he needed to rotate and contest. In space, Sensabaugh looked a little lost and wasn’t communicating like I’ve seen him do so on the offensive end. Those lapses put him in a bit of a bind as a defender on the wing, something that opposing teams can look to exploit at the next level.
Having to hide a matchup on defense is never a fun task for a coach to incorporate in the NBA. But there are still ways to scheme around his deficiencies and put Sensabaugh in position to focus on covering one man/area on the floor and rebounding for the good of the team. Figuring out how to defend within a team construct is a top priority for Sensabaugh after college, and I’m confident he will get to a point where it isn’t tanking a lineup on that end.
That’s where I come back to Sensabaugh being a unique in-between of Johnson and Bridges. He’ll never have the defensive talent of Bridges, as he isn’t freakishly long and instinctual. But he does have similar on-ball ability to make decisions on the move and hit tough shots off the bounce while also being able to get to the line and create opportunities to score from all three levels. Just like Johnson, Sensabaugh’s spot-up prowess has been on full display this season for the Buckeyes, and I would expect that trend to continue.
All in all, if I were to re-do my big board today in comparison to when I assembled my last edition for the Draft Deeper exercises conducted on the No Ceilings podcast feed over the last week, I’d have Sensabaugh much higher than I did.
There’s little keeping me from moving Sensabaugh close to lottery range if not firmly inside of it. I still want to see more from the two areas of concern I outlined, but I also love guys who provide shooting/scoring versatility and rebounding ability/technique on the wing.
Keep an eye on this young man as we get through January and February, as he’s one name who is looking to continue rising if others ahead of him fail to live up to expectations as this season rolls on.
Games To Watch This Week
Wednesday 12/28, 5pm EST: Ole Miss vs. Tennessee - Sleeper prospect Matthew Murrell gets his crack against one of the SEC’s top defensive units in Tennessee. The Volunteers rely more on depth and experience, but freshman Julian Phillips has had us at No Ceilings intrigued all year long, making this one a worthy watch.
Wednesday 12/28, 6:30pm EST: UConn vs. Villanova - With arguably the best team in college basketball against the best prospect in college by our composite big board, this game has the goods. Cam Whitmore is as physical a force as you’ll find outside of the NBA, and he’ll have his work cut out for him against the defensive frontline of Adama Sanogo and Andre Jackson. Jordan Hawkins has fans in the draft community as a shooter. Also, don’t sleep on freshmen Donovan Clingan and Alex Karaban, the latter deserving of more draft buzz as a 6’8” stretch forward.
Wednesday 12/28, 7pm EST: Auburn vs. Florida - Another SEC showdown pits the defensive-minded Florida Gators against an Auburn squad that can play some post defense of its own. Johni Broome, one of the hottest names in the transfer portal, hasn’t commanded the type of attention one would’ve expected in draft circles despite being one of the most productive big men in the country on both ends. Alex Fudge and Will Richard are the main names to watch for the Gators. Underrated prospect to still monitor despite limited minutes and statistical output: Yohan Traore for the Tigers.
Friday 12/30, 2pm EST: Notre Dame vs. Miami - Isaiah Wong has continued his brilliance at the guard spot for the Miami Hurricanes this year, as his shooting has remained effective while also taking a few steps forward as a playmaker. He’s had some help from Nijel Pack and Norchad Omier, and he will look to defend home court against a tough Notre Dame squad led by freshman prospect JJ Starling.
Friday 12/30, 7pm EST: South Carolina vs. Eastern Michigan - One of the best prospect matchups of the week: GG Jackson against Emoni Bates. Both are combo forwards who love to score from the perimeter and should end up dueling all night long for quite the back-and-forth game. I’d look for the advantage to possibly end up falling in favor of Eastern Michigan, however, with not only home court but also an X-factor in Noah Farrakhan.
Saturday 12/31, 2pm EST: Houston vs. UCF - A must-watch for scouts and talent evaluators, as Jarace Walker faces off against a rapid board riser in Taylor Hendricks. Both forwards have been lauded for their defensive versatility, but when Hendricks has it going he can shoot the cover off the ball. Even though the advantage falls squarely with Houston due to the explosive backcourt of Marcus Sasser, Jamal Shead, and Tramon Mark, I’ll be watching how Walker continues to mesh with the scorers around him and fill the gaps as one of the best glue guys in the country.
Saturday 12/31, 5pm EST: Gonzaga vs. Pepperdine - While Pepperdine hasn’t been a good team by record, particularly on defense, they still have an explosive shooting attack courtesy of Max Lewis and Houston Mallette. That tandem will have their hands full against Gonzaga and Drew Timme. Nolan Hickman, Julian Strawther, Rasir Bolton, and Hunter Sallis give the Bulldogs firepower of their own from the perimeter to complement Mr. Footwork down low.
Saturday 12/31, 8pm EST: Oregon vs. Oregon State - This matchup is a real test for Oregon State, who has already had a much improved season when compared to last year. Jordan Pope and the perimeter-oriented Beavers have to find ways to stay hot and remain aggressive against the mammoth frontcourt of the Ducks, led by Kel’el Ware and N’Faly Dante.