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Connor Essegian Gives 'Em the Cheese
Wisconsin guard Connor Essegian is one of the most dangerous shooters in college basketball. Corey Tulaba breaks down why the marksman may be in for a breakout sophomore campaign.
Shooters rock. The NBA game is about a bucket and three points are worth more than two. The math nerds figured this out at some point over the last ten or so years and the game has never been the same. No matter how many rallying cries of “Viva la resistance” the old guard utters in hopes of a renaissance of post-ups and bad spacing, the revolution persists as we watch 7’5” aliens let fly stutter rip threes.
Connor Essegian is not an evolutionary basketball alien, but he is one of the most intriguing shooting prospects in college basketball nonetheless.
The High Stinky Cheddar
Essegian is a funky hooper who can straight-up shoot the shit out of the ball. We’re not talking stand-in-the-corner, uncontested jumpers here either. We’re talking the bad crap. That hand in your grill, off movement, fall away type shit.
Essegian is the kind of sniper that opposing defenses have to game plan for. His movement creates chaos for defenses as they have to worry about him flying off screens and pindowns, shooting through elevators, popping off Spain, zooming around hand-offs, and sprinting to spots in transition.
He’ll use crafty changes of speed and direction to lull whoever is chasing him around to sleep and then BOOM, Essegian is loose and the shot is in the air before you can get a clean contest.
Essegian provides crucial gravity and unpredictability to an offense that makes him valuable even when he doesn’t have it going.
What intrigues me about Essegian as a returning prospect goes beyond his ability to serve as an off-ball spacer. Essegian has the potential (and the key word here is potential) to be a guy who you can give the rock and let create a little bit. This is kind of an eye test vs. stats thing for me because this was by the numbers, the main area that brought his efficiency down.
Essegian is more shot maker than shooter off-the-dribble at the moment, but I’m trusting my eyes and buying into the off-the-bounce shooting becoming more consistent during his sophomore campaign.
Essegian is comfortable using a stepback to create space and he’s confident taking tough shots over contests.
The craft in which Essegian approaches ball screens leads me to believe that he has some three-level scoring potential. Essegian plays with poise and pace and is great at coming off a screen and efficiently getting to his spot at the second level. He takes smart angles, will get into the body of the defender, and will step back or side-step his way to the elbows to punish drop bigs.
Essegian’s ability to get to the second level and get his own shot off in the pick-and-roll is something he should be leveraging more as it opens up looks for his teammates. Essegian was by all accounts a play finisher last year—his role was to put the round orange thing in the other round orange thing. But the off-season is about development and expanding your game, so if we’re going to put an Essegian leap on the table and insert him into the draft discourse, he’ll need to show that he can leverage the threat of his scoring to consistently open up easy offense for his teammates.
After averaging less than one assist per game as a freshman, it’s fair to question whether or not it’s on the table for Essegian to function as any kind of playmaking fulcrum. If Essegian is coming out this year, it kinda has to be because NBA teams aren’t typically looking for undersized one-dimensional shooters who are bound to get targeted on defense. Again, I’m going to have to trust my eyes over his measly 6.1 AST%, because I kinda sorta think that he has some passing juice or at least instincts. I don’t think Essegian has to come out the gate doing his best Utah State Sam Merrill impression, but if he can consistently leverage the threat of his scoring to open up opportunities for his teammates, it’ll add a necessary dimension to his game.
This possession is a great example of what I’d like to see from Essegian more consistently. If Essegian is knocking down those mid-range jumpers with more consistency then he’ll start seeing bigs show higher and step up earlier. This is an easy drop-off on the roll, but one that is going to be there for him often. But the thing that intrigues me about this possession, as basic as it may be, is that it has a good amount of polish to it. From stepping up to the screen and kicking that left leg over and in front to keep his defender behind him, to his pace and patience in making the big commit, while staying poised knowing his man is trailing and he’s drawn two. There’s good ball placement. It’s just a solid pick-and-roll possession.
It’s not easily quantifiable but it just seems like Essegian has good feel when he’s making passes that lead to scoring opportunities. We know teams don’t want to leave him open behind the three-point line, and we know that he creates chaos with his off-ball movement, so even when he isn’t running ball screens he’s going to create passing opportunities for himself as the defense gets scrambled chasing him around.
As Essegian shoots off the screen, Mulchay gets pinned and calls for a switch so Essegian doesn’t get an open three. Omoruyi has to jump out to contest quickly and overcommits, allowing Essegian to get inside the three-point line. Essegian does a great job using a retreat dribble to avoid the Palmquist dig, and then places a perfect ball to the roller high and outside so that the tagger can’t get his hands on the ball or contest the layup. It’s just a slick read that I think Essegian is capable of making consistently.
I think that there is a playmaking base to build upon. Even if the playmaking becomes more of a connective skill rather than a high-usage on-ball skill we just need to see that it’s on an upward trajectory. Desmond Bane is a great example of a prospect who honed his passing skills as his role expanded each year that he was at TCU and is someone that Essegian should be watching a ton of film on.
Earlier, I referred to Essegian as a potential three-level scorer. Despite his very real athletic limitations (three dunks and one block as a frosh), Essegian finished at a positive level for a ground-bound freshman, converting 56.7% of his overall attempts at the rim. Per Synergy, that number stayed roughly the same in the halfcourt at 56.1% due to the fact that that’s where the vast majority of his at-rim attempts come from. If you take a look at some NBA guys with comparable measurables in their last college season, Essegian’s freshman finishing numbers become even more encouraging:
Essegian is comfortable finishing at the rim because he creates so many advantages by moving around the court like a lunatic. This possession illustrates the challenge of guarding Essegian. Essegian flys off the first screen hard trying to get loose for a jumper but he keeps his momentum moving towards the hand-off as he doesn’t receive the ball for the shot. When Essegian doesn’t then receive the hand-off, he fills the lane and then loops right back around, creating separation from a trailing Thorton, before receiving the rock, hop-stepping into the paint, and showing his touch with the up-and-under jelly finish.
Essegian is a savant at baiting his defender into thinking he’s going to come off a screen for a jumper before curling his way to the rim. He’ll use changes of speed and sharp changes of direction to get a step on the defense and create paint touches. And despite his athletic shortcomings, Essegian will finish with a defender on his hip by using nifty footwork or getting into his defender’s body to push off and create a little extra room on the drive.
Essegian isn’t a guy who is going to get to the rim at volume in iso situations, nor does he pressure the rim a ton out of ball screens. He will go to a reliable floater (52.2% on 23 attempts) in the in-between as a means to keep bigs guessing near the rim, but even with all craft in getting to the rim, it’s fair to have concerns about how he’ll ultimately finish against NBA length, better known as the Killian Hayes Paradox.
Okay, it’s time to talk about the defense, folks. I have some concerns. I’m not going to lie—it was not pretty last year. This is really where the lack of strength and athleticism comes into play with Essegian. The strength is specifically where he’s going to really have to improve to hold up at the NBA level. Essegian has to get strong enough to take it in the chest and hold his ground when offensive players go at him. He too easily gets bumped off his spot and gives the offensive player the space or lane he needs. Right now he lets the offensive player dictate the possession without impeding progress towards the rim. When the game becomes a chess match and NBA teams start to pick on the weakest link on the floor, Essegian will have to prove he isn’t an easy two. It’s going to be an uphill battle, but if Essegian’s offense comes together in a real way it may be enough to quell any defensive concerns teams have.
Essegian is a talented prospect who is competitive as hell and brings a lot to the table offensively. There’s a clear path for him to contribute on that end as a versatile scorer with a strong base of tools to build off his underrated offensive freshman season. The ability to get long range shots up at volume whilst also finishing at the rim is a rare combination for freshmen guards.
Essegian is a real deal shooter and there is a real opportunity for him to pop off in the 2024 cycle if he brings new elements to his offensive game while showing that he’s ready to handle physicality on the defensive end more consistently. He hasn’t gotten a ton of run early on in the new college season to show that growth, as he has been dealing with a day-to-day back injury, but when he’s healthy the opportunity is going to be there for the taking. The modern NBA is about a bucket and there’s always going to be interest in guys like Essegian who throw that high, stinky, Limburger.
X’s & Ohhh’s
I’m going to introduce a new segment that I’m calling X’s and Ohhh’s, where I break down my favorite set I watched while scouting the player du jour. This set is really simple but I love how many options the Badgers get out of it due to Essegian’s off-ball movement.
The goal is simple—get Essegian the ball with momentum so has options and counters to read, react, and attack. Once the first pass goes to the four on the weak side, Essegian is going to lift from the corner to come off a hand-off or pitch and make his decision based on how the defense decides to guard it. Michigan State decides to go under and give up the three? Essegian gets a wide-open look and makes them pay.
Most teams are not going to go under the Essegian hand-off, instead opting to trail with the intention of forcing him to finish inside. That is what happens on this possession against Minnesota. Now, there is a ton of space at the rim for Essegian to hop-step into here, which is due to the big lifting and clearing out to the top of the key, bringing any lingering rim deterrents with him.
Finally, we’ll see how Essegian can use this set to open up easy buckets for his teammates. South Dakota is going to trail the hand-off and let their forward step up to cut off Essegian’s driving lane. Wisconsin again has their big lift to the top of the key to pull the rim protection away from the hoop as the guards simultaneously exchange on the weak side. This exchange is crucial. As Essegian makes the pocket pass to the roller, the now weak-side low man is going to be a step late and out of position having paid attention to the exchange, which leads to a big-time dunk.
Again, this set is super simple, but it’s so effective when you have a guy with Essegian’s shooting gravity and ability to move off the ball, paired with a team that makes quick decisions. This is the type of action that you could envision Essegian thriving in with all of the NBA’s DHO bigs and floor spacers.
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