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Marcus Sasser: Point Guard Master
Houston's star guard is running it back with a loaded team.
If you haven’t noticed, Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson have had some decent coverage over the past few weeks. The world bore witness to one of the best prospects matchups that have ever taken place between the Ignite and Metropolitans 92, and we were not disappointed. These young phenoms have nothing but more games ahead of them, but many in the basketball community have them penned in as the top two picks in this year’s draft class. Since we have arrived at that conclusion, we can move on to evaluate the rest of the class. The world will be watching how those two gladiators will be performing throughout the rest of the year—as we at No Ceilings will be—but we will be looking to evaluate the rest of the outstanding depth this class has to offer.
Beyond Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson, there is still plenty to get excited about in terms of NBA-level talent, and the talent is coming from all sorts of pockets within this pool. We’ve seen international and G-League. There’s talent in the OTE. Freshmen in the NCAA. Sophomores. Juniors. Then there are some outstanding seniors that are looking to make their debut within the NBA. At the top of those seniors is returning Houston guard, Marcus Sasser.
The Houston Cougars boast a roster that many believe could result in head coach Kelvin Sampson winning his first title with the team. Jamal Shead and Tramon Mark join Sasser as top returning players on this team from last season—along with Reggie Chaney, J’Wan Roberts, and Ramon Walker Jr.—all coming back as players that logged significant minutes. Freshmen Jarace Walker and Terrance Arceneaux are coming in as top-tier recruits—something Coach Sampson hasn’t relied upon as a cornerstone for his success as of now. Coach Sampson has put his team in a position to make a ton of noise, with Marcus Sasser leading the charge after a summer that looked like he could have gone pro.
Sasser was only able to compete in 12 games last year after suffering a toe injury in late December. In those 12 games, he averaged 17.7 Points Per Game (PPG), 2.8 Rebounds Per Game (RPG), 2.6 Assists Per Game (APG), and 2.2 Steals Per Game (SPG). As impresses as those averages are, he also had shooting splits of 43.7% from the floor, 43.6% from deep (on 8.6 Attempts-Per-Game), and 74.4% from the free-throw line. During the summer, Sasser was invited to the G League Elite Camp in Chicago, Illinois. Of the 44 players that received an invite to the camp, Marcus Sasser was among the handful that had made the most of their opportunity. Many would argue he was the top performer for the entirety of the event.
Adding a top performer like Marcus Sasser makes Houston the threat in terms of contention that they look to be. The numbers are great. The accolades are great, but let’s take a look at some of the specific areas of his game that make him an NBA guard.
Initiating the Offense
While it isn’t necessarily the point guard’s role to be the one to run the offense in basketball anymore, it is a luxury to have a player that can perform in that role and at that position—especially in college. Coach Sampson has a legitimate coach on the floor every time Sasser suits up. For a guard of his stature (listed at 6’2” and 195 pounds on Houston’s website), it is essential that Sasser can attack the defense in a variety of ways. Whether it be running the pick-and-roll (PnR) or in isolation, Sasser is a top-tier threat as soon as the ball touches his hands.
According to our friends over at InStat, Marcus Sasser played 23.6% of his possessions out of PnR sets, averaging 0.98 Points Per Team’s Possession while in this play type. Those are some of the numbers, but perhaps you aren’t a “stat nerd” type. That’s okay; I get that it isn’t for everyone, but the film is something special. Let’s dive in.
Here we see Sasser’s ability to get his teammates involved. I wanted to begin here because there may be some that evaluate a player that profiles as a point guard and not love the assist numbers Sasser put up in his abbreviated season last year. While it may be tempting to expect 5+ APG from every point guard, not every player has the same role. Not every player has the same level of talent around them. What I would implore folks with this sort of prerequisite from a player at the “1” to do is evaluate the vision. Not just the numbers.
We have tangible evidence throughout Sasser’s amateur career that he has very good vision, but the above clip shows several reads in mere moments. Josh Carlton steps up to screen for Sasser on the left wing. Sasser’s shooting gravity (more on that later) presents such a valuable threat in these sets. At approximately four seconds into this play, you can see Rice has three players form an Anti-Giannis-esque wall at the free-throw line. Sasser’s first read—his shot—is neutralized thanks to the wall of Owls. Marcus checks to see if Carlton has the positioning to accept a lead pass. Nope. Sasser then looks to find his backcourt mate, Jamal Shead, open on the left wing. Sasser simply looking in Shead’s direction puts Quincy Olivari (#4) in a tough spot. He’s already shaded down to help on Carlton, but his assignment (Shead) is wide open. Olivari sprints to prevent what’s sure to be three points. Carlton, Houston’s 6’11” big, is now ready to receive the rock against Rice’s 6’3” 200-pound guard Jake Lieppert. Marcus sees the mismatch and feeds the Big. Easy bucket. Sasser’s ability to break the wall down—shoutout Chris Jericho—takes away Rice’s defense plan moving forward. They now know his vision is a viable threat, which means he’ll now get to the shots that he wants.
In this clip, we see Sasser looking to take advantage of Wisconsin’s PnR defense. Notice how returning guard Chucky Hepburn steps out due to the gravity that Marcus has. There is tremendous respect from Hepburn to the threat of a quick release. Hepburn meets him at the top of the key and does a good job of getting over the top of the attempted screen by Fabian White Jr. Chucky realizes the drive to Marcus’ left and stays on his hip all the way down to the block. Here’s where Sasser’s experience kicks in. Because he is a threat to let a floater go on his drives, Hepburn sells out on Sasser’s up-fake. The freshman is caught in a precarious spot as his momentum takes him out of position—leaving Marcus with the opportunity to simply wait, gather the ball, and bank it in.
Sasser stands out in a variety of ways as a shooter, but the fact that you simply cannot go under a screen when playing against him makes him incredibly valuable to an NBA rotation. We saw Chucky Hepburn pay tremendous respect to Sasser’s shot in the previous play. This play highlights why. Tramon Mark—a player that’ll be playing with Marcus again this year—brings the ball up the floor and sets Sasser up with the ball on the right wing. Look at the play at about four seconds in—another wall along the free-throw line. Fabian White Jr. is involved as the screener again, but at the top of the key with Sasser moving to his left. Hepburn attempts to go under the screen, but White Jr.’s man, Steven Crowl, stays home on the line. A big mistake that costs the Badgers three easy points.
While being able to create out of PnR sets is great, it is far from being the only way that Sasser can find ways to get his own buckets. This is particularly important when considering drafting a guard that is under 6’4” in today’s NBA. Hoping to get the big, or a slower-footed forward, to switch onto a guard isn’t always going to work against the more sophisticated defensive schemes in the NBA. If the play breaks down, or there is only a few seconds left on the clock, your guard must find ways to get buckets. Marcus has the handle, shiftiness, strength, and range to be able to do just that.
Now-Boston Celtic JD Davison draws the task of defending Sasser on this possession. Marcus has him isolated at the top of the key, going into his dribble breakdown—looking for some indication of bad footing. Sasser looks as if his lead hand on the drive will be toward his left based on his initial dribble combo. A hard cross to his right, followed by a strong burst toward the rim has JD scrambling to prevent the drive. Sasser has him right where he wants him. As Davison is sprinting to stop Sasser’s pursuit of the paint, Marcus stops on a dime while crossing back to his left, squares up, and rises for the middy. There is no way that JD can recover to seriously affect Sasser’s “J” here. It’s automatic.
In the same game, under a minute with 12 seconds left on the clock, Jaden Shackelford is charged with stopping our guy. Check out how far Sasser is from the three-point line, and where Shackelford gets into position to meet him. It’s the ultimate respect for Sasser’s range. PnR partner Fabian White Jr. offers to set a screen, but Sasser waves him off. Already a strong display of onions. Shackelford then tags Sasser—who hasn’t even moved yet. With ten seconds left, manipulates his way around Jaden’s left side. By the use of disciplined body positioning, Marcus freed himself up to make one dribble to his right before a hard cross to his left. If you pause the video at about four seconds, you’ll notice just how much room Sasser creates for himself with just two dribbles. At NBA range, Marcus now has all the room required (which isn’t much) for him to get into his natural shooting motion and convert the clutch three. Again, major onions on this possession.
Shot off Catch
One of the most successful player types (in terms of volume) that typically translates to the next level is floor spacing guards. The NBA is full of jumbo creators that generate such ridiculous mismatches regardless of opponent. The easiest way to compliment these jumbo creators is to give them the maximum amount of real estate while providing them with reliable shooters for them to kick out the ball to as the defense collapses. If all else fails for Sasser, he will be able to fill out this role nicely.
Northwestern State is in a zone here. Sure, the NBA isn’t full of zones but what I want you to pay attention to is Sasser’s ability to find an opening. Focusing on what I previously stated, NBA jumbo creators will make the defense move in uncomfortable ways. That will leave holes on the floor for Marcus to plug himself into. Jamal Shead is initiating the offense here and gets Sasser the ball quickly. Marcus kicks the ball right back out to keep the defense moving. As the action is happening away from Sasser, Reggie Chaney is coming to screen for Shead at about five seconds into the clip. Jamal drives right at the defense while Sasser is open on the right wing. Northwestern State’s big, Robert Chougkaz, is forced to step out on the driving Shead while the defense has to remain cognizant of Chaney rolling to the rim. Sasser sees all of this happening. He slides in rhythm with Shead to the right corner for the open Three. Splash!
This play translates to playing alongside with another initiator, especially one with a physical advantage. Players like Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, etc. all have such gravity on their drives that it presents more spaces on the floor for others to be open. They just have to find those spots and be ready as soon as the ball touches their hands. While shooting off big playmakers is good, what about playmaking bigs?
Far be it for me to suggest that Fabian White Jr. is a playmaking big. Despite how much I loved him coming out of the draft, that’s just not his role. Much like the previous clip, this clip serves, more so, as an indication of how Sasser translates to other NBA players. It’s more about where the play is coming from, not who. Shead gets the ball to Fabian White Jr. quickly with an entry pass here. Oklahoma State’s Donovan Williams (#4), unfortunately, has to switch onto Fabian after a screen set by Jamal Shead. Williams is at a disadvantage, which leaves Tyreek Smith (#23) and Avery Anderson (#0) feeling as if their teammate needs some assistance. Fabian now has multiple passing windows to look at now. As soon as he recognizes that Anderson is coming to help off, he kicks the ball out to Sasser for a routine three-ball. Buckets.
Notice where the ball is coming from here. Fabian starts out on the left block, but he makes the play from the middle of the lane following a few power dribbles. Should a team with a big that can hit the open man—like Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia, Denver, etc.—pick up a player like Sasser, it gives their offensive scheme more potency. There’s just a multitude of ways that they can hurt you.
For as much of a spectacle as Sasser can be on the offensive side of the ball, the defensive side of things can be a little hit-and-miss. As is the case with most guards of his stature, he’ll be limited as to who he can be effectively lined up against. He’ll mainly be best off against other traditional points. With the short season he played last year, finding the film that he shined in the most defensively was a bit tricky—but we’ll make do with what we’ve got.
In this clip in which Sasser is up against senior guard Chris Childs, Marcus does a fantastic job of immediately planting himself on Childs’s right hip as soon as he sees him dribbling to his left—his off-hand. Childs tries to spin back to his dominant side but is, again, attached at the hip to Sasser. Marcus continues to stay stride-for-stride with Chris and knows his teammate, Josh Carlton is behind him. Sasser realizes where Childs is in relation to the basket, and understands the shot is coming soon. Just as Childs is getting his shot up, Marcus gets his left hand in the way of the ball as Chris attempts to score. With five seconds left, with the ball now under the backboard, Childs is forced to shoot under the reach of the 6’11” Carlton and next to the pesky hands of Sasser. Doesn’t happen.
Northwestern State’s Emarevon McDonald gets the ball inbounded to him in this clip, and is picked up by our guy. There isn’t much to this play in terms of actions or play setup but there is a time restriction, as McDonald has seven seconds to get to his look. He opts to attack to his strong side. He has a lane for him to go after with no obvious help defense to account for. As McDonald is just past the free-throw line, he appears to be hoping into a move—but Sasser, again, gets his left hand in there with the ball coming past his opponent’s hip. As soon as the ball is poked free, Taze Moore darts toward the other end of the floor on the break, with J’Wan Roberts gathering the ball and getting it to the outlet. Sasser is generating looks for others on the break without even having possession of the ball.
Sasser logs a decent amount of steals for a player that isn’t someone that I would think of as a “ball hawk”. A lot of it has to do with his overall attentiveness. When a play is breaking down or when the offense is in distress, Marcus seems to find his way to wherever the ball is going.
The credit for this steal goes to Sasser, but there is also pressure applied by Fabian White Jr. to Wisconsin Badger, Chucky Hepburn. Hepburn is attempting to run a PnR set with Tyler Wahl (#5). Although Hepburn is Sasser’s assignment, Fabian picks up Chucky as he continues the drive to his left. Sasser’s instant calculation of outcomes is something that would make Dr. Strange blush. If Marcus forces Fabian back to Wahl, Hepburn has a wide-open lane to the basket. If Sasser goes back toward Wahl on the switch, Hepburn is likely to isolate White Jr. and get points in either the drive, pullup, or foul. Instead, Marcus stays with Hepburn. This leaves Wahl—a 16% three-point shooter—alone on the perimeter, and forces Hepburn to turn the ball over. The Cougs then play the numbers game on the break.
It can’t all be sunshine and rainbows, folks. To stay true to how we handle things here at No Ceilings, I’m going to put out some areas of concern. The biggest issue with him on defense will be his ability to fight around screens. His angle of attack, “getting skinny” around the screen, and recovery technique are all concerns that I’m going into the season with.
Alabama isn’t a world-beater in terms of offensive ingenuity or innovation, but they had some guards last season that could create out of the PnR. Jaden Shackelford gets up the floor quickly, but Sasser gets in solid position to contest whatever Jaden is looking to do. Noah Gurley sets up a very nice screen for Shackelford to use to his advantage. Knowing that Jaden is predominantly someone that is looking to use the screen, I would have preferred to see Sasser talk through the screen—potentially even slipping under. J’Wan Roberts did drop very deep, worthy of some criticism too. This is something Marcus should be talking through as the team leader. Once he’s behind on the play, it’s very tough for him to get back into the picture. The size disadvantage stands outs here and could only be amplified in the NBA.
Coming back from injury was one of the biggest concerns with Marcus Sasser, but that question was answered with his superb performance during the combine. Now that he’ll have another go at a title with a very strong team around him, Sasser will be afforded another shot to make a strong impression on scouts and front offices alike. His shot will keep the defense on edge and his playmaking will keep them honest, but an improved defensive output will be what sends him over as an undeniable NBA guard. I wouldn’t bet against it, either.
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