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Totally Tubelis | The Weekend Warrior
FEATURING: Arizona Wildcat Big Man, Azuolas Tubelis | PLUS: Stephen's Storylines | AND: Weekend Warrior Awards
Last year was an incredible one for the Arizona Wildcats. The team finished 33-4 overall, led the PAC-12 with an 18-2 conference record, went undefeated at home, beat UCLA in the PAC-12 conference tournament, and made it to the Sweet 16 during March Madness. Their run was largely on the back of now-Indiana Pacer Bennedict Mathurin, who had plenty of skeptics despite a promising freshman campaign. Mathurin was picked sixth in the NBA Draft. Another shining spot during Arizona’s season was the play of also-drafted Dalen Terry.
Terry was a pivotal member of the squad coming off the bench, who also stepped into the starting lineup when Kerr Kriisa sustained an injury later in the season. Terry was able to maintain his level of production on par with the uptick in playing time. His size, feel, athleticism, and potential helped him to become a first round selection in the draft. On top of those two star-level players, Arizona had one of the better big men in the country in Christian Koloko.
Koloko has already gotten off to a good start for the Toronto Raptors, making his second round selection look like a steal. Koloko was an interior force for the Wildcats too. He served as a reliable defensive anchor, a consistent rebounding machine, as well as being a serviceable interior scoring option. Arizona’s combination of steady guard play, athletic wings, and bruising big men resulted in the well-rounded team that we saw. But how would they perform this year after losing three NBA players? Who would head coach Tommy Lloyd rely on to help keep the ship steady? Well, it’s early, but the answer to those questions so far has been the junior big man Azuolas Tubelis.
Azuolas is one of the more versatile bigs in college hoops. Numerous are the ways in which he can make an impact on the game. While most college big men will typically be factors on the block (our guy is no slouch there, either), Tubelis can contribute as a facilitator and a screener, and he moves well in transition. We’ll dive into a few of these skills—as well as where on the court they occur—right now.
I want to start here because this is where I think Tubelis makes himself an NBA-level big. His innate feel for the game makes it easy for one to imagine exactly how Azuolas can contribute to more complicated, professional offenses. On the season, Tubelis is averaging 2.0 assists per game (APG). Per Barttorvik, he’s also boasting a 14.0% Assist Percentage—third highest on his team (behind Kerr Kriisa and Pelle Larsson). We know that the offense in the NBA oftentimes goes through the frontcourt, whether that be through DHOs or off actions where the big operates from the elbow, post, short corner, or the perimeter. Tubelis will be right at home in those instances.
We’ll start with something that isn’t that eye-popping, but is something that should be appreciated nonetheless. Azuolas is posting up on the left block in a game against Nicholls. Pierce Spencer (#5 for Nicholls) has the unfortunate responsibility of being on the wrong side of this post-up. Spencer does well for a 6’3” guard for a low-major university, but he needs help. After a dribble into a post hop-step, Spencer is quickly assisted by two teammates. Tubelis could easily have still put up a shot here—and likely would have converted. What we see instead is Azuolas wrapping the ball around Manny Littles (#22) and dumping the ball off to freshman Henri Veesaar for a flush. The understanding of how to manage pressure appropriately when blitzed is a great tool to have in the box—and a much-required one.
Take a look at where this assist is coming from. Tubelis gets the ball along the Free Throw line, the heart of the zone. Utah Tech has three players that could close out on Tubelis here. Dancell Leter (#14) would have been the best defender to apply pressure, as Frank Staine (#22) has to account for the passing lane to Pelle Larsson and the corner pass to Kylan Boswell. The last person that should be the one to front Tubelis is Trey Edmonds (#2). He is the one that does, however, and pays for it. As Edmonds buys what Azuolas is selling, Oumar Ballo cuts to the hoop for a beautifully placed lob. Tubelis shows here that he can hit cutting players while being away from the basket—a useful skill to have as NBA schemes love having the flow of the offense go through big men at different moments.
Back to the Nicholls matchup. Tubelis and Ballo have been one of (if not the) best high/low duos in college hoops. Nicholls knows that all too well. On this possession, we see Ballo looking to eat against a fleet of Nicholls defenders. I love how Tubelis—who knows where everyone on the court is—uses his eyes to ensure his teammate, Cedric Henderson, has a very clean look from deep. As he raises the ball over his head and looks Ballo’s way, the defense braces itself for another bruising. All the while, Henderson prepares for the catch-and-shoot. Seeing a 4-on-1 in the paint and having just caught the pass from Boswell, Tubelis whips the ball to Cedric for the three-ball.
Something we see from teams like the Denver Nuggets, the Houston Rockets, and the Boston Celtics is their big men set the offense along the perimeter. Nikola Jokic, Alperen Sengun, and Al Horford all have the vision and passing ability to hit cutters while being threats from deep. This skill set can provide unique wrinkles that defenses can be hard-pressed to account for. Utah Tech is defending Tubelis very far away from the basket here. Tubelis doesn’t even put the ball on the floor here. As Leter is in Tubelis’s jersey, our guy just pivots away from the pressure while Henderson looks for a slight bit of daylight to jet to the rim. Henderson takes a simple step towards Azuolas and then cuts hard to the paint. Tubelis, surveying the entire court, sees the outcome and hits Henderson for two points.
Look, Tubelis isn’t going to take guys off the bounce often. He’s capable of dribbling for his position, but it isn’t something you’re necessarily looking for him to do frequently. But boy is it special when you see it! This possession starts in a way that we’ll likely have to see Azuolas have to be used a lot in the NBA: a high pick-and-roll. The screen set by Tubelis is on the ball handler’s (Boswell’s) right. As the defense sells out on Boswell dribbling to his right, Tubelis cuts to the top of the key and receives the ball at the top of the arc. In what I’ll call a “short roll” here, Tubelis has plenty of runway to assess his options quickly. He could rise up for a jumper; he likes to shoot sometimes. He could take note of the position that Veesaar has on the interior and float a pass for a paint finish. Or, he could have quickly whipped the ball to Larsson in the left corner. What we see instead is Tubelis creating more options. Earlier, I pointed to a possession where Tubelis had the ball along the free-throw line. The defense feared him having the ball in the middle of the lane, stepped up, and left Ballo open for an oop. Azuolas keeping the dribble alive and moving toward the heart of the defense is sure to create gravity in some capacity. The defense doesn’t leave Veesaar open in a similar manner to the Ballo-oop, but it does collapse. As the defense swarms Tubelis, they leave Pelle open on the perimeter. Our guy sees this and hits him off a live dribble. Extending the play with his dribble created more options than what was initially there and shows a lot of feel for a big.
I could have used that last clip here, because screening is such a vital aspect of the role of a big man. Azuolas ended the play by passing on the move, so I used it there. But Tubelis is such a good screener. He is a massive human being, listed as 6’11” and 245 pounds. The way that he uses his frame to create space and separation for ball handlers makes it easy to see how he will succeed in a number of ways. Timing matters when setting or slipping screens as the roller.
Slipping screens can sometimes draw the ire of basketball purists. Big men should set jaw-jarring screens and then roll to the hoop. But slipping the screen has become equally as important to the pick-and-roll scene. This clip shows why. Going up against Western Oregon, Tubelis steps up to screen on Kerr Kriisa’s left. Qiant Myers (#2) is Kriisa’s man, and he is looking to go over the screen. Going over takes him away from Tubelis significantly. It doesn’t help that Cameron Benzel (#23) sells out to front Kriisa, as Tubelis can see it and slip right as Myers and Benzel move towards Kerr. This perfectly timed slip gives Tubelis the runway to power down a thunderous jam.
Sometimes what can go under-discussed when talking about the importance of screening is setting screens in actions that take place away from the ball. This season is still in the early going, but I wanted to highlight how Tubelis could be used as a screener in different schemes. Azuolas starts the play off by being parked way in the right corner, guarded by Jaime Jaquez Jr. Then-Wildcat Benedict Mathurin ends up initiating the play with a pick-and-roll look with Christian Koloko. Dalen Terry is on the left wing, loosely covered by Johnny Juzang. As Mathurin comes to the right wing, we see Tubelis flash toward the block. Juzang is now engaged with Mathurin on the drive, and Jaquez is likely looking to stop a post-up. Azuolas doesn’t post but sets a flair screen for Terry to knock down the open jumper. The threat of Tubelis on the perimeter, and then on the block, makes him difficult for the defense to account for—making him prime to be used as a flair screener. NBA teams can be quite imaginative when working with big men that can be used in different roles within the same sets.
Prospects can often struggle with the speed of the NBA when they make the jump. Bigs are especially susceptible to this, as they can be used as a fixed spot on the court; they can almost become stationary objects. Being able to run the floor doesn’t typically get discussed as one of the most important things, but perhaps it should be. Missed shots and turnovers have a higher chance of ending up in a guard’s hands, which means that big men need to be ready to get to the other side of the court.
As we see at the beginning of this break, Pelle Larsson gets the rebound and pushes the ball to Kriisa. By the time Kriisa has the ball at halfcourt, Tubelis is ahead of everyone except Arthur Kaluma—although he has position on the inside. As the defense engages on Kriisa, Azuolas jets down to the left block and seals off Kaluma. Kerr gets Tubelis the ball for an easy lay-in. Tubelis gets a post-up and bucket with only four seconds running off the clock.
This finish is incredible. This play begins with Larsson to Kriisa again. Kriisa again pushes the break, but we don’t get a quick post on this clip. Tubelis flat out sprints past San Diego State Guards, Adam Seiko (#2) and Darrion Trammell (#12). Once he slips past those two, Kriisa throws up a lob to our guy. Matt Bradley (#20) is the only guy left to contest the shot, but at 6’4, he gives up too much length. Tubelis catches the ball mid-way through the lane and lays it in. Beautifully done.
While Tubelis can find cutting players, he understands how to fill lanes himself. Similarly to screening, timing is vital to cutting. A second or two on either way, and you can be in the way. Azuolas doesn’t have any issues with that. He knows where to be and when to be there.
Back to the matchup with Utah Tech. Pelle Larsson and Oumar Ballo start the action with a pick-and-roll. Ballo will get the ball on the left block and immediately draw the double. Look at where everyone is. With the double team being on the block, Cedric Henderson is open but on the opposite side of the floor. Ballo isn’t that level of a passer to know who should be open where—especially when handling pressure. Someone has to show open for him. His primary candidate is Larsson, but the lane isn’t there. Boswell ends up on the deck. With pressure mounting on his teammate, Tubelis runs to the middle of the lane and converts an easy layup.
NBA teams have become more comfortable running out lineups with multiple big men but, even if Tubelis is ran out as the sole big, this action could be run with a smaller player as well. We saw how fleet of foot Tubelis is in transition, and he shows it off in the halfcourt. Finding Ballo in the paint, Azuolas throws a nice entry pass. Tubelis finds his defender, Benzel, overcommitting to stop the entry feed. Big mistake. Azuolas cuts right to the rim for an easy finish. Tubelis finds the hole and fills it.
No evaluation is complete without a healthy discussion centered around the jumper. This is the portion of Tubelis’ offense that is perhaps the most concerning. Although he is shooting 50% from deep this season, Azuolas has only taken six attempts from distance. During his collegiate career, he has been a 30.2% shooter from deep so far—and that’s on 82 attempts. If you like to look at free-throw percentages as an indicator of shooting touch, he’s only a 69.3% shooter from the line for his career. However, he is shooting 84% (21/25) this season. The shot needs some work, but it isn’t a barren wasteland in terms of functionality.
Tubelis will have to show the ability to knock down shots, even if it’s simply open ones like this. Against Utah Tech, Azuolas starts out on the block. Larsson whips the ball to Henderson on the right wing. The defense has to recover to close out on him. As the defense collapses, Tubelis is alone at the top of the key. Henderson hits him quickly. Our guy steps into this shot confidently. He catches the ball at about his shoulder but dips it low as he gets into his motion. His lower body is doing the right things: toes pointing to the rim, nice base. The follow-through is nice. Not too much to pick apart here, especially when considering he makes it.
Defense can sometimes be difficult to quantify. Even advanced defensive metrics can be biased toward particular positions. Some of those stats can weigh blocks, steals, and rebounds maybe a little too much—as stopping a play based on excellent position, or even preventing an action from happening before it can stop, can be seemingly impossible. That being said, Tubelis grades out as average in a number of spots according to Synergy. What’s interesting about Tubelis defensively, is who he defends. Playing alongside Ballo, Arizona’s defensive success depends on the defensive versatility of two bigs.
Tubelis doesn’t have the best defensive footwork, nor is he the type of player you would want to switch too much. Primarily, Azuolas is best served by playing in a drop scheme. We have seen the NBA begin to revert more to having their bigs drop in coverage more, especially in the regular season. With drop bigs becoming more serviceable and able to see more time on the floor, Tubelis could certainly fill a role defensively.
Against San Diego State, we see Tubelis defending a pick-and-roll on this possession. Lamont Butler (#5) serves as the ball handler for State, with Jaedon Ledee (#13) performing screener duties. Courtney Ramey (#0) is Tubelis’s defensive mate. Ledee screens Ramey on his left, creating a good bit of separation. Tubelis stays secure in his drop position. In case you’re wondering, Butler is only a 31.1% three-point shooter (27.8% in his collegiate career). Tubelis sticks to the scouting report and defends the drive while maintaining accountability for his man. When Butler rounds the corner, Tubelis gets into his defensive stance, maintains a vertical posture, and forces a miss.
Tubelis’s assignment is Ryan Kalkbrenner on this possession. Creighton has the lane cleared out here, with Arthur Kaluma looking to get to the rim against Kerr Kriisa—as he should. Kalkbrenner is stationary in the dunker spot. Tubelis has to stay close enough to Ryan, so he doesn’t get vertical for an oop, but he is also aware that Kaluma will likely bruise Kriisa for two points from sheer bully ball. Kriisa does enough to force Kaluma into a counter, and we see Kaluma go into a spin move. When Azuolas sees Kaluma show his back to the basket on his teammate, he prepares himself to contest the shot. By the time Kaluma faces up to the basket, Tubelis is already in front of him to contest the shot and force the miss. Excellent help instincts.
This week is going to be geared more toward showing some love to some lesser-discussed and lesser-known prospects. While there are some interesting storylines developing, I’m still loving the process of showing love to some other prospects within this class. I suppose sleeper prospects can end up being storylines in their own right. Maybe this winds up becoming a space for me to “empty my notebook,” so to speak. Let’s not get too hung up on trying to force the issue. Let’s keep this portion organic, shall we?
Keshon Gilbert | Sophomore | Guard | UNLV | 6’4” | 190 lbs.
Gilbert is a name that has gained a lot of traction over the past week within the draft community—and for good reason. Gilbert has scored in double figures in every game for UNLV so far this season. He’s shooting over 63% from deep on 22 attempts. He’s a pretty good ball handler and gets to the rim easily enough. He’s only had two games with fewer than three assists. He’ll need to step it up defensively, and he’ll need to maintain this consistency against conference play. Overall, he could be a guy that keeps a great climb rate over the next week.
Brandin Podziemski | Sophomore | Guard | Santa Clara | 6’5” | 205 lbs.
Podziemski was, perhaps, wrongfully excluded from an explanation from me last week in the storyline section despite being named the WCC Weekend Warrior. He is an absolute stud, and he is capable of scoring in a variety of ways. Santa Clara has used him to initiate offense and have him finish plays as well. He can dribble, pass, and shoot; he has also shown some athletic stops on defense. He can finish in traffic. He just does a ton of things at a very high level. Could you imagine if Illinois found a way to play him alongside Terrence Shannon Jr.? Nevertheless, the Broncos have themselves another hooper with Jalen Williams being drafted to the Thunder.
Darrion Williams | Freshman | Perimeter | Nevada | 6’6” | 210 lbs.
Williams is in a deep crop of high-performing freshmen. Playing for Nevada, he has gotten a little lost in the wash but he is putting up some big numbers. He plays with great feel and a nice handle. That skill paired with his frame gives him an edge of versatility that few possess. What stands out to me is how much he competes on the glass on the defensive side of the ball at his age. Of course, as a perimeter player, you gotta know the shooting numbers, right? Right now he’s flirting with 50/40/85 shooting splits. His vision is pretty good too. File the name away now!
Donovan Clingan | Freshman | Big | UConn | 7’2” | 265 lbs.
Clingan has made a name for himself early as an underclassman that has looked very capable on a team loaded with more seasoned talent. Clingan has looked good recently against teams like Oregon and Iowa State, playing good defense, rebounding, and finding ways to contribute offensively. He’s not the fleetest of foot, but he is certainly capable of being a nuisance on defense. He’s averaging over two blocks per game (BPG) in only about 15 minutes played per game. He’s not there as a shooter, so he’s not going to be as sexy of a prospect, but he is beginning to come into his own in a promising role.
Mike Sharavjamtz | Freshman | Wing | Dayton | 6’8” | 180 (ish) lbs.
Sharvjamtz is one of the more interesting prospects in the entire class. First off, the weight that I have listed isn’t from the Dayton team page, as they do not list his weight. Maybe there’s a reason; who knows? Beyond that, “Mongolian Mike” has shown promising flashes as a creator. He likes to find open teammates when handling the rock but, as is the case with most young players, he can force things. He is a pretty good shooter off the catch. He’s shooting a hair over 36% from deep on 36 attempts on the season. Strength will be a big question for him should he try his hand in the draft this year, but he feels like he’s going to be a multi-year college player. At least right now.
Another week down, another round of awards to dish out. Basketball has been fun, folks, and I’m going to reward the fun we’ve witnessed with some more recognition for some of the better draft prospects in college ball. Here are your Weekend Warriors!
Khalif Battle | Guard | Temple
24.7 PPG | 2.0 APG | 4.7 RPG | 1.7 SPG | 0.0 BPG | 48.0 FG% | 48.1 3P% | 100.0 FT% | 1.0 TOPG | 3.0 FPG
Matthew Cleveland | Forward | Florida State
16.0 PPG | 0.5 APG | 7.3 RPG | 1.0 SPG | 0.0 BPG | 55.8 FG% | 33.3 3P% | 90.0 FT% | 2.0 TOPG | 1.6 FPG
Jalen Wilson | Forward | Kansas
18.5 PPG | 3.5 APG | 9.0 RPG | 0.5 SPG | 1.0 BPG | 44.8 FG% | 50.0 3P% | 50.0 FT% | 2.0 TOPG | 1.0 FPG
Olivier-Maxence Prosper | Wing | Marquette
19.0 PPG | 0.5 APG | 5.0 RPG | 1.0 SPG | 0.0 BPG | 52.1 FG% | 36.3 3P% | 90.9 FT% | 0.5 TOPG | 2.5 FPG
Trayce Jackson-Davis | Big | Indiana
17.0 PPG | 3.0 APG | 10.0 RPG | 0.0 SPG | 4.0 BPG | 51.8 FG% | N/A 3P% | 53.3 FT% | 2.0 TOPG | 4.0 FPG
Oumar Ballo | Big | Arizona
22.0 PPG | 5.0 APG | 8.0 RPG | 1.0 SPG | 1.0 BPG | 83.3 FG% | N/A 3P% | 40.0 FT% | 2.0 TOPG | 2.0 FPG
Alex Fudge | Wing | Florida
11.0 PPG | 0.0 APG | 8.5 RPG | 1.0 SPG | 3.0 BPG | 50.0 FG% | 66.7 3P% | 66.7 FT% | 0.5 TOPG | 1.5 FPG
Brandin Podziemski | Wing | Santa Clara
24.3 PPG | 2.3 APG | 8.3 RPG | 1.6 SPG | 0.3 BPG | 53.1 FG% | 50.0 3P% | 81.2 FT% | 2.0 TOPG | 2.3 FPG
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