When the rumor first started circulating that Jabari Brown had left the University of Oregon basketball team, it seemed unthinkable. Brown, the prize of Dana Altman's first recruiting class in Eugene, had played just two games since matriculating. Playing time, the usual reason for transfers, isn't a factor here; Brown had started both games and averaged 25.5 minutes. Before blowing out Southeast Missouri State Sunday, the Ducks confirmed that Brown had left the team, but we still have little insight into Brown's reasoning.
"I will say right up front I don't want him to leave," Altman told the Eugene Register-Guard. "I did try to talk him out of it. I hope he does reconsider; the door is still open. "He's a good young man who hasn't gotten off to the start he wanted, (but) I think it's a little too early to not try it out a little bit more."
Assuming Brown does not return, Altman will need to change his game plan considerably. After leading Oregon in scoring during a summer trip to Italy, Brown was expected to serve as a go-to option as a freshman. During the first two games, he used more than a quarter of the Ducks' plays. Those shots will now have to come from elsewhere. Which might not be the worst thing for Oregon.
The track record of freshmen asked to carry a heavy scoring load, even those as highly touted as Brown (the consensus No. 16 prospect in the country, per RSCIHoops.com), is generally mixed. Last year, for example, four players ranked between 11th and 20th by RSCIHoops played starters' minutes and used at least a quarter of their team's possessions. Of them, Joshua Smith (110.2 Offensive Rating) was highly efficient and Terrence Jones (104.6) was solid given his role, but C.J. Leslie (95.1) and Joe Jackson (92.0) were drains to their teams on offense.
In the early, early going, Brown looked a lot more like Leslie and Jackson than Jones and Smith, interior players who could often rely on teammates to set them up. Brown had made just three of his 11 shot attempts, most of them coming from downtown (where he was 1-of-7). He also struggled at the free throw line, shooting 5-for-12, and turned the ball over 11 times against a single assist.
Without Brown, Altman has the opportunity to redistribute those plays to more efficient scorers. In the win over Southeast Missouri State, junior forward E.J. Singler was the beneficiary. Singler, the Ducks' leading returning scorer at 11.7 points per game, had attempted just 11 shots in Oregon's first two games (a loss at Vanderbilt and a closer-than-expected home win over Eastern Washington). He nearly matched that total on Sunday, making eight of his 10 shot attempts to score a team-high 21 points. While Singler cannot carry an offense, he's an exceptionally efficient scorer who made 50 percent of his twos and 40 percent of his threes a year ago. The more shots Singler gets, the better for the Ducks.
During 2010-11, Oregon was relatively democratic on offense. Just one regular--senior big man Joevan Catron--used more than 22 percent of the team's plays while on the court, while everyone in the rotation was involved in the offense at least 15 percent of the time. Though Catron is gone, the Ducks have the opportunity to use a similar formula with transfer Tony Woods stepping in to replace Catron as a threat in the post. Woods, a 6-11 center with NBA-caliber athleticism, has shot 83.3 percent from the field this season.
On Sunday, Oregon scored an impressive 86 points in 69 possessions. That's better than Missouri managed against Southeast Missouri State in their opener (83 points in 70 possessions). Still, a matchup with a defense Kenpom.com ranks 289th in the country is hardly a true test. If Woods can play after injuring his ankle on Sunday, we'll get a better chance to evaluate the Ducks' new offensive formula on Wednesday, when they play at Nebraska.
Altman may miss Brown's presence elsewhere. In particular, his ability to swing between shooting guard and small forward gave Oregon more lineup flexibility. Against Eastern, the Ducks pulled away late by pressing full court with a small, quick lineup featuring Singler at power forward and Tyrone Nared in the middle. Now, Singler may be forced to play small forward nearly exclusively. Oregon has enough depth in the frontcourt to pull that off, but it takes a weapon away from Altman.
Brown's long-term future remains bright. Dan Hanner, a contributor to the College Basketball Prospectus annuals, has done more research into quantifying recruiting rankings than anyone. Hanner's work has found that players like Brown ranked in the nation's top 20 almost always develop into stars. If he indeed decides to transfer, Brown will be a major loss to a rebuilding Oregon program trying to attract the same kind of star talent that has made the Ducks a contender on the gridiron. For this season, however, Oregon can survive the loss of Brown. The Ducks might even be better.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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