One year into the great Fred Hoiberg experiment, the second-year head coach of Nebraska has his first illustrious recruit. Guard Bryce McGowens, the No. 23 recruit in the nation, according to Rivals, committed to the Huskers on Friday.
McGowens has a lot of the kinds of looks and primary moves one would expect from a dominant shooting guard in college basketball, and while roster turnover is a fact of life in Hoiberg teams, McGowens can almost certainly expect a large role as a primary scorer next year.
First, the positives. McGowens is an incredible natural scorer. In February of this year, he posted 67 points in the second round of the South Carolina high school playoffs, including eight 3-pointers. His scoring touch on the outside is incredible, smoothly knocking down shots from way outside the arc, and even with enough coverage to make average scorers sweat.
On top of this, McGowens has an absolutely lethal series of ball fakes, crossovers and hesitations which are able to terrorize defenders, along with a step back that makes sure defenders know they can’t commit to any one thing the 6-foot-6 guard can pull out. While not the quickest, McGowens’ greatest strength comes in eccentric velocity, where he can change speed very quickly and also stop on a dime. This is the kind of skill which makes the likes of James Harden and Luka Doncic top scorers despite their lack of mobility.
McGowens is also strong in the lane, with a nice euro-step, some fade-aways and even a couple post spins to complement some good old-fashioned ball control. This is especially useful in drawing fouls, something that McGowens has shown an ability in. But, drawing fouls as a skill is sort of hard to tabulate. What we normally use is a simple statistic called “Free Throw Attempt Rate,” which is easy to calculate. All one does is take the total free throws attempted and divide it by the number of total field goals attempted.
McGowens’ FTR comes out to 44% his junior year. This would make him, in the Big Ten last year, one of the more dominant foul-drawers at his general height range. Penn State forward Lamar Stevens, for example, had a FTR of 42.3%, and while the two are not necessarily similar players, it is telling that Stevens took the third-most free throws last year in the Big Ten.
If given a similar role box-score wise, with Lamar Stevens’ usage rate of about 31.2%McGowens could definitely contribute from the free-throw line. In high school so far, McGowens has averaged about 76% from the free throw line, going up to 79% in his 2018-19 year but falling back down last year. It’s not fantastic, but even the likes of Maryland guard Anthony Cowan, the Big Ten’s leader in total free throws made last year, shot 81.1%from the charity stripe.
This brings us to McGowens’ expected usage rate. Unfortunately, since we don’t know the exact minutes played for either Wren High School or McGowens himself, we can’t calculate it manually. However, given that McGowens is a primary scorer without too many playmaking abilities and also without many turnover problems, the fact that he’s responsible for about 30% of the team’s points should be telling.
If Hoiberg wishes to use McGowens in a similar capacity to how he’s been used in high school, a usage rate of around 25-35% shouldn’t be out of the question. While Hoiberg in the past preferred distributing his usage rate amongst his players, with nobody in his tenure at Iowa State having more than about 27% at most, he also hasn’t necessarily had talent at the caliber of McGowens. When Hoiberg had guards Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler when he manned the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, he let them dictate play at 29.6% and 26.5% usage rates, respectively.
So, we know how much of the ball McGowens is going to see, but what is he doing with it? McGowens has averaged a 59% 2-point field goal percentage on 586 shots over his career. Assuming he transferred this exactly over to the Big Ten, he’d easily be the highest-converting guard in the conference.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy. McGowens can expect to see much larger bodies in the Big Ten than he saw in high school and it could take a while to adjust. He’s shown some ability to power through people larger than him, though this isn’t an ability one should count on when going to higher levels.
For prospects, it’s good to be cynical about one’s own capabilities and develop tools to potentially navigate them. McGowens does this through his nice array of fakes and that aforementioned euro, however he seems to prefer simply bodying people to get to the rim. Given his 170-pound frame, it’s not necessarily a winning formula in all situations.
McGowens shot 42% from the 3-point line during his high school career. This is fantastic considering that a lot of his shots are difficult. He doesn’t shoot a lot off of set plays, rather preferring to create his shot off the dribble or shoot right in people’s faces. Shooting at 42% off a diet where one expects you to create your own shot is elite. His shot form, too, is incredibly smooth, but maybe a little slow and a little too much out in front of himself. That’s nitpicking, though, for what is really a beautiful stroke.
Another capability the young guard has is his midrange pull-up jumper. While mid-range jumpers are analytically the worst shot in basketball, and Hoiberg is in agreement with this, McGowens does exhibit one of the only potential qualities the midrange shot has.
McGowens, when driving into the lane, is dangerous not only because of what he can do going forwards downhill, but also his pull-up ability. He stops quickly and doesn’t give the defender much time to react before he’s taking the shot. And, as seen through his 2-point field goal percentage, he is able to convert midrange shots at a relatively high rate. The threat of the midrange shot is what’s important here, not the midrange shot itself. If defenders are concerned at every phase of a drive whether or not McGowens is going to pull up, it gives McGowens more latitude to drive. And, furthermore, if he’s closer to the 3-point line and the defender is worried about his midrange pull-up, he can step back and take a 3-pointer.
So, we’ve talked about all the positives of McGowens game, but there are some negatives that can’t be hand-waved away. For one, his defending is solid generally, especially when he sits closer to the rim and goes for rebounds, but when caught out by a cross-court pass to the corner, he can show slightly slow foot speed closing down the shooter.
McGowens also switches a lot, not really trying to fight over screens. While this isn’t a problem at all, and Hoiberg does use a switch-heavy defense, McGowens seems to turn off at times after the switch, and commits the original basketball defensive sin of ball-watching. McGowens, due to his high load on offense, was probably asked to not do very much defending, so that may explain some of his problems on that end.
Another, more serious possible problem is McGowens’ transition game. Hoiberg made a career out of running a very high-tempo offense which predicates itself heavily on the transition, and it’s a must for any one of his players to take transition offense very seriously. McGowens seems eager to push the tempo in transition opportunities, though sometimes this leads him to making poor decisions. More than once he’d have a tough route to the rim where he could either recycle play or find a wide open teammate, and instead he’d decide to try the layup anyway.
The beauty of transition play is that forcing an offensive set on an opponent when they haven’t had time to set up themselves defensively is easy points, but it also requires an outstanding amount of coordination on the part of the offense. While it may just look like a bunch of people running down a court, there’s special assignments and lanes to fill and sometimes it looks like McGowens struggles with that. Now, if there’s anything good to take from this point, it’s that Hoiberg is exceptionally gifted at teaching transition offense. While some coaches may want to recruit solely from places which share their philosophy generally, Hoiberg hasn’t necessarily shown that same proclivity, confident in his own coaching abilities.
There’s also the smaller point that McGowens when driving generally has trouble making layoffs to teammates. It’s not that he doesn’t have the vision, it’s just that sometimes the execution is lacking. He can sometimes misplace a ball for a teammate which forces them to take an extra second to bring it under control, and this can doom what would otherwise be an easy look.
The reason why this is a small point is because McGowens really doesn’t pass the ball all that often. He only had 80 assists relative to his 420 attempted field goals, and also didn’t turn the ball over much. This isn’t to say that McGowens is a ball hog, it’s just that he mostly is used to finishing plays or creating them all his own as opposed to playmaking for other teammates. There’s nothing wrong with that.
To finish, McGowens has another ability which seems to put him above the rest: improvement. From his freshman to his junior year in high school, his 2-point field goal percentage went from 42 to 65%, and his total turnovers have decreased from 53 to 38. He’s also gone from 2 rebounds per game to 6.4, and has also added an entire steal from one per game his freshman year to two per game his junior year. This is all while increasing his workload pretty much every year.
If a high school basketball season is played in South Carolina, one can only guess at how good McGowens will be, and what he will have added to his game over the offseason. Project this a whole year into the future, and his potential really is great. While it’d be foolish to take previous trends and immediately assume they will continue at that rate forever, and in some cases McGowens did have lateral progress from his sophomore to his junior year, Nebraska fans should be very excited to see the guard around this time next year.