One of the few positives to come out of this weeks game against Louisville was the stellar play of sophomore big man Adjehi Baru (14 and 14). In fact, Baru's development has been one of the pleasant surprises of the early Cougars season. I think it's about time we talked specifically about what facets of Adjehi's game have improved the most, where his potential still lies and what factors all this can be attributed to.
We all knew about the enormously high expectations put on Adjehi coming into his freshman year at the College. He was the highest-rated prospect to ever enter the men's basketball program and he had chosen to play in a mid-major conference over the likes of Maryland, Virginia Tech and North Carolina. What made Baru such an intriguing player was his size and athleticism. Already having the height and speed of most NBA-caliber power forwards made him a shot blocking and rebounding threat as a freshman center in the Southern Conference. Not only that, but his offensive game (especially a technically perfect jump shot) separated Baru from many more raw high school prospects.
Early on last year Adjehi played like he had the weight of the College on his shoulders. In his first game he looked out-of-control and flustered when he got the ball in the paint. Luckily as time went on he was able to adjust to the college game and finished the season as a solid and productive teammate.
One of the reasons Doug Wojcik took the CofC head coaching job was because of the opportunity to mold a young big man like Adjehi into a fundamentally sound player who could anchor a defense/rebounding-centric team. With Trent Wiedeman sidelined over the last five and a half games, the timetable of Adjehi's development was put into overdrive.
Baru already leads the team in minutes per game at nearly 34 a game, up 20% from what he averaged last season. Despite the increased playing time, Adjehi has managed to stay on the floor by fouling less per game than he did in 2011-2012. This has been maybe the most crucial development. The team has very limited depth at the forward position right now and it is of absolute importance that our one true center can stay on the floor for the majority of a game.
The other stat Adjehi is leading the Cougars in is rebounding per game. Last year as a freshman he could depend solely on his height, enormous wingspan and jumping ability to snag rebounds. Under Wojcik's tutelage, Adjehi (and the rest of the team) put more emphasis on positioning and boxing out opponents. This has led to 9.5 rebounds per game from Adjehi, one of the best marks of any mid-major player and a huge step up from his 6.3 average last season. Also note that this is with a CofC team that is shooting a lot less, playing at a slower pace and facing stiff competition in early games.
In the Charleston Classic, Baru seemed happy to protect the rim and gobble up rebounds. But unfortunately for the Cougars his offensive game disappeared. Few seemed overly concerned but in the Boston College game it was obvious that our big guy had turned a corner. In that game, he drained a couple of tough hook shots in the paint and was smiling as he ran down the court. "I'm happy for Adjehi, it's great to see him confident and smiling during the game again" praised Wojcik after the game.
Since that point, against Baylor, CSU and especially Louisville, Baru has looked confident and decisive taking his new array of go-to post moves. The numbers back it up. Baru's field goal percentage has bumped up to .491 and that's with him taking on more of the scoring load. Last year Adjehi averaged 5.9 shot attempts per game, many on put-backs and wide open jumpers. This year he's up to 7.25 attempts per game and he's converting more.
But Baru is still not a polished package. The free throw and turnover bug of this team has rubbed off a bit on him as well. Despite repeated trips to the free throw line, Baru is a bit below last years 50% mark (although he's been more consistent since the Baylor game). With the added responsibility of being one of the ball handlers in the offense, his turnovers have nearly doubled from less than one per game to 2.5 this year. His assist numbers are also identical to last years (0.6 per game).
If the young man can get better at making his free throws and finding the open man when he's double-teamed under the basket, he could very easily average 10-and-10 over the next few years. As I mentioned earlier, his numbers will change as we exit the most difficult part of the season and get into conference play. Wiedeman will most likely be back but Adjehi's efficiency should remain consistent or improve. Going against the front lines of UNCG, Georgia Southern and Furman will only bolster already impressive numbers. Credit Wojick for his teaching skills, the Cougars for feeding him the ball and Adjehi Baru himself for all the hard work he put in this offseason. It all adds up to a humble, determined and tenacious beast in the paint for the Cougars. And he deserves all the accolades he receives.