December 15, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM Most Wake Forest observers understood going into the season that the Demon Deacons' inside game was one of the biggest keys to success. Wake appeared stacked in the backcourt, and Jamaal Levy and Trent Strickland are solid small forwards. But Wake's inside game was full of questions: Could Eric Williams stop fouling and become a force? Was Vytas Danelius recovered from tendinitis? Would any Deacons emerge off the bench?
Well, despite the Deacons' strong 5-0 start to the season, most of those questions still existed in mid-December.
Williams posted impressive numbers and stayed out of foul trouble in the early going. But he hadn't yet played a team with much of an inside presence, and many of his baskets were simple layups in the lane, after he created space with his big body. He still hadn't demonstrated any new offensive moves, and even the jump hook he showed some last season was nowhere to be found. What is encouraging is that Williams' feet look quicker, which helps him get around players on defense (so he doesn't reach) and establish position and seal defenders off on offense.
But how Williams will fare against tougher ACC competition is still a mystery. Last season, he averaged 11.9 points and 5.9 rebounds against non-conference opponents and East Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, most of which had weaker inside lineups. Against ACC teams and then Auburn in the NCAA Tournament, those numbers fell all the way to 6.1 points and 2.6 rebounds.
When asked about being able to stay out of foul trouble so far this season, Williams has mentioned several times that he'll have to wait until the ACC season to give a good answer. One time he joked that the refs might just be playing with him until the conference games start, when they'll begin to call fouls on him again.
For Danelius, whom many pegged to challenge for first-team All-ACC or even conference player of the year honors, the season has been a disappointment so far. He came into camp out of shape because of the tendinitis in his knee, and he hasn't yet worked himself back into the flow. He also hasn't worked his way back into the starting lineup.
When asked about that recently, Skip Prosser paused for a long time before he answered, perhaps indicating that the coach hasn't been happy with the player's work ethic since the end of last season. Maybe the injury gave Prosser the excuse he needed to try to send Danelius a message.
As the sixth man, Danelius has continued to rebound, but he's rushing shots, seemingly to try to prove his worth as quickly as possible. Through his first four games he shot 37 percent, after hitting 53 percent over his first two years in the program. He also continues to find himself trying to decide between his new-found outside shot or his role under the basket.
Wake's bench lost Chris Ellis to a broken bone in his foot early, but freshman Kyle Visser has been enough of a presence so far. With Ellis back, the Deacons may not bring much offense off the bench, but they'll have two players who can play defense, rebound and give 10 fouls.
If the inside game doesn't fulfill its promise in ACC play, Prosser probably will be quick to revert to the smaller lineups he favored in the past, with any combination of the three guards, two small forwards and Danelius. If that's the case, he'll have to rely on a disruptive defense more than rebounding power.
Paul: Exciting, Effective Leader
Without question, the player who created the most excitement at Wake Forest in the early going was freshman point guard Chris Paul.
In addition to being a local product and a wonderful kid, Paul was a great story because his numbers were excellent through five games: 12.2 points on 53 percent shooting, 5.8 assists (4.1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio), 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 steals a game. Even more impressive was Paul's thorough grasp of the game and his calming influence on his team.
It's already clear that Paul, who hung around many of the Wake players long before he arrived on campus as a student this summer, is the leader of this team. Junior guard Taron Downey is the only other player even close to his level right now.
Several times during interviews already, Paul has talked about himself telling the guys this or that. Most freshmen, even extremely confident ones such as Justin Gray last season, are almost entirely focused on controlling their own game during the early stages of their career. Some take a couple of years to get to the point where they might tell the guys anything at all. Some never get there. But that's already second nature to Paul.
Early in the season, when Prosser was asked about Paul, he said his players in part of his answer. He stopped and corrected himself to say his teammates, but the slip was telling. Already, the Deacons in many ways are Paul's players, and that impressive.
Working With Zones, Williams
Perhaps the only real negatives that ran through Wake's generally impressive early showings were two intertwined trends that have seemed to follow Prosser's teams at Wake: sluggish play against zone defenses and struggles to pass the ball into the post.
Both were very evident against Richmond, which battled the Deacons until the final minutes. Williams started strong, scoring Wake's first six points. But his only other bucket of the half came off a rebound put-back, and he added two free throws. In the second half, after Prosser emphasized Williams at halftime, Williams took five shots in the first 7:36, hitting three of them. He didn't have another attempt for the rest of the game.
This team, more than any of Prosser's other Wake Forest outfits, clearly likes the coach's preferred, up-tempo style. They're quick and disruptive on defense, and they love to turn steals into offense.
But when teams can slow the pace, often by using the zone, the Deacons become more passive. They tend to pass the ball around the zone until the clock forces them to rush a play or shot. Prosser has said for two years that zones tend to make his teams see a red light instead of a green light.
This is probably the biggest area where the loss of star forward Josh Howard shows. Howard was one of the league's best one-on-one players, able to create a shot when the Deacons needed one. In addition, he was an excellent offensive rebounder, able to clean up a missed shot if Wake had to rush one up.
This year, the Deacons aren't as strong with their one-on-one play. Paul and Gray have found taller players when they get into the lane, and Strickland's consistency hasn't matched his creative skills yet. Perhaps the player with the best ability to create is Levy, whose long arms give him the ability to get a shot off over almost anyone in the league. But Levy isn't used to that kind of give-me-the-ball role yet.
All of the Deacons, with the exception of Paul, seem to struggle with getting the ball into Williams, despite Prosser's insistence that the offense will run through him this season. Even against zones, the Deacons should be able to deliver the ball to Williams in a gap. From there, the big guy usually either scores or attracts enough attention to create openings for teammates.
If the Deacons can't show more variety on offense, it won't be long before the word gets out that an extended zone will slow Wake and stifle its shooters. Then the Deacons will face zone after zone until they can make the necessary adjustments.