Looking ahead to the upcoming season, CUIndependent.com will preview the players at every position on the Colorado men’s basketball team.
After a half-season trial run, senior Askia Booker returns as Colorado’s primary ball-handler. If that was the extent of what he offered the team — he has better handles than his fellow Buffs and the slickest crossover in the Pac-12 — CU would be fine. But at this point, we have to accept Booker for what he is: a ball-dominant, semi-inefficient gunner who can get hot in a hurry.
Booker has had Colorado’s highest usage rate — the percentage of possessions a player finishes with either a shot or a turnover — every year of his career, despite sharing the floor with Spencer Dinwiddie and coming off the bench as a freshman. That quantifies what observers have seen for three seasons; Booker is a ball-stopper and the Buffs’ offense stagnates when he tries to take defenders one-on-one.
Indeed, Colorado was an offensive mess last year after Spencer Dinwiddie’s injury made Booker the Buffs’ lead guard. Colorado had double-digit turnovers in all but two of its 18 games without Dinwiddie, and it recorded more assists than turnovers only four times in that stretch.
Booker was also the only Buff to average double-digit shots in 2013, and he took more than three shots per game more than any of his teammates. Colorado is too deep this year for him to continue to average 13 points on 13 shots per game.
Booker’s shooting inefficiencies are glaring — 38 percent from the field, 27 percent from deep — and it’s concerning that he has attempted more threes but made a lower percentage of them every season.
“Hopefully maturity kicks in and he doesn’t fight the game,” said CU head coach Tad Boyle. “The thing I want Ski to understand is that he doesn’t have to do it all by himself. He needs his teammates, and just to make simple basketball plays.”
Booker’s inefficiency is frustrating because when he is on — 27 points, seven rebounds, four assists on 8-of-16 shooting against Oregon; 26 points on 9-of-12 shooting versus Washington State — few players are better.
Colorado’s revamped offense will take the ball out of Booker’s hands in the half court more this year as the Buffs use their posts to facilitate from the elbows. That will allow Booker to work more as a cutter and a spot-up shooter, which should make him more efficient by default. Colorado will also run much more this year than they have in the past. Booker is dynamite in transition; no wing in the Pac-12 is faster in the open court. The more the Buffs run, the better he will be.
“When he gets hot, everybody gets rolling and everybody feeds off his energy,” said sophomore guard Jaron Hopkins.
Joining Booker in the starting backcourt, at least for now, is junior Xavier Talton. That is subject to change; Boyle said that Colorado’s starting five is fluid, and the Buffs could play up to four guards close to starters’ minutes. Talton gets the nod now because of his experience.
He is a pure spot-up shooter — more than half of his shots last year were threes, and he made a solid 37 percent of them. He has a quick, compact release, runs well off of screens and is Colorado’s best floor-spacing option at this point.
Talton’s lack of size and athleticism are liabilities, though; at 6 feet and 2 inches, 180 pounds with no hops, he offers little rebounding and is at a disadvantage against almost every wing he guards. In the Pac-12, where he will match up with Arizona’s Stanley Johnson and Utah’s Jordan Loveridge and Delon Wright at least twice this season, that could hurt Talton’s ability to stay on the floor.
If Talton cedes playing time to anyone, it will be sophomore Jaron Hopkins. Hopkins was volatile as a freshman; his stats — 4.8 points per game on 38 percent shooting and 31 percent from deep — were as raw as he was. Hopkins saw more playing time than expected because of Dinwiddie’s injury, and he struggled accordingly.
Still, the glimpses of potential Hopkins showed were tantalizing. He is the Buffs’ most explosive athlete, as anyone who remembers his insane dunk over Washington’s C.J. Wilcox knows well. He flashes to the rim and finishes well when he gets there, but needs to refine his outside shooting to open driving lanes more consistently. Opponents weren’t afraid to lay off of him, and it’s hard to drive against that.
At 6 feet and 6 inches, with his athleticism, he has the potential to be Colorado’s best on-ball defender. He’s already very good, though he admits he sometimes gets lazy when his man doesn’t have the ball.
“If I can get that down, I can be one of the best defenders in the Pac-12,” Hopkins said. “It’s tough because guys are moving and cutting. You gotta stay with the cuts, the backdoors and you gotta get through screens as well.”
Freshman Dom Collier is the wild card. I profiled him more extensively here, but since then he’s injured his ankle and missed much of the first month of practice. He likely won’t see the court much at the start of the season, but once he makes up for lost time, his ball handling and passing alone will get him in games. He still needs to raise the release point on his jumper — he said he’s worked on it more than anything else — and he’ll have to bulk up from 170 pounds to become even a passable defender.
But Collier is a natural distributor and an instinctual passer. He’s the only pass-first point guard Colorado has. He’s a good ball-handler, not athletic, but quick, and he gets to the rim well.
Geoff Bates, Kevin Nelson, Brett Brady, Josh Repine, Eli Stalzer
Further down the bench, Geoff Bates and Kevin Nelson are the Buffs’ only seniors besides Booker. Smooth-shooting junior Brett Brady may provide emergency spacing. Freshman Josh Repine comes from the same New Hampshire prep school as fellow freshman Tory Miller. There’s also junior Eli Stalzer, who, rather than spacing, has brought the Buffs questionable facial hair.
Wait until next year:
In the wings for Colorado are sophomore George King, who is redshirting, and transfer Josh Fortune. King also plays small forward, but he didn’t get much playing time as a freshman and he wouldn’t have seen the court much at either position this year. Boyle envisions him as a starter in the future and said that King has improved as much as any Buff as a three-point shooter. He still needs to improve the footwork on his jumper, though — he steps into his shot, which slows down his release.
Fortune won a Big East championship at Providence last season. He averaged 8.4 points per game and shot 35 percent from deep as the Friars’ starting two-guard, and Colorado desperately needs his shooting this year. But he has to sit out because of the NCAA’s draconian transfer rules.
“I can make the practices that much more intense,” Fortune said about how he can help the team in his year off. “And help our freshmen out as well, with little details that they need here and there on and off the court.”
CUI’s basketball blowout doesn’t stop this week. Sam Routhier will bring you everything you need to know about the women’s team. For the men, we’ll profile the coaching staff tomorrow. Wednesday, Alissa Noe will break down the Buffs’ forwards and centers, and our season preview will be up Thursday — all leading up to tipoff against Drexel at 6 p.m., Friday in the Keg.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Tommy Wood at Thomas.C.Wood@colorado.edu.