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Analysis: Big man Brandon McCoy is key to Rebels’ rebuild

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Courtesy of USA Basketball

UNLV freshman Brandon McCoy practices with the USA Basketball Under-19 team Sunday, June 18, 2017.

More than any other newcomer joining the UNLV roster this season, Brandon McCoy is being counted on to turn things around. As a five-star prospect and the most heralded recruit to commit during coach Marvin Menzies’ tenure, McCoy will be under pressure to perform at a high level on both ends of the court and impact the team’s win-loss record in a tangible way.

And despite being just 19 years old, he’s expected to do all of that immediately.

That’s a lot to hang on a true freshman, but McCoy is talented enough to tackle those expectations. After watching a handful of his high school games from last season, it’s obvious why Menzies went all-out to bring him to Las Vegas to lead UNLV’s rebuilding effort.

McCoy is a big, strong, athletic throwback to the days when centers roamed the earth. He averaged 29 points and 13 rebounds per game as a senior at Cathedral Catholic High School (San Diego, Calif.), and he did it the hard way, by banging in the paint and imposing his will on opponents. Whether he can do that at the college level will determine if the Rebels are resurrected this season.

The first thing that stands out when watching McCoy is that size. If he’s not 7-feet tall, it means he’s just walking out of the barbershop. And at 250 pounds, he recognizes that his strength is his best asset on the court. But unlike new-age big men, he embraces post play.

Someone must have taught McCoy at an early age how to play with his back to the basket because he possesses a prototypical post-up arsenal: Right block, left block, jump hook, drop step, face-up jumper — all the classics. Picture a Patrick Ewing-type center, and that should give an idea of McCoy’s post moves.

McCoy is also a master at getting early position on the block and using his size to overpower defenders and seal them off. That allows him to catch entry passes with great leverage and hip-check his opponent out of the way before steamrolling toward the rim. Combined with his other post moves, tiny high school defenders had no chance of stopping him in the paint:

Sealing opponents in the post may seem like a boring skill upon which to focus, but Shaquille O’Neal got a career’s worth of dunks out of similar moves, and UNLV would be wise to push the pace a little, let McCoy establish early position and throw him the ball.

Once McCoy gains the edge, he likes to finish with thunderous two-handed dunks, but he’s also agile enough to side-step secondary help defenders and maneuver around them for layups and finger rolls. He plays under control, moves his feet well and has a soft enough touch to convert consistently around the rim.

McCoy has pretty good hands and shows an ability to catch passes outside his normal radius, but he wasn’t used much in pick-and-roll situations at Cathedral Catholic. In the games we watched, he was only involved in one PNR, and it ended with McCoy being stripped on his way to the basket. Otherwise, he was excellent at receiving the ball, gathering himself, avoiding defenders and going up strong:

Like he did on that pick-and-roll, McCoy generally loses some of his effectiveness when he tries to get out into open space. There were times when he dribbled through the defense from beyond the arc, but that was mostly his inferior teammates throwing him the ball and getting out of his way. That’s probably not going to work against college defenses. McCoy is better in tight spaces:

McCoy is also confident in his jump shot, though the returns weren’t encouraging in the games we watched. He’s a low-percentage shooter outside of 12 feet, though he’s got a natural release and a soft touch that hints at greater potential. Turnaround jumpers in the post can be a weapon, but McCoy probably won’t be launching this many 3-pointers for the Rebels next year:

The good news is that when McCoy misses, he’s likely to get a second chance at it. His ability to get off the floor quickly and rebound his own shot multiple times is reminiscent of O’Neal (for those keeping score, that’s one Patrick Ewing comp and two Shaq comps), another big man who used to bludgeon opponents by turning his misses into putback dunks.

McCoy is also present on the offensive glass when his teammates shoot. He seems to enjoy leaning on opponents and wearing them down with his sheer size and strength:

On the defensive end, it was more difficult to get a read on McCoy because he enjoyed such a tremendous size advantage over most of his opponents at the prep level. He was able to hang out around the rim and swat away shots with ease thanks solely to his length and athleticism, and while that’s fun to watch in a highlight reel, it doesn’t tell us much about how he’ll perform as a defender at UNLV.

His technique, however, hints at some room for improvement. When attempting to block shots, McCoy has a bad habit of swinging his arms at the ball. Instead of extending his arms straight up and relying on a big man’s best friend — verticality — he lunges, swings and plows over shooters, resulting in too many fouls for a player with his natural advantages:

That’s probably going to result in some bouts with foul trouble next year, but Menzies is one of the most renowned big-men coaches in the country and should be able to refine McCoy’s shot-blocking approach.

The high school film also makes it hard to determine whether McCoy will be effective on the defensive glass. At Cathedral Catholic, he was able to stand in the paint, extend his arms and pluck rebounds away from opponents even if they had better position than him. He was nonchalant about boxing out and relied on his size to make up for it:

Fortunately for UNLV, incoming power forward recruit Shakur Juiston is an excellent defensive rebounder with superb instincts and textbook form, so that should take some of the pressure off McCoy to carry the team in that area. Also, as McCoy told the Sun shortly after committing, his goal is to lead the Mountain West in blocked shots and rebounding, so he seems to be embracing the dirty work that comes with playing in the paint.

The other two areas of McCoy’s game that require further evaluation are his passing ability and his motor.

McCoy was obviously the main focal point for his high school team, and when he got the ball, he generally shot it. He threw very few passes, even routine ones. And the passes he put on tape were inconsistent. In one instance, he hit a cutter out of the post for a layup, but he also whipped a one-handed cross-court pass that would have literally flown out of the gym if the doors hadn’t been closed:

There were also too many plays where McCoy appeared to give less than 100-percent effort. He wasn’t in a hurry to get back in defensive transition, and there were multiple plays where he let opponents cruise past him in the open court for easy layups. Sometimes McCoy didn’t even get across halfcourt:

It’s hard to say how much of his inconsistent effort was due to general malaise and how much was attributable to poor conditioning. Either way, McCoy will have to be careful about not doing this too often at UNLV because fans will notice (see Chris Wood).

The technique flaws and conditioning question marks are minuscule compared with all the good stuff McCoy brings, however. He’s huge, physical and committed to overpowering opponents around the basket, and that should be music to Menzies’ ears, even if McCoy is only on campus for one season before heading off to the NBA.

Expect McCoy to start at center from the opening day of practice and play as many minutes as foul trouble and his conditioning allow. Menzies’ teams at New Mexico State were consistently among the most post-centric in the nation, so look for the Rebels to get their stud big man plenty of touches in the paint.

Is McCoy a perfect prospect? No, but that’s beside the point. His weaknesses will be covered by veteran teammates, and his incredible strengths will be emphasized by a coach who knows better than most how to utilize talented big men. If McCoy delivers, UNLV should have a dominant paint scorer and a potential game-changing rim protector. If the Rebels win the Mountain West, McCoy will get most of the credit and probably deserve it.

Editor’s Note: As the UNLV roster turns over in Marvin Menzies’ first full offseason, the Sun’s Mike Grimala will break down each new incoming recruit.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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