November 16, 2018 Currently: 52° | Complete forecast

Quick learner Brandon McCoy studying up on defense

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV Rebels forward Brandon McCoy (44) rejects a shot by Northern Colorado Bears forward Tanner Morgan (20) during their game at the Thomas & Mack Center on Friday, L.E. Baskow

Brandon McCoy is a quick learner. Despite being an obvious one-and-done candidate, he’s enjoying the academic side of college life; last week, he tweeted that he recorded a very respectable 3.34 GPA for his first semester.

He has graded out even better than that with the ball in his hands. McCoy leads UNLV in scoring with 19.0 points per game, and he’s shooting 60.4 percent from the field. He has posted up effectively, finished around the rim, and even flashed a solid mid-range jump shot. Offensively, he has exceeded all expectations.

Defensively, McCoy hasn’t made quite as much of an instant impact. But he’s eager to study up.

“I’m learning,” McCoy said before a Friday afternoon practice. “In high school I didn’t have to guard such good bigs, so I’m still learning the [college] game.”

Through 15 contests, McCoy’s defensive numbers are lagging behind his tremendous offensive stats, as he is averaging 1.6 blocks per game with a block rate of 4.6 percent. To compare that to other recent UNLV centers, Khem Birch averaged 3.8 rejections with a block rate of 10.9 percent in 2013-14, while Stephen Zimmerman swatted 2.0 per game with a rate of 7.5 percent in 2015-16.

Against San Jose State on Wednesday, McCoy was shuttled in and out of the game down the stretch in regulation and overtime as head coach Marvin Menzies tried to get backup big man Mbacke Diong on the floor for key defensive possessions.

McCoy picked up his fourth foul early in the OT period and was not much of a defensive factor after that.

Instead of getting frustrated by the offense/defense substitutions, McCoy acknowledged Diong’s defensive impact and stressed the importance of a team-first attitude.

“I wasn’t really bothered because I had four fouls and understood that the game was more important than myself and what I wanted,” McCoy said. “As long as we won, I didn’t care.”

Can McCoy continue improving enough on the defensive end to turn himself into a two-way force by the end of the season? He said assistant coach Rob Jeter has been working with him to solidify that aspect of his game.

Menzies points to McCoy’s appetite for knowledge as a sign of his defensive potential.

“I’ve seen a freshman who’s learning how to play at another level than he’s used to, and he’s developing,” Menzies said. “He’s still figuring out some things that all bigs across the country are … It’s just a process, and it’s about embracing it and wanting the coaching and development, which he does. Which is why we’re so excited to have him here, because he’s invested.”

Menzies’ mantra all season has been “get your work done early,” which is a simple way of saying that McCoy has to do a better job of defending his man and maintaining position before the ball is delivered. If McCoy waits for opposing bigs to catch the ball before he begins playing defense, it’s already too late.

The numbers prove the validity of Menzies’ teaching point. Though the 7-foot, 250-pound McCoy has a physical advantage over just about every opposing big man, he is allowing teams to shoot 60.0 percent against him on attempts around the basket (not including post-ups). That works out to 1.2 points per possession on shots near the rim; as a team, UNLV is holding opponents to 0.82 points per possession overall.

Menzies said that there are a lot of technical aspects to interior defense and that McCoy is doing his best to absorb all that information.

“It’s stances, it’s engagement, it’s your posture,” Menzies said. “Getting low isn’t bending at the waist, it’s bending at the knees. Being in the right position on the floor before the contact, before you even engage in the post. Defensively there’s development to be had … Defensively doing his work early is defined as being more engaged early so he doesn’t get caught standing dead behind guys, and he’s still working on that. We’re showing him film and he’s getting better.”

Saturday’s opponent, Utah State, may not be the best mid-term quiz for McCoy’s defensive progress. The Aggies don’t attack the rim very much, and more than 42 percent of their field goal attempts come from beyond the 3-point line.

But Menzies will be keeping an eye on McCoy, in hopes that the proven quick learner will be defending like a veteran by the end of the season.

“Defensively, I don’t think it’s any different than any other freshman in terms of getting better as the season goes on,” Menzies said. “Hopefully he’s playing his best basketball and we’re playing our best basketball when we get to crunch time.”

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

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