Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019 | 2 a.m.
If UNLV fans are a bit skeptical about a player being brought in to play point guard for one year, it’s an understandable reaction.
The Rebels’ list of single-season point guards is getting long, and the mercenary approach has yielded uneven results. Noah Robotham turned in a fine performance last year; before him it was Jordan Johnson, Jerome Seagears, Cody Doolin and Deville Smith all tasked with manning the position for a year at a time. It's been a mixed bag.
Due to the revolving door, the Rebels have had trouble nailing down a long-term solution at the position for the better part of a decade now. It’s an issue that dates back through three head coaches, and now it appears T.J. Otzelberger will go with the one-year stopgap approach in his first season on the job.
The player in question this time around is Elijah Mitrou-Long, a 6-foot-1 grad transfer from Texas. Mitrou-Long played his first two seasons at Mount St. Mary’s, then sat out a redshirt year at Texas before opening the 2018-19 campaign as a key backcourt contributor for the Longhorns. But after logging 22.8 minutes per game over the first 17 contests, Mitrou-Long’s role was scaled back as Texas played younger guards ahead of him.
Over the final 19 games, he played just 13.5 minutes, and he never got off the bench in Texas’ win over Lipscomb in the NIT title game.
After he committed to UNLV, Mitrou-Long gave several interviews in which he stated he was brought in by Otzelberger to run the point; if we take him at his word, it looks like his role will be significant. So what can the fifth-year senior bring to the Rebels?
After watching five of his most substantial games from last season, Mitrou-Long appears to have a defined skill set — some good, some bad.
The first skill to look for in any player in Otzelberger’s system is outside shooting. He wants the majority of his guys to pose a threat from beyond the arc, so possessing a respectable jumper is a must. For a guard — who will be spending much of his time stationed above the arc — it’s even more important.
Mitrou-Long’s shooting ability cannot be considered a strength. He has made 35.1 percent of his 3-point attempts for his career (93-of-265), and last year his accuracy cratered at 32.0 percent (33-of-103).
More concerning than his plummeting percentages, however, was the way Mitrou-Long tended to miss. His shot was way off in the games I watched; there was no consistency to it. He fired up too many wide-open 3’s that didn’t come close. Good shooters miss by fractions, not by as much as Mitrou-Long did:
According to Synergy Sports data, Mitrou-Long averaged 0.838 points per possession on all jump shots last year, which ranked 1,030th among Division I players who attempted at least 100 jumpers. His catch-and-shoot accuracy was better, as he made 45.2 percent of his unguarded attempts, but overall the numbers weren't good.
Could Mitrou-Long perform better from beyond the arc in 2019-20? It’s possible. His sophomore year at Mount St. Mary’s provides some hope, as he connected on 38.2 percent from deep that season. But that was by far the best rate of his career; counting on a return to that level could lead to disappointment.
Another key in Otzelberger’s system is pushing the ball. He wants to play at a fast tempo — his South Dakota State teams ranked 54th, 47th, and 56th in possessions per game the past three years — and that starts with getting the ball up the court and creating open looks early in the shot clock. Judging by Mitrou-Long’s play last year, that may not be a natural part of his game.
When Mitrou-Long got the ball in his hands with an opportunity to force the issue, he often demurred. He was reluctant to crank things up to full speed, and he was not comfortable probing the defense in transition. That led to a lot of possessions where Mitrou-Long pushed the ball across midcourt, then slowed up and waited to set up the halfcourt offense:
As a halfcourt player, Mitrou-Long mostly served as a floor-spacer for Texas. He moved and re-positioned himself behind the 3-point line, waiting for kick-out passes. When he was on the ball and put in position to create offense, he struggled to penetrate.
Mitrou-Long’s ball-handling ability did not appear to be good enough to play as a lead guard on a full-time basis. When he tried to break down his defender off the dribble or turn the corner toward the basket, the defense was often able to deflect the ball away or force him to circle back around:
The Synergy data highlights Mitrou-Long's struggles on the ball. He produced just 0.595 points per possession on isolation plays last year, which would have ranked him last on the 2018-19 UNLV roster.
On the occasions when Mitrou-Long was able to get inside the defense, he did show a good eye for finding the open man, whether it was with a drop pass to a big man under the basket or a kick-out to an open shooter:
For the season, Mitrou-Long averaged 1.6 assists per game, and his Synergy numbers in the pick-and-roll were weak despite the good passing highlighted above. As the ball-handler on pick-and-roll plays, Mitrou-Long averaged 0.473 points per possession; among UNLV players last year, only freshman guard Trey Woodbury was worse (0.250 PPP on only eight possessions).
Judging by his play last season, Mitrou-Long looks like he could provide some value on the defensive end of the floor. He is an active and conscientious defender; he wants to defend and he puts in his best effort on every play.
He’s got good enough feet to stay in front of opposing guards, and he’s strong enough to body up and keep them out of the lane most of the time. When he does get beat, it’s on change-of-direction moves like spins and crossovers, but for the most part he is sturdy enough at the point of attack:
Mitrou-Long excels at two little things that coaches tend to love: He is exceptional at avoiding screens, and he contests jump shots with 100-percent intensity.
When defenders try to set picks on the ball, he is good at contorting his body sideways to get around the body and stay with his man. He does it without fouling or getting out of control, which cuts down on the need for help defense behind him. It’s a small detail that adds up over the course of a game:
And though he’s just 6-foot-1, Mitrou-Long has a delightful zest for challenging shots. He has good timing and good body control — those traits allow him to get his hand up at the highest point without making contact with the shooter. Even when he helps off his man, he hustles back and recovers in time to contest:
According to Synergy, opponents shot 31.1 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers when defended by Mitrou-Long. In the games I watched, Mitrou-Long didn’t rack up a ton of defensive stats like steals and blocks, but he made an impact by staying alive on screens and making life difficult for opposing shooters. It’s actually kind of fun to watch him try to block jumpers.
Does all that add up to an effective point guard? It will likely come down to whether Mitrou-Long can make shots like he did three years ago at Mount St. Mary’s. If he’s a 38-percent shooter from deep, he’s a valuable starter. If he hovers around 30 percent, he’s a defensive specialist who will struggle to justify starter’s minutes.
It seems like a quintessential “low ceiling, high floor” addition by Otzelberger. And with Mitrou-Long at the point, it will allow Otzelberger to play Amauri Hardy at shooting guard more often, where the junior will be free to attack and score at a high volume.
If Mitrou-Long plays good defense and facilitates Hardy’s ascension to Mountain West stardom, he’ll go down as one of the better gambles in UNLV’s recent history of band-aid point guards.