It was a big deal when New Mexico State landed Texas Southern graduate transfer Zach Lofton right before the Fourth of July.
Chris Jans had scored a recruiting coup, as he reportedly beat out Gonzaga, Ole Miss and South Carolina for the reigning SWAC Player of the Year. And it was massively important, as the Aggies needed to replace their top two scorers in Ian Baker and Braxton Huggins.
Scoring never figured to be a problem with Lofton. But five games into the season, no one likely figured the senior wing would be scoring as much, and as efficiently, as he is. Two great performances over the past week in wins over Colorado State (30 points, 8 rebounds) and UTEP (18 points, 8 rebounds) earned him the league Player of the Week honor.
If his hot start continues, it certainly won’t be the last time he wins that award. And in the hyper-early going, he has to be the favorite for the WAC’s grandest prize of them all, the Player of the Year.
There’s a lifetime of a season to still be played, but as of now Lofton is leading the WAC in points per game (23.8 PPG), effective field goal percentage (71.0 eFG%) and true shooting percentage (71.1 TS%). The latter two stats are the ones that jump off the page.
When Lofton signed, NMSU figured to get a guy that could put points on the board, but that would need a high number of shots to do it. Last season at Texas Southern, he put up 12.6 field goal attempts per game, and while he did he score a healthy amount of points (16.8 PPG), he didn’t do it very efficiently (42.0 FG%, 45.8 eFG%). He especially struggled from three, and came to Las Cruces as a 27.5 percent career three-point shooter who hadn’t been shy about firing from distance.
The experience and production was needed, but was an at-times inefficient scorer that might have trouble spacing the floor the best fit with Sidy N’Dir and A.J. Harris, two other perimeter players without a track record of success from deep?
Through five games, the fit has been ideal.
Lofton is taking and making more three’s than ever, currently shooting nearly 20 percentage points above his career average (46.7 3P%). And his overall shooting numbers are sky high, and well above where he was a year ago. Chris Jans talked to the Las Cruces Sun-News about Lofton’s start last week.
"That's the best thing he has going for him is his efficiency," Jans said. "He's doing it in the framework of our offense and he's not having to deviate from what we are trying to get him to do and if he can continue to do that and be that efficient, that really helps us."
Is it all sustainable? Lofton’s early season numbers are so good that he’ll almost certainly take a dip, but there are a couple of things working in his favor. Per Hoop-Math, he’s taking less two-point jump shots — the most inefficient shot in the game —than he was a year ago. And the level of competition — or at least the theoretical talent he’s played against — hasn’t been dreadful, as the Aggies have played Saint Mary’s, UTEP, Colorado State and New Mexico.
Anecdotes can be more fun than numbers, and those are there too. Beating struggling rivals must be great for NMSU fans, but the most encouraging thing this season has been the Aggies’ first half effort at Saint Mary’s (even if the Gaels have lost a little of their shine of late).
Lofton contributed to a three-point barrage early in that game that had SMC on upset alert. And then when the Gaels surged in the second half, Lofton was the only Aggie that continued to produce, making several tough shots that kept the game marginally close until the final 10 minutes. That type of leadership will be crucial as Jans navigates a season with Harris and N’Dir, two talented players that are still light on experience.
Here’s who else has shined in the conference throughout the early going:
Utah Valley: The Wolverines get production from all over, but Akolda Manyang has been even better than the people drooling the heaviest over his potential may have thought (17.0 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 2.2 BPG).
Grand Canyon: No surprises here, Josh Braun has been tremendous (17.4 PPG).
CSU Bakersfield: Brent Wrapp had a great trip to Alaska, but Shon Briggs has been the steady hand Rod Barnes needs (12.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG).
Seattle: Matej Kavas continues to cement himself as one of the best recruiting finds in recent WAC history (18.4 PPG, 6.3 RPG). Has Jim Hayford sent a thank you card yet? Special mention to Aaron Menzies, who has stayed healthy and been dominant for stretches — including against Washington’s PAC-12 size (17 points, 13 rebounds).
UMKC: You can’t ignore Broderick Robinson, but Isaiah Ross has been as combustible a scorer as many thought heading into the season. The sophomore went wild against UT Martin (27 points, 7-11 3FG).
UT Rio Grande Valley: Like GCU, there’s no drama here. Nick Dixon has been fantastic (23.7 PPG, 5.0 RPG), and it has helped the Vaqueros win a pair of road games (North Texas, Texas A&M Corpus Christi), and scare the hair off Josh Pastner and Georgia Tech in a close loss.
Chicago State: Fred Sims is back at it, helping the Cougars navigate a brutal non-conference schedule (15.3 PPG).
Games of the Week:
BYU at Utah Valley, Nov. 29
The UCCU Center is sold out as the Wolverines try to recapture the magic from their historic win last year in Provo.
New Mexico State at UTEP, Nov. 30
The Aggies just beat their I-10 rival, and now see them with a different coach after Tim Floyd decided he’d had enough. Salt in the wound time?
South Dakota at UMKC, Nov. 30
Not just because #WACWednesday will be in attendance for UMKC’s first campus game of the year. South Dakota is a Summit contender, and the Roos have been on a good string since the Gulf Coast Showcase. Can they pick up a great home win?
Eastern Washington at Seattle, Dec. 3
Hayford faces his old team for the first time, and must deal with Bogdan Bliznyuk, a problem he helped create.
St. John’s v. Grand Canyon, Dec. 5 (at Talking Stick Resort Arena)
It’s proving time for the Lopes against a Red Storm team that can get hot behind Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett.