RENO — By the time you’ve read this, Nevada junior Jalen Harris has blown past the field in transition. Jazz Johnson has zig-zagged through a maze of screens to hit another corner three. Lindsey Drew has used his wide, sweeping crossovers to get into the lane for another floater. They are that prolific.
And if the first half of Mountain West play is indicative of things to come, then the Wolf Pack will only go as far as this trio will take it.
Despite losing all five starters and head coach Eric Musselman from a 29-win team, Nevada has ridden its backcourt and offense to a tie for second in the Mountain West. As it stands, the Wolf Pack rank second in the MWC in offensive efficiency, first in three-point percentage (41.7%) and second in turnover percentage (15.9%). When its guards are clicking, Nevada is hard to stop.
“I think if it’s just two of our guards, we’re a different team,” Head coach Steve Alford said after Nevada’s Jan. 22 win over UNLV. “If we’ve got a third or a fourth scorer, we’re a much better team. I think UNLV and other teams are the same way. I think that’s where it becomes hard because we’re a team just like that.”
“Right now, we’re no secret: Our guards score.”
It’s a story that’s been told over and over again, but like the best stories, it’s one that bears repeating. Nevada’s NCAA Tournament aspirations, which are at 9.1%, per Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast, hinge on Harris, Johnson and Drew. No backcourt in the Mountain West stacks up to them: Harris is the Mountain West’s second-highest scorer at 18.9 PPG, Johnson leads the conference with a 43.1% mark from three and Drew can lead Nevada in scoring, rebounding or passing on any given night. As a unit, the trio accounts for 76.8% of the Wolf Pack’s shots and 975 of the team’s 1585 points.
The latest chapter in Nevada’s story was last week’s pair of double-digit wins against UNLV, and New Mexico, the latter of which featured a school-record 17 threes. Somewhere along the way, Harris earned his second Mountain West Player of the Week award and Alford earned his 600th career win — all while the trio combined for 51.5 PPG.
But the stats and figures tell one half of the story. Nevada’s backcourt has three of the Mountain West’s most electrifying, elusive and entertaining players.
The face of the Wolf Pack backcourt is always stoic.
Jalen Harris has an unflinching, yet calculated aura on the court. To him, defenders are either mere inconveniences between him and the rim, or more spectators to watch his team-leading 15.1 field goal attempts per game.
If the junior was fazed for his first rivalry game against UNLV on Jan. 22, he certainly didn’t show it. Harris got on the board by getting open off a screen, then spotting up for a three right in front of the Runnin’ Rebels’ bench. Once he returned to earth, he turned towards them expressionless — cold-blooded, even — before getting back on defense.
In Nevada’s 96-74 win over New Mexico three days later, he had the same cool, calculated demeanor when defenders didn’t bother picking him up in transition. While the Lobos halfheartedly peeled off to cover other Nevada players, Harris surged ahead of the pack and finished coast-to-coast layups — all while looking unbothered. This happened more than once.
If any player on Nevada’s roster has seen guys with Harris’s scoring prowess, then it’s Lindsey Drew. When asked about Harris, Drew conceded the junior was on-par with the likes of Caleb and Cody Martin, Marcus Marshall and Jordan Caroline.
“He stacks up with those other guys,” Drew said after the UNLV win. “He can pretty much score on all three levels and he can defend, so he’s one of the better guys I’ve played with.”
Like his running-mates, Harris isn’t a one-dimensional player. The former Louisiana Tech Bulldog is oftentimes Nevada’s primary defender, an athletic rebounder and an all-around elite guard; to wit, he finished the UNLV win with 26 points, six rebounds, six assists, three steals and zero turnovers. He can do it all.
“I try to find my teammates — sometimes I do a better than other days, but [I] come out here and do whatever I’ve got to do to win,” Harris said on Jan. 22.
His teammates aren’t too shabby either.
This year, senior sharpshooter-turned-scorer Jazz Johnson is no longer Nevada’s sixth-man — and teams have wisened up. Instead of living in the corner as a spot-up shooter, waiting for players like the Martin twins or Jordan Caroline to take their defenders off the dribble, Johnson is the all-around scorer he was at Portland as an underclassman.
For example: The Runnin’ Rebels doubled Johnson and hedged on screens all game, mostly with 6’10 Cheikh Mbacke Diong, the conference’s leading shot-blocker. Even though UNLV accounted for Johnson in the first half, Harris picked up the slack by reaching double-figures before halftime.
Then something clicked.
Johnson, who was 0-6 and 0-4 from three in the first half, wheeled over to the left corner to make his first three. On the next possession, he shuffled Blair around with a couple crossovers and nailed his second three near the logo. Harris took over on the next two possessions, weaving in and out of the paint for a midrange jumper, then making back-to-back threes — all before the first media timeout. Johnson’s shooting gave his teammates space; from that point forward, he drove on his defenders and got to the free-throw line for 10 of his 19 points.
“Jazz did a good job getting to the free-throw line,” Alford said after the 86-72 win. “[He] learned he could score while not making a lot of shots — he went to the line 11 times.”
Alford’s sets act less like plays and more like obstacle courses for Johnson to run through. Watch any possession, and he’s moving the most. Johnson’s simplest move is in transition, where he’ll sprint along one sideline, then peel off into the opposite corner. But in half-court sets, he’ll cut baseline, stepping in and out of screens on the block, switch directions on a dime or decelerate, lulling his opponents before popping outside the arc for an open three. More often than not, Johnson is rewarded for all his running.
This leaves Drew, the lone player from Musselman’s first season at Nevada, as the missing link between Harris and Johnson. Now in his fifth year, Drew has set new career bests with 11.7 PPG and 6.2 RPG, all while shooting a career-best 48.4% from the field.
Drew’s athleticism isn’t found in his speed — in fact, it’s with his verticality. Like Harris, Drew another big guard at 6’4, which helps his rebounding. Fittingly, he shares the distinction with Harris as Nevada’s leading rebounder, and is ninth in the conference with 130 total rebounds — all while playing a year removed from suffering an Achilles’ tear that sidelined him for 44 games.
“Honestly, I have to give it to the big guys because they box out their guys,” Drew said on Jan. 25. “We just tell them to get their guys so that me and Jalen can come in and rebound.”
When all three are running the fast-break, they look like they’re playing basketball at a different speed than everyone else. These possessions usually start with Drew soaring for a rebound, then finding Harris, who knifes through traffic before either taking it to the rack himself, or finding Johnson open for three. According to Hoop-Math, the Wolf Pack shoot over 50 eFG% after a rebound and 55.6 eFG% in transition.
“I think teams have done a really good job at defending our three-ball, so we’ve had to really concentrate on it,” Alford said on Jan. 25. “I think getting out in transition a bit helps us a little bit. I think we’re passing the ball better. When our ball moves, it gives us a chance to cut and get open.”
But what if Nevada needs another scoring option?
Finding a balance between its backcourt and the rest of the team will be paramount for the rest of the season. Nevada has a 6-7 record when it has three or fewer double-digit scorers; when more than four players score in double-figures, the Wolf Pack are 8-1. It sounds overly simplistic, yet it’s true: the more players involved in the Wolf Pack offense, the harder it is to stop.
“When we get production out of the center spot, it makes us that much better,” Alford said. “On a whole this year, when we’ve been on our best and we’ve won, our bench has outscored our opponents’ bench.”
Over the past few games, several players emerged as consistent options. There’s senior guard Nisré Zouzoua, who in his second season in Reno has become the sixth-man Nevada needs. Redshirt freshman K.J. Hymes is a future starter who shows why he was named the MWC’s Preseason Freshman of the Year when he asserts himself around the rim. Meanwhile, 6’9 forward Zane Meeks, who has made at least one three in his past 10 games, can stretch the floor. In a conference with multi-faceted teams like San Diego State, Utah State and Boise State, relying on one of these players to counter will be crucial — especially in the MWC Tournament.
The talent is there. Nevada’s guards will have to keep finding them.