The Cardinal are coming off two bigs wins against UCLA and USC. The season hasn’t started the off well for Stanford, but with the return of Dorian Pickens and the debut of Kezie Okpala, the team might be turning it around. King Jemison and Jose Saldana discuss the team’s recent performances, the freshmen renaissance and the upcoming game against Washington.
After starting the season with losses to Eastern Washington, Portland State and Cal, the Cardinal have won two games in a row to solid Pac-12 competition (UCLA and USC). Are these two wins a sign of things to come or just a mirage?
King Jemison (KJ): These last two games are definitely no fluke. We said for most of the early part of the season that Stanford would have a chance to improve tremendously once they got healthy, and now the team is at least close to full strength. After playing the first twelve games without their top three wings, the Cardinal now have the services of Dorian Pickens and Kezie Okpala. Their length and scoring ability have made a tremendous difference on both ends of the floor. Pickens made his presence felt in a big way against UCLA when he scored 26 points, including a last-second three to send the game into overtime. Coach Jerod Haase already considers Okpala the team’s best defender, and he’s also averaging over 10 points just four games into his college career. Meanwhile, the other Cardinal freshmen are also progressing rapidly. Daejon Davis had 22 points and seven assists against UCLA and then hit the half-court buzzer-beater to take down USC. Oscar da Silva continues to find various ways to contribute, and his rebounding and timely three-point shooting have been key in Stanford’s mini-run. On top of all this, it seems like the attitude of the team has changed completely. For most of the season, when things started to go wrong for Stanford, the team collapsed. But in the last two games, they demonstrated tremendous resiliency by overcoming double-digit deficits in both contests. If this new attitude persists and the team stays healthy, this could be just the beginning of a fantastic end to the season for the Cardinal.
Jose Saldana (JS): The return of senior guard Dorian Pickens, who was Stanford’s best three-point shooter last year, and the debut of former five-star recruit Kezie Okpala has breathed new life into the Cardinal’s season. They are definitely a better team than they were in the non-conference slate, and they can play spoiler in the Pac-12. Defeating two quality teams in USC and UCLA cannot be a fluke, but I would like to see this team on the road to see the potential for the end of the season. Stanford has the opportunity to solidify its status as a quality Pac-12 team during its Washington road trip this week. The team still isn’t fully healthy with junior guard Marcus Sheffield likely out for most or all of the year. However, the resiliency the team has shown has been impressive and should favor the Cardinal against the weaker Pac-12 opponents (except for Cal apparently).
Put this team against Eastern Washington or Portland State or Long Beach State and the Cardinal don’t lose those games.
The freshmen have played big roles since the season began. What has allowed them to be contributors so early in their collegiate careers?
JS: The poise and versatility of the freshman have been the most notable attributes they have shown. Daejon Davis’ 6-foot-3 frame allows him to guard most backcourt players plus his ability to score in the paint has allowed Stanford to break the offensive lulls it sometimes has. Davis has a problem with turning the ball over but his other positive contributions outweigh the bad. Okpala has flashed his potential as a two-way force for the Cardinal. He is averaging 10.3 points per game (although not on great efficiency) and Coach Haase has great confidence in Okpala’s defense. On the Trojans last possession, Okpala had the defensive responsibility on USC guard Jordan McLaughlin. Although McLaughlin scored, Okpala made the layup as difficult as possible. Oscar Da Silva has been incredibly efficient with 49.3/55.0/71.4 shooting splits. He was put in an unfamiliar situation as the third big in the lineup early in the year but his energy has been constant throughout. Isaac White, who started nine games for the Cardinal, is an elite three-point shooter. He can be a bit consistent but once he gets going from a distance, the points go up in a hurry.
All the freshman have been put in unideal situations but each has adjusted in some way or another.
KJ: The freshmen were forced to play big roles early on in the season thanks to injuries and a lack of experienced talent in the backcourt. Davis, in particular, was thrust into a starting role right away because the point guard position was so tenuous. Davis certainly had the talent to be on the court, but he was still not quite ready for the college game at that point in the season. He had too many turnovers and not enough production early on, but he has improved tremendously. He has fantastic length and speed, making him a force going towards the basket. He’s starting to make some really beautiful passes in traffic while also managing to be more under control, thus avoiding the turnover plague. His dramatic turnaround culminated in the heroic 50-footer at the horn to beat USC. Davis would not have been confident or under control enough to make that play a month ago. Now that he is, the Pac-12 better be on alert.
Meanwhile, Okpala has already proved to be one of the most talented guys on the entire roster in just four games. His length and athleticism have made a huge difference on the defensive end, and he has a fantastic mid-range game that Stanford was sorely lacking prior to his arrival. Da Silva is a great rebounder who is becoming a more and more polished offensive player. White may have the best pure shooting stroke on the team. All of these guys need to get more consistent, but that’s the deal with freshmen. They all came in with incredible talent, and they are delivering on that promise already.
Washington has exceeded expectations with a 12-4 record. The Huskies have already passed their wins from last year (9). The Cardinal head to Seattle on Saturday after playing Washington State on Thursday. What will Stanford have to do come up with a victory?
JS: The Huskies have won games because of their balance on offense. Four players are averaging over 11 points per game and their rotation goes nine-deep. I don’t think they are as good as their record indicates since they only have a +3.2 scoring margin, but Washington can beat any team in the conference, especially in Seattle.
Freshman guard Jaylen Nowell has been great for the Huskies. Leading the team in points per game at 16.3, Nowell has been a much-needed addition to the Washington team that won only nine games last season. He was teammates with Daejon Davis at Garfield High School, but while Davis decommitted from the Huskies to join Stanford, Nowell remained in Seattle to much early success. Pickens and Okpala will need to limit Nowell on the offensive end. Although Nowell has been a spark for Washington, junior forward Noah Dickerson has been the best player on the team. Averaging 15.1 points per game and 7.7 rebounds per game, Dickerson is a beast in the paint and scores at a high rate (60.4 percent on field goals). Reid Travis will need to be his usual self to cancel out Dickerson’s production.
KJ: Not many people predicted that Washington would get way better with the departure of Markelle Fultz, the number one overall pick in last year’s NBA Draft. But in Fultz’s absence, a number of scorers have stepped up for the Huskies. The freshman Nowell leads a balanced attack that features four players averaging over 11 points per game. Dickerson is shooting over 60 percent for the year and is also a great rebounder. Stanford will need to prevent Nowell from getting to the basket and keep Dickerson off the boards, two areas in which they have struggled at times this year. A lot of that responsibility will fall to Okpala, who has helped with both the defensive rebounding and the on-ball defense. Plus, this Stanford team is getting more confident and should be able to take advantage of the Huskies 249th ranked defense. If the Cardinal can play like they did in the second half against UCLA and USC, they can run with anybody.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu and Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu.