As the NBA season has wound down and funneled into fewer and fewer games, I've had the chance to dive deeper into the grassroots circuit and hone in more on what this next season of college hoops could look like.
I am irrationally excited about the Baylor Bears coming into the 2022-23 NCAA season.
After a second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament to eventual finalist North Carolina, the Bears are in a state of flux. Jeremy Sochan and Kendall Brown, two projected first-round picks, are in the 2022 NBA Draft pool. Starting point guard James Akinjo, who led the Big 12 with 5.8 assists per game this past season, announced he'd also enter the draft and hire an agent. Starting forward Matthew Mayer also entered, and recently entered the transfer portal. And finally, leading scorer Adam Flagler too entered the draft, although he remains NCAA eligible as he tests the waters of his draft stock.
Needless to say, things are changing in Waco, Texas! Baylor big man Flo Thamba will return for a fifth year and Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchoua is coming back from the knee injury that sidelined him late in conference play. LJ Cryer missed the NCAA Tournament and end of last year with a foot injury, and should step into an even larger role as a third-year player.
Five of the top six in minutes played on the team last year might not be back in the rotation, which is equally jarring and exciting. With that being said, open minutes means new opportunities!
Where things start for me in my intrigue is Keyonte George. The five-star shooting guard out of IMG Academy has a legitimate chance to be the best guard to play at Baylor, which is high praise considering the wealth of NBA talent that's flowed through head coach Scott Drew's tenure.
George is an effortless shooter off a variety of movements. He's comfortable off the ball and moves well as a cutter. His pull-up and shot creation are routinely cash for him. George's handle shifts defenders with guile, and he can maneuver his way through tight spaces with ease.
He has real pop around the rim, and some of the finishes through contact he pulls off are WILD. So often, we talk about three-level scorers and look at guys who can handle and operate behind the arc and in the mid-range with lesser efficacy at the rim; George is a plus pretty much anywhere on the court, which makes him a remarkably tough guard.
He can capably run offense, setting up incredibly well out of pick-and-roll situations with pocket passes, dump-offs and a really impressive lob game as well.
George is a stout defender at the point of attack with active hands, and routinely will make the right plays off the ball as well. He's a tremendous all-around player with a real opportunity to make waves as a freshman. His shot creation next year is going to be a joy to watch against some of the best defenses in college basketball.
Another one of the major reasons I'm excited for Baylor is Langston Love's return to the court! Love was the 35th-ranked recruit in the 2021 high school class, but missed the entirety of his freshman season with an ACL tear. It would be unfair to expect him to come back without rust, but it's good to get a reminder of just how good Love is when healthy.
While it'd be tough to crack the starting lineup given who's returning, Love's shotmaking and creation (a theme for Baylor) could be a boon.
Love has a really explosive drive game that allows him to get into the paint, but he tends to rely more on speed rather than his handle — which isn't neccesarily a bad thing — but will likely be there for him less in college.
Watch that first clip. Love does a great job getting into the paint, but that's the sort of play where I really want to see him take a hang dribble and a momentary pause off the screen. He doesn't typically see skip passes from here — which again, not an indictment — but it's where he's at as a playmaker right now. There's a lot of room to grow with reps.
When he gets an ideal lane or angle, Love can collapse a defense, but I like what he can do operating on the second side of actions more. Getting involved in an empty-corner action, using pistol exchanges to get him open looks and getting the most out of his shooting gravity and straight-line speed are where a lot of his best reads come from as a playmaker. He's so solid at hitting backline cutters from the middle of the floor.
As mentioned, the creation is what stands out with this Baylor squad.
Up and down the roster, there are players who can dribble, shoot and make the right plays.
Cryer was one of the best shooters on volume in basketball last season, canning 46.8% of his threes (5.8 per game). Flagler was a 38.7% shooter on 6.3 attempts per game last season.
Baylor is a team that's thrived upon having multiple shot-creators over the last few seasons, and the Bears have fully leaned into that identity headed into the upcoming year. As different as this team will be made up, its apparent strengths could make for some incredible offensive ball.
One of the bigger questions is the defense. While Love and George are both capable defenders to be sure, they're a significant downshift in size from Sochan and Brown. With Mayer out of the picture as well, things get murky on the wing.
Baylor added Caleb Lohner, a starter at BYU last year, via the transfer portal. The 6-foot-8 forward showed some ability to play defense out on the perimeter, although seems much more adept in help and as the low man. It'll be interesting to see how he factors in.
The Bears also added West Virginia transfer Jalen Bridges, who brings a vital skill set and versatility to Baylor and seems to be a likely starter (started all 33 games for the Mountaineers last season).
I was really intrigued by Bridges as a freshman, but last year's WVU team was a tough to evaluate contextually. After a 13-2 start, the team went 3-15 the rest of the way. The defense was average, but pretty awful by Bob Huggins' standards, and the offense was among the worst in the country. Bridges' efficiency dropped without much of an increase in usage, which was odd and a bit discouraging. Yet, with a new team and alongside better offensive talent, I think there's a chance Bridges really pops as a player — but much of it will be determined by how his shot falls.
Bridges has good size at 6-7 with a sizable wingspan and solid instincts. He has some really good moments both on and off the ball with active hands, but finding consistency on that end will be key for him and for Baylor.
This Baylor team has a new look, a retooled roster and a bright future this season if things really click.