Is it too early for Mike Hopkins and the Huskies to hit the panic button?
Maybe so, but for the first time this season Washington’s postseason aspirations feel at risk after the 66-64 upset loss against UCLA in the Pac-12 opener Thursday night.
The defeat dropped UW to 10-4 overall and 0-1 in the conference.
Here are three impressions.
WHAT’S GOING ON WITH JADEN MCDANIELS?
That was a bizarre performance from Jaden McDaniels, who finished with five fouls, four turnovers, three points, two rebounds and one really strange technical foul in a season-low 13 minutes, 30 seconds of playing time.
Unfortunately for UW’s 19-year-old star, the narrative is starting to shift from his extraordinary on-court abilities that have made him a projected lottery pick in the NBA draft next summer to a mercurial mistake-prone freshman who leads the Pac-12 with 49 turnovers.
His latest technical seemed like an innocent misunderstanding or misinterpretation from a referee who was quick with the T. McDaniels was sitting on the sideline when the basketball flew at him. Almost instinctively, he casually threw the ball back on the court in the direction of UCLA’s Prince Ali.
However, Ali wasn’t expecting the ball and flinched. And an official standing next to McDaniels gave him a technical that seemed to surprise McDaniels, who was caught on television cameras saying, “What did I do?”
It was McDaniels’ fourth foul with 3:16 left in the first half. He started the second half and fouled out with 16 minutes left.
McDaniels now has fouled out of four games and has had four fouls in four other contests.
After the game, Hopkins went to bat for his temperamental phenom.
“Jaden is a great kid,” the UW coach said. “He’s not a bad kid. He likes to have fun, but he’s got to be more serious in certain situations. I don’t think he did anything maliciously. I just think it was one of those things where the referee is a little sensitive. He threw the ball.
“He’s just got to do better. You shouldn’t do it in the first place and No. 2 it puts us at a disadvantage with points and foul trouble. It can’t happen.”
Aside from the technical, McDaniels has yet to seriously address his turnovers troubles that detract from his positive attributes in many other areas.
He’s second on the Huskies in assists (2.4 a game) and blocks (1.1), third in points (13.5), rebounds (5.4) and steals (1.1).
Benching McDaniels or reducing his minutes doesn’t seem like a viable option considering his production and the drop off in UW reserves.
But it’s becoming obvious that McDaniels’ learning curve might ultimately decide how Washington fares in Pac-12 play.
THE ZONE DEFENSE NEEDS TINKERING
Hopkins admits there are “pockets” in Washington’s 2-3 zone in which the Huskies are vulnerable to surrendering offensive rebounds.
However, he can live with a few second-chance opportunities for opponents if the zone is doing its primary function, which is to negate the other team’s perimeter attack.
Thursday, UCLA torched Washington with 10-for-26 shooting on three-pointers and beat up the Huskies inside while collecting 22 offensive rebounds.
Needless to say, that’s not a winning combination for UW.
The Huskies are one of the top shot-blocking teams in the nation and they had nine against the Bruins. And UW kept UCLA (8 of 15 on free throws) off the foul line for the most part.
But for the second consecutive game, Washington got hammered on the glass.
Isaiah Stewart (24 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks) was spectacular once again, but he can’t grab every rebound for the Huskies.
And Washington needs to do better identifying the hot hand.
UCLA freshman guard Jake Kyman entered the game Thursday with 18 total points while shooting 4 of 13 on three-pointers.
Against the Huskies, he finished with a career-high 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting behind the arc.
IT’S NAZ CARTER TIME
Nahziah Carter seemed poised to be the hero Thursday. Without McDaniels for much of the second half, the Huskies needed a secondary scorer to pair with Stewart.
Carter stepped up in a big way while scoring 14 of his 16 points in the second half.
The junior guard needs more opportunities like he had Thursday when the ball was in his hands and he was tasked to make a play.
At times, Carter pulled up for a mid-range jumper. He flushed a crowd-pleading alley-oop jam in traffic. And he sank a go-ahead three-pointer with 24 seconds remaining.
Carter also fumbled away the basketball on UW’s last possession, but it’s interesting to note that Hopkins drew up a play for him when the Huskies trailed by two points and needed a basket with eight seconds left.
Too often Carter stands on the arc and fires from the perimeter. The Huskies need him probing the defense and attacking the rim the way Jaylen Nowell did last year. The danger here is Carter’s ball-handling is sometimes suspect and he averages 2.4 turnovers.
Still, Carter is the only UW player with the experience to understand what needs to happen in tight Pac-12 games and the ability to take over when needed.
Carter spent the past two years backing up Nowell, who garnered a reputation as a reliable closer. Now it’s Carter’s time to step into that role.