At no time during Monday’s 13½-minute interview did Mike Hopkins speak disparagingly about Jaden McDaniels, a once-in-a-decade basketball star with an assortment of skills that makes him a likely lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft.
That’s not his style.
The Washington men’s basketball coach, who could give Seahawks coach Pete Carroll a run for his money in a race to determine the most optimistic man in Seattle, isn’t one to undress a player publicly after a subpar performance.
And yet it was difficult not to think about the touted freshman forward while Hopkins described the litany of troubles with a Huskies offense that has stalled in each of its three games this season.
“We’ve got to cut down our turnovers,” said Hopkins, bemoaning UW’s 17.3 turnovers per game, which ranks 314th among 350 NCAA Division I teams. “Seventeen is too many.”
McDaniels leads the Pac-12 in turnovers (14) and turnovers per game (4.7), which detracts from his array of contributions as a versatile performer who averages 12.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.7 steals.
In many ways, the 6-foot-9 Federal Way phenom is emblematic of a UW offense that is averaging 61.7 points and ranks last in the Pac-12 – more than 12 points behind the 11th-ranked team.
When McDaniels excels, as he did in the final minutes of Washington’s 67-64 victory over then-No. 16 Baylor, then the 25th-ranked Huskies look like one of the best teams in the country.
And when he demurs offensively, makes silly turnovers, takes just two free throws and settles for errant jumpers as he did in Saturday’s 75-62 loss to Tennessee, then it becomes a talking point on message boards and postgame interviews.
“We’ve got to be more aggressive taking the ball to the basket,” Hopkins said, noting the 24-10 free-throw attempt disparity between UW and the Volunteers. “With the athletes that we have, going to the foul line 10 times in a game like that is not going to do it against a quality opponent like Tennessee.”
Of course, Washington’s offensive dysfunction isn’t just a factor of what McDaniels is or isn’t doing. Every UW player bears responsibility for an offense that ranks 314th nationally in scoring.
Outside of leading scorers Nahziah Carter (18.3 points per game), Isaiah Stewart (15.0) and McDaniels, the rest of the Huskies average 15.7 points and account for a mere 25.4% of the scoring.
“We’ve got to play together more,” Hopkins said. “We have a lot of unselfish players, but they’ve got to make the extra pass and we’ve got to find the open man. We can’t be ball stoppers.”
Carter has been nearly flawless while captivating fans with highflying dunks and taking over the role vacated by Jaylen Nowell, last season’s Pac-12 Player of the Year.
But the junior guard has also been a detriment at the foul line where he is shooting 58.3% (7 of 12).
Stewart is off to a solid start while averaging 7.3 rebounds and shooting 60% from the field. But like Carter, the freshman forward has also struggled at the charity stripe and is shooting 42.9% (3 of 7).
Despite their shoddy free-throw shooting, Hopkins can’t have his three leading scorers each attempt just two foul shots as they did against Tennessee.
“We’ve got to be stronger going to the basket,” he said. “When you go to the basket, you’ve got to get fouled or make a basket. That’s where we’ve got to get better, more aggressive, attacking the rim. And then also we need to find the open man better.”
Starting with Tuesday’s 8 p.m. nonconference matchup against Maine (1-2), Washington (2-1) has five straight home games to correct its offensive flaws before its next big game, a Dec. 8 meeting with No. 8 Gonzaga.
“We’ve just got to slow down,” Hopkins said. “The inexperience (and) the new roles, everybody wants more and they’re trying to force it to happen rather than trusting what we’re doing and letting it happen with our team.”