After months of acquisitions, departures and transfer portal uncertainty, new Washington State basketball coach Kyle Smith can rest easy having finalized the Cougars’ 2019-20 roster. Transfer portal entries Marvin Cannon and Ahmed Ali both opted to return to Pullman, cementing Smith’s 15-man roster, which will be a fairly even blend of returning players, Division I/junior college transfers and high school prospects.
In early March, before an influx of newcomers signed on with Smith and the Cougars, the coach was working with a cupboard, with Ali and Cannon undecided on their futures and Elleby mulling an early exit to the NBA. At that point, Smith’s roster was made up of just three players – Jervae Robinson, Aljaz Kunc and Jeff Pollard.
“I was terrified,” Smith said. “I was trying to keep it cool. … I knew we would get some of the guys we were recruiting, but boy that’s hard. It’s like a poker game. We were out of visits and I didn’t want that to be public because I’m trying to recruit. … We had four guys sign without visiting.
“So I’m really partial to these guys. I know they’re not afraid. They opted in, they want the challenge. So like I said, it was a little scary there but we’re getting the guys on the right terms and they really want to be here.”
Below, we delve into WSU’s finalized roster, breaking down how each player fared last season, their strengths, weaknesses and a quick take from Smith.
Last season: A 24-game starter for the Cougars who would’ve had the Pac-12’s third-best assist-to-turnover ratio had he averaged at least three assists.
Strengths: With Robert Franks and/or Elleby on the floor last season, the Cougars didn’t need Ali’s scoring as much, so he settled for being one of the league’s top facilitators. He’ll probably have to do more of the same for Smith this season.
What he needs to work on: Opponents will always take advantage of the 5-foot-11, 165-pound Ali on the defensive end. He can’t control that, per se, but he’ll be a much more valuable asset if he can boost his 3-point clip. Ali made 43% of his 3s at junior college, but dropped to 32 last year at WSU.
Smith’s take: “Transition, good offensive player. Good decision-maker. Good shooter. He needs to improve on the defensive end. Size, he’s got to overcome that, but he’s got a good feel. … I think he can be a good facilitator and playmaker. We really value ball-handling, he can help us there.”
Last season: Scored 21.4 points per game and grabbed 5.5 rebounds as a sophomore at Casper College in Wyoming.
Strengths: In flashes, Bonton proved he could score at the Division I level during his lone year at Montana State, then reaffirmed that in junior college. Bonton’s length and athleticism will both serve him well in the Pac-12, where he’ll be guarding bigger and better guards than the ones he saw at JC or in the Big Sky.
What he needs to work on: Staying healthy is key for someone who suffered a concussion and dealt with a bruised hip during his year in Bozeman. Turnovers have also plagued him at both college stops – Bonton’s 25 were most among the Bobcats by the time he left two years ago and his 2.7 per game led Casper in 2018-19.
Smith’s take: “He’s an explosive scorer, playmaker, and I think he’ll be a good defender. Because he’s got a good body – 6-3, 190. Good talent.”
Last season: The Virginian played in all 32 games for WSU as a sophomore, averaging 8.7 ppg in Pac-12 play.
Strengths: Getting to the free throw line should be more of a priority for somebody who had the second-best clip (84%) in the Pac-12 last season.
What he needs to work on: Cannon broke out with 25 points against Washington and reached the 20-point plateau one other time against Rider, but also failed to score in double digits 10 times in Pac-12 play. More consistency on the offensive end could turn the junior into a top-flight Pac-12 player.
Smith’s take: “Slashy shooter. Defender. Just athlete. I think he’s rare, that kind of an athlete (who) can shoot the ball.”
Last season: The Pac-12’s second-best freshman scorer and rebounder broke WSU’s freshman scoring record with 471 points on the season.
Strengths: Elleby played in the shadow of the Pac-12’s top scorer last season, but still scored nearly 15 ppg. He’s able to score from just about any spot on the floor – Elleby’s 3-point shot hit 41% of the time – is expected to score as well as anyone in the conference this season.
What he needs to work on: During the pre-NBA draft process, Elleby stated after a workout with the Indiana Pacers that defense would have to take more precedence next season. In fact, it’s probably the only thing standing between Elleby and getting picked up in the 2020 NBA draft.
Smith’s take: “Do everything. He’s one of those interchangeable pieces I think the NBA likes. But just can’t emphasize enough how much of a great attitude. I expect him – I didn’t know, he’s the one that had the leverage and he could’ve been like I don’t need it. But he’s been awesome.”
Last season: The former Utah State player finished his lone season at Salt Lake Community College with 12.3 points per game and 4.7 rebounds.
Strengths: A 6-foot-7 forward with a solid 3-point shot, Henson will give the Cougars an opportunity to stretch the floor when he’s playing and while he hasn’t proven to be an elite rebounder at either of his stops, he’s definitely serviceable and should be an asset on the boards.
What he needs to work on: Two years ago at USU, Henson was 38% from the three-point line, but just 34% from the field. Those two numbers were basically flipped last season at SLCC, but with all the competition WSU expects in the front court, Henson will probably need to improve to 45% from the field and 40% from 3 if he hopes to carve out a rotation spot.
Smith’s take: “He’s a stretch four, beautiful looking shot. It’ll be challenging, there’s a lot of depth there, and someone’s going to have to separate but he has an opportunity to.”
Last season: An injury forced James to miss his junior season at Colorado State, but the 6-6 forward averaged more than 10 points and 5 rebounds in Fort Collins the year prior.
Strengths: Aside from a 3-point shot, James has just about everything the Cougars would need from a point forward and should remind WSU fans of the program’s last grad transfer, Drick Bernstine. In his last season with the Rams, James finished third on the team in points, rebounds and blocks and turned in a solid 1.6 assists per game as well.
What he needs to work on: If James could develop some semblance of a 3-point shot, it would be a major tool for the Cougars. It’s been more than a calendar year since James has played Division I minutes, so merely getting back on the floor and showing he hasn’t lost a step will be important for the grad transfer.
Smith’s take: “We want him to be like our Draymond (Green). At least on the offensive end. Good feel, can play four, five and three. Probably more four. Four would be ideal. … A guy I recruited at San Francisco and he’s older, mature. … I think being played, started in the Mountain West and pretty productive, I think he’s a great piece for us.”
Last season: Of the returning players on this WSU roster, Kunc’s 11.7 minutes per game were the fewest, though he played in 31 of the 32 games.
Strengths: He didn’t have the minutes to truly showcase it, but Kunc brings a feathery 3-point shot and doesn’t miss much from the free throw line. His 13 steals in 2018-19 were also impressive given the limited minutes.
What he needs to work on: The sophomore is still very much a project who needs another year in the weight room before he can bang around with Pac-12 opposition. Kunc’s 23 turnovers – compared to 13 assists – were also an area of concern.
Smith’s take: “He’s kind of battling an ankle injury, but he plays hard and he’s a worker. I go in there and I get my run in, not every day, but I go in there at 7:30 a.m. and he’s usually lifting. He really wants to be good, he’s one that’ll work for it. Bright kid, too. Like a 1,450 SAT. I like those guys.”
Volodymyr “Vova” Markovetskyy
Last season: Played for a top Lithaunain pro club, Zalgiris, and advanced to the Euroleague’s Final Four. Representing the Ukraine at the 2018 FIBA U18 European Championships, he averaged 11.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots in 24.3 minutes per game.
Strengths: The Cougars list him at 7-1, 230 pounds, but Smith insists Markovetskyy is closer to 7-2, 250, which means he should immediately be a threat in the low post. If Markovetskyy does nothing else his freshman campaign, he should at least be able to throw his body around the point and devour rebounds.
What he needs to work on: Running the court isn’t a strength of the big Ukrainian’s – and it may never be. Although he’s nimble for his size, Markovetskyy will have to make conditioning a focal point his initial year with the Cougars. If he can thrive as a passer down low, it’ll open up plenty more for WSU on the perimeter.
Smith’s take: “Big Vova is a low-post presence, and he moves pretty well. He’s got good hands, did well in the Euro A’s. He produced even better than Przemek (Karnrowski) did in that level. I don’t think he’s Przemek, but it’d be nice. He’s not the same passer. He’s got a big body.”
Last season: Hampered by a concussion late in the season, Pollard only played in 29 of a possible 32 games, but still finished with the team’s best field goal percentage – albeit it came on only 93 attempts.
Strengths: Experience, experience, experience. Pollard’s voice and leadership will no doubt be his most valuable assets on this young/new WSU team. He has the most Division I experience on the roster and will presumably take on a leadership role for Smith. Pollard’s tenacity on the defensive end is also a tremendous asset for the defensive-minded Smith.
What he needs to work on: Though he’s made strides on offense, Pollard needs to be a mediocre scorer at best if he wants to see large chunks of floor time as a senior. If he can develop a decent mid-range game and spot up for the occasional 3, the forward could earn a few more minutes from a coach who went to some impressive lengths to bring him back.
Smith’s take: “Steady Eddy, stretch five. I call him Mr. Pullman. He took a visit and wanted to make sure. I had to recruit him back and I was like, ‘Come on, Jeff.’ He’s all bought in, he’s graduated, he’s in grad school, he’s in the office every day. I think he’s got the potential to be a coach someday.”
Last season: Rapp joins the Cougars after two seasons in Melbourne, Australia, where he played at Mazenod College, earning all-conference honors and winning team MCP both seasons.
Strengths: The Australian possesses good size for a combo guard and has a strong IQ for the game coming from a basketball family. Rapp may not be an excellent scorer or stout defender, but he also shouldn’t be a liability on either end of the floor for the Cougars.
What he needs to work on: With the experience in front of Rapp, it’s unlikely he sees significant floor time as a true freshman – and he may need that time to grow anyway. Adjusting to the pace of play at the NCAA level is often a hurdle for foreign players, and Rapp, similar to Kunc and Markovetskyy, may need a year with the strength training staff before he’s ready to contribute.
Smith’s take: “Late bloomer, coach’s son, worker. Big guard. … Has to get stronger. In a perfect world we’d be able to redshirt, but he’s doing well.”
Last year: One of only four players to appear in all 32 games, Robinson scored 4.6 points per game in his first Division I season.
Strengths: WSU’s offensive tempo was always a little faster when Robinson was on the court last season, and his versatility allowed him to man the point for the Cougars or play off the ball.
What he needs to work on: Robinson shot just 37% from the field last season and held the lowest 3-point percentage by a WSU guard, at just 22. Depending who’s on the floor, the Cougars won’t have much perimeter shooting from the frontcourt at times, so Robinson needs to improve there in order to guarantee a role.
Smith’s take: “(He’s) actually had a really good summer.”
Last year: A high-volume scorer and rebounder, Rodman comes to WSU after scoring 24.2 ppg and grabbing 8.9 rpg while playing for JSerra Catholic of Southern California’s highly-competitive Trinity League.
Strengths: He did a little bit of everything at the high school level and seems to be a much more capable scorer than his father was at the same age – and he’s able to play a few more spots on the floor. But Dad passed down some of his best traits, too. DJ, like Dennis, is a gritty defender, and he’s a top-notch rebounder who hauled down six boards per game each of his last three prep seasons.
What he needs to work on: With more athleticism, Rodman could’ve stacked up a few more Pac-12/Power Six offers, but most of his interest came from California mid-majors, which indicates he could be more of a project for the Cougars, who probably have too much depth at the “three” and “four” on this roster anyway.
Smith’s take: “Shot-maker, tough. He’s kind of the exact opposite (of his father). Shot-maker, got a little grit to him. Just kind of strong. Not super athletic, but good feel.”
Last year: A do-it-all guard, Williams averaged 17.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists as a high school senior at Seattle’s O’Dea.
Strengths: Smith wants Williams to stay clear of WSU’s football operations building – he’s afraid Mike Leach will take the O’Dea product on as a wide receiver. The 6-5 Williams was an All-Metro League selection for the Irish football team, and his combination of size and athleticism should get him onto the floor right away.
What he needs to work on: His skill set and athleticism should both translate to the Pac-12 level, and Williams could very well join Elleby and Malachi Flynn as the next player from the Seattle-Tacoma area to help the Cougars as a rookie. Like the rest of Smith’s freshmen, hours in the weight room and time on the practice court will be critical for the son of ex-WSU standout Guy Williams.
Smith’s take: “Noah’s an athlete. He has a chance to really impact. Defensively, tremendous and then pretty good offensive player, too. I think Isaac and him are two of the most talented guys. He’s young, but if he can – and I think he’ll be an elite guard. We like to play two point guards. He could be a game-changer down the road. But he’s really fast, and he can get to the basket. Good passer.”