Last season, Harvard lost to Yale in heartbreaking fashion in the first round of the inaugural Ivy League Tournament. The Crimson graduated Siyani Chambers and Zena Edosomwan, both of whom made indelible impacts on the program. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine a successful Harvard season without Siyani Chambers. And yet, the Crimson comes into the 2017-18 season as the preseason favorite, according to the Ivy Preseason Media Poll. While the poll predicted an incredibly close race between Harvard and familiar foes Yale and Princeton, the sentiment of the voters is clear: No one expects Harvard to take a step back this year. Here are the details on how Harvard hopes to turn high expectations on paper into actual success on the court:
Let’s start with what we know. The returning core of sophomores Bryce Aiken, Seth Towns, Chris Lewis and Justin Bassey promises to impress this season. Last season, this class, coming off a top-10 national ranking by ESPN, dazzled in every way, leaving Harvard fans salivating for the future. It reminds me of when Siyani Chambers was a freshman and Wesley Saunders, Steve Moundou-Missi, Jonah Travis, and Kenyatta Smith were sophomores. The core of that team was set for years to come. The question wasn’t, “Will they be successful?” It was, “How high is their ceiling?” Sure, every year the team had question marks: Would Kenyatta Smith finally reach his full potential? How will Brandyn Curry coexist with Siyani Chambers? How will they replace Laurent Rivard? But we generally knew what to expect; the team’s floor was set pretty high. That group went on to win three Ivy titles and two NCAA Tournament games. That’s how I feel about this year’s team: they’re going to be good. But how good?
Bryce Aiken should lead the team this season. Since he will not be splitting time with other ball-handlers, he will be able to spread his wings and he could have a huge year. I don’t necessarily expect him to transform his game completely – he’s a scorer – but it remains to be seen how well he can get others involved. With Aiken and Towns, both very talented one-on-one scorers who will play big minutes, it won’t be the end of the world if Aiken doesn’t become a pass-first guy (nor should he). Indeed, it should be very fun to watch Aiken in one-on-one situations this season (especially at the end of shot clocks).
Seth Towns will be a force on offense. His ability to drop an “easy” 15-20 points last season was astounding. And apparently he’s improved significantly. (He even reportedly beat Celtics’ stud Jaylen Brown in one-on-one recently.) He’s my pick for Ivy Player of the Year. He needs to improve his defensive awareness, but if he puts up the gaudy numbers I expect from him on the offensive end, it will be impossible to keep him off the floor. With these two offensive studs claiming a large share of minutes, Amaker is sure to complement them with some stoppers on the other end. That is why I believe a combination of Justin Bassey, Rio Haskett ‘21, Chris Lewis, and Corey Johnson ‘18 will round out the starting five.
Bassey is an easy pick to be a top minutes-eater this season. Last year, even though he didn’t shoot frequently, he played his role to perfection. The reality is, you cannot have five players on the floor who like to shoot as much as Aiken and Towns do. Bassey is a lockdown defender, an underrated rebounder (which will be even more important this season with the loss of Zena), and a good three-point shooter. (He shot 40 percent from behind the arc last season and won the Crimson Madness three-point competition last month, defeating sharpshooters Aiken, Towns, Johnson and others). In addition to winning the three-point competition, Bassey stood out during the intrasquad scrimmage. He was assertive on offense, especially when Aiken (his lone teammate who could be considered a scorer) went to the bench. His ability to read situations and understand when to fill different roles will be invaluable this season. Amaker should have no problem trusting him as a scorer when playing with the bench unit, or as a “three and D/glue guy” with the starting unit.
Rio Haskett, a freshman, is similar (as a player) to Bassey. Haskett is an elite defender who dazzled during the Crimson Madness scrimmage. He wasn’t afraid to shoot the three, he completed a nifty up-under-layup, and he posted a memorable showing in the dunk contest.
— Harvard Basketball (@HarvardBBall) October 13, 2017
Haskett may be more athletic and he may make a few more highlight reel plays than Bassey this season, but ultimately they will play similar roles. It will be interesting to see how or if they can play together. While I could see them thriving alongside each other (both are versatile enough to fill almost any role and cover almost any position), it may be unnecessary to have them both out on the floor at the same time. For example, if Amaker puts Bassey or Haskett out there to lockup the opponent’s top scorer, would he rather play three-point shooter Corey Johnson alongside him to provide a new element to the offense? Again, because Bassey and Haskett are both proficient shooters (though not at Corey Johnson’s level), there may be no need for true shooter on the floor, especially if Aiken, Towns, or other good shooters are also playing.
Nonetheless, Corey Johnson will surely continue to play a role this season, whether it be off the bench or as a starter. He’s a special shooter: he has shot 41 percent from three-point land on over 310 attempts in his career. While some say he may need to improve his consistency, I am not too worried. Last season, Johnson did have a few cold stretches, but he also posted three games where he attempted ten or more three-pointers and hit at least half of them. In other words, it all evened out.
In terms of paint presence, Chris Lewis is the incumbent big man to watch. That said, he is not without his flaws. Lewis is a very good offensive player, but his defense and rebounding is the real question. On this team, his paint-protection will be vital. With Towns and Aiken running around the perimeter, it will crucial for Lewis, or whoever is manning the middle, to have their backs. While Lewis’ shot-blocking numbers are a good sign, he struggles to alter shots without either a block or a foul. He will need to find a way to foul less and still alter shots. I’ll settle for fewer blocks if it yields less foul trouble and, hence, more time on the court for Lewis.
Other big men include senior captain Chris Egi, junior Weisner Perez, and sophomores Henry Welsh and Robert Baker. Egi is the biggest question mark. Though a senior, he is still a raw talent who has looked nervous and jumpy his whole career. He has never seen a lot of minutes, which likely has contributed to his on-court demeanor, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Amaker gives Egi opportunities early on in non-conference games in hopes that he figures it out – not as a polished big man, but as a rebounder and rim-protector. He hasn’t filled this role yet during his Crimson career, but he does have the physical tools to reach that level. Henry Welsh, a sophomore, is a different type of player. He is a good post-scorer, and, while he may not have the same defensive ceiling as some of his teammates, he’s a reliable offensive player. This should lead to consistent minutes for him this season, especially with the frequent foul troubles of other big men. In a perfect world, Welsh won’t be counted on for huge minutes. However, it’s not unrealistic to imagine him as the backup to Lewis at the five.
Robert Baker has the height to fill the backup center role, but his style fits better that of a stretch four. He’s a decent shooter and his potential is through the roof. However, until he becomes more assertive, he’s just a very good backup. That is no knock on Baker. He will likely be playing behind Towns at the four (or alongside him if Towns is moved to the three), and based on his performance in the Crimson Madness scrimmage, Baker appears to have improved. I’m looking forward to seeing if he is able to carve out a consistent role on this team.
If I were in Tommy Amaker’s shoes, my first move would be to give Weisner Perez more time on the floor. Perez, in the same way Jonah Travis did, makes things happen. (The most famous example of this was his 15 points and nine rebounds in 20 minutes versus Kansas during his freshman year.) After losing their top rebounder to graduation last season (Edosomwan), the Crimson may benefit from playing two post players on the floor instead of one true center and a few wings. Perez is a very skilled rebounder, especially on the offensive end. In his junior season, he deserves the opportunity to earn minutes.
In terms of who else should finish out the rotation, sophomore Christian Juzang and junior Tommy McCarthy project to find time at the guard spots. Juzang seemed like he was going to find a role on last year’s team, one with more guard depth than this year’s, until an injury sidelined him for the beginning of the season. At Crimson Madness (both this year and last year), he’s looked quick and confident with the ball in his hands, and he features a nice jump shot as well. I really respect how Tommy McCarthy played last year, and it bodes well for his chances of finding time this season. Sure, he played in only 17 games and averaged 5.9 minutes per game, but he was a different player from the previous year. That season, his freshman year, McCarthy was a gunslinger (which Harvard needed at that time). Last year, he understood his new role. He didn’t force shots, and he made smart plays. His ability to look around and understand who’s on the court with him will be very valuable – and, deep down, that scorer’s mentality is still there if Harvard needs it.
After winning five consecutive Ivy League titles, the Crimson has had a two-year break from being at the top of the league. If any team can break this mini-drought and return the program to the Big Dance, it looks like this might be the one. The competition will no doubt be stiff, but if Harvard can take the Ivy crown this season, it may be the beginning of another historic stretch in the program’s history.