Mitch Alcala / AP, file
Tuesday, May 2, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Coach Kevin Kruger isn’t done putting together the UNLV men’s basketball roster for 2023-24, but that’s not going to stop us from trying to piece together what the lineup is going to look like when the team takes the floor six months from now.
As expected, there has been a high amount of roster churn since the Scarlet and Gray were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament. Four of the five starters are projected to be newcomers, and that’s with two open scholarships still to be filled.
So, how does it all fit together? As of now, UNLV has an abundance of size, length and experience. It’s a roster littered with fifth-year seniors and guys with a lot of starts under their belts. What the team is lacking is outside shooting and a primary ballhandler.
Let’s jump into roster projection version 1.0, and as new guys commit and I work through my series of newcomer breakdowns, we can see how the rotation evolves throughout the offseason:
When it comes to the point guard position, there aren’t any obvious solutions on the roster as of now. Justin Webster could spell for a few minutes in a pinch, but he’s way more of a combo-guard/shooter than a distributor. Jackie Johnson is undersized and shot 40.3% from the field last year. Brooklyn Hicks is a true freshman who profiles as a 2. A point guard is the missing piece; expect Kruger to pull the starter out of the transfer portal.
Guard: Keylan Boone, senior
UNLV needed an ace shooter in the starting lineup, and Boone looks like the guy. He drilled 41.0% of his 3-point attempts at Pacific last year and he’s also a threat off the dribble. And he’s got impressive size for a wing at 6-foot-8. He’ll start and be an offensive focal point.
Forward: Luis Rodriguez, senior
Rodriguez remains a stalwart defender capable of marking multiple positions. He’s also one of UNLV’s best transition players. That’s enough to earn him this spot. If he can finally elevate his outside shooting accuracy — he made 29.5% from 3-point range last season — he’ll be a difference maker on the perimeter. If his shooting proves to be a hindrance, Kruger has the option of turning to Webster.
Forward: Jalen Hill, senior
After four years of taking on tough assignments at Oklahoma, Hill should pair with Rodriguez to form one of the best defensive tandems in the Mountain West. As with Rodriguez, the development of Hill’s outside shot (29.1 3FG%) will be a storyline to watch, but as a plus rebounder, defender and finisher he brings everything else to the table. And at 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, he’s got plenty of size for this position.
Center: Kalib Boone, senior
Kruger believes he has snagged an elite interior scorer in the 6-foot-9 Boone, and the stats say he’s right. Boone is a machine in the post, with more than 70% of his attempts coming around the rim, and his efficiency is elite, as he converts 67.6% of those shots. For context, the latter is a better rate than former Wyoming big man Graham Ike recorded in 2021-22 (66.8%). It’s been a long time since UNLV had a paint scorer like Boone; expect Kruger to feed him.
Guard: Justin Webster, senior
Webster is coming off a terrific 2022-23 campaign that saw him swing between the bench and the starting lineup while making a scorching 46.0% from 3-point range. Keeping him out of the portal was a boon for Kruger. Webster is a perfect sixth man candidate; look for him to top last year’s 26.6 minutes per contest.
Forward: Shane Nowell, junior
Nowell came on late, flashing an intriguing combination of size, scoring ability and defensive versatility as a true sophomore. If he makes a leap in the offseason, he’ll be locked into the rotation as a multiposition weapon.
Forward: Rob Whaley, junior
It’s hard to peg Whaley, an undersized power forward (6-foot-5) who dominated the paint at the juco level last year. It remains to be seen how he translates to the Mountain West, but the upside is there. For now he’s a backup at multiple frontcourt positions.
Center: Isaiah Cottrell, senior
Cottrell is UNLV’s backup center, but injuries have kept him below 60 minutes played in two of his three college seasons. His size (6-foot-10, 240 pounds) and outside shooting touch continue to intrigue, but the injury history means you can’t pencil him into a significant role.
Guard: Jackie Johnson, junior
The 5-foot-11 Johnson struggled to finish in traffic in his first season at UNLV (45.7 FG% around the rim). Now that he has acclimated to Mountain West, the hope is that his shot will fall more consistently next year, giving Kruger an instant-offense card to play.
Guard: Brooklyn Hicks, freshman
As the lone prep recruit on the roster, it’s hard to envision Hicks beginning the season with a spot in the rotation. His offensive tools are impressive, but it’s likely he’ll need some time to develop before he sees significant playing time.
Center: Karl Jones, senior
Jones got into nine games last year and provides a big body, but he’s strictly a deep depth piece.
OPEN SCHOLARSHIPS (2)
Unearthing a veteran point guard in the transfer portal is the top priority for Kruger and his staff. A plus shooter would be perfect, but a hard-nosed defender would fit too. UNLV is currently recruiting Southern Utah senior Drake Allen (plus shooter) and Georgia Tech senior Deivon Smith (hard-nosed defender).
With the final scholarship, a reliable backup big man would be ideal, but Kruger is open to adding talent at any position — especially if he can find a prospect with more than one year of eligibility remaining.
Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.