Friday, June 23, 2023 | 2 a.m.
By the end of last season, UNLV’s offensive attack had devolved into giving the ball to E.J. Harkless and getting out of his way.
Harkless, the team’s leading scorer, averaged 14.6 shots per game, with the next-closest teammate attempting 8.5. And when all was said and done, Harkless had hoisted 203 more shots than anyone else on the roster.
It came to a head in the play-in round of the Mountain West tournament, when Harkless had to score 35 points (9-of-20 FGs, 13-of-18 FTs) to heroically carry UNLV to an overtime win over Air Force.
Don’t expect the Scarlet and Gray to run with a similar gameplan this season.
Harkless has graduated, and the team’s second-leading scorer (Keshon Gilbert) transferred, leaving a lot of available shots for the 2023-24 squad. As the reconstituted team goes through its third week of summer workouts, a more egalitarian offensive approach has been one of the goals.
According to senior wing Luis Rodriguez, UNLV is working on spreading things out.
“I think we are more balanced this year, for sure,” Rodriguez said. “In terms of scoring ability, we have more guys that can create a shot, get a shot, make a shot and spread the floor. It’s going to be a balance.”
Rodriguez is the top returning scorer, coming off a season that saw him post a career-high 10.7 points per game. He tested the NBA Draft process in the offseason, and though there was some interest in him due to his size (6-foot-6), length and athleticism, he ultimately realized he could improve his pro stock by coming back and demonstrating more consistency on offense.
“I think it was beneficial,” Rodriguez said of the draft process. “I got some good feedback from a couple teams, so it was good. With me coming back, the biggest thing was my percentages. I know what they’re looking for. My 3-point percentage, of course, and my field-goal percentage and free-throw line. Just affecting the game in multiple ways and showing teams I can be a great role player and having an efficient year. I’m geared up and excited to do all that.”
Rodriguez doesn’t expect to carry the load this season, as UNLV figures to have a deep rotation with several players who are capable of putting the ball in the basket.
Incoming senior transfer Keylan Boone scored 13.9 points last year at Pacific while draining 41.0% of his 3-point attempts. His twin brother, senior Kalib Boone (Oklahoma State) averaged 10.8 points while dominating in the post. Senior forward Jalen Hill (Oklahoma) posted 9.7 points on 49.8% shooting last year, both career highs.
In the less-proven but still intriguing category, incoming freshman guards D.J. Thomas and Brooklyn Hicks were both prolific scorers at the high-school level, and junior forward Rob Whaley averaged 14.4 points per game for one of the best juco teams in the country.
Based on what he’s seen so far in summer sessions, Rodriguez is confident UNLV will be able to fuse the newcomers with the returning players to build a strong offensive attack.
“I like the Boone twins,” he said. “They’re great pieces and they’ll do great for us. I like Jalen Hill a lot. He’s been showing his capabilities. And then we’ve got two really talented freshmen coming in, Brooklyn and our point guard D.J. Thomas.”
Rodriguez also thinks they’ll be able to do it without sacrificing anything on the defensive end, which must be music to Kevin Kruger’s ears. The third-year head coach wants to play an aggressive defensive style, and that requires buy-in from everyone on the roster.
UNLV had that last year, and Rodriguez is taking a leading role in making sure the intensity doesn’t wane despite the roster turnover.
“Us playing that type of defense and playing hard on defense is always going to be part of our identity and part of our culture,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve got guys that can guard 1 through 5, so I think we’ll be good defensively. I think we can do that while also just showing how balanced we are offensively, as well. Our identity is going to be to outwork teams, whether it’s on the offensive end or the defensive end. We’ve got guys that can do it. We’ve got experience. We’ve got guys that played in the Big 12, guys that played in the SEC and power conferences. They’re bringing that experience and I think that will help us elevate.”
When asked for specifics of what it would mean to “elevate,” Rodriguez said UNLV’s goals for the upcoming season are clear.
“I really think with our team we can make some real noise and play in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “That’s our goal. It’s a lot of hard work, but our end goal is to win games in the tournament.”