CRAWFORD | Puerto Rico: 10 things we learned about the Cardinals - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Puerto Rico: 10 things we learned about the Cardinals

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The Cardinals huddle during a late-game timeout in Puerto Rico. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) The Cardinals huddle during a late-game timeout in Puerto Rico. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)

SAN JUAN, P.R. (WDRB) — The University of Louisville basketball team boarded a charter plane back home this morning — well, some of it did. Several players flew straight to their homes to spend the week with family.

The trip has wrapped up, seven games in five days. What has been learned? A few things revealed in our first look at a very new-look University of Louisville basketball team.

1. DAMION LEE IS A NATURAL SCORER. The Drexel University graduate was No. 6 in the nation in scoring last season, and showed the ability to pile up points in bunches in Puerto Rico. In the Cards final game, he scored 10 points in the first three minutes of the second half. He had 36 in his debut, then scored only 9 in a 34-point blowout loss the next night.

After that, over his final three games, he shot 51 percent from the field, 39 percent from three, 80 percent from the line and averaged 24.3 points per game. I was surprised by his rebounding, better than 7 per game over the final three games. Overall, he averaged 23.6 points on the island and shot 48.7 percent from the field and 82.9 from the line.

CRAWFORD | Postcard from Puerto Rico: Final dispatch

“He has a chance to be special,” Pitino said of him after the opening game.

He’ll have to improve his passing. He told me Sunday he wants to use the time before the start of the season to add some upper body strength. He knows how to play. He gets to the free throw line. He handles the ball well. Louisville got a good one.

2. FREE-THROW SHOOTING SHOULD BE IMPROVED. Lee, as the numbers suggest, is a good free-throw shooter. So is Trey Lewis, who shot 72.7 percent on the trip, but didn’t go to the line the last three games. And Deng Adel, who was 14 of 16, 87.5 percent, is good from the line, as is fellow freshman Donovan Mitchell (12-16, 75 percent). Chinanu Onuaku’s free-throw shooting remains a concern. He was just 9 of 18 on this trip. But his underhand shot figures to become more comfortable over time. Mangok Mathiang also needs to improve at the line (7-12, 58.3 percent), but Jaylen Johnson was good — and got to the line a lot (16-21, 76.2 percent). 

3. THE FRESHMEN CAN HELP RIGHT AWAY. Ray Spalding is going to be hard to keep on the bench — unless he hurts himself with foul trouble. He can guard just about every position, has the ability to shoot and handle the ball out on the court, plays passing lanes extremely well and has very active hands, always coming up with deflections or steals. He hasn’t learned it completely, but he also could head up the full-court pressure. And he’s an anomaly for a big man on this team — making 16 of 22 free-throws for 72.7 percent. Those things will earn you playing time.

Deng Adel was steady whenever he got on the court. He defends, is very quick, can put the ball on the floor, pass, block shots, whatever you need. He shot 46 percent from the field and added 3.7 rebounds per game.

Donovan Mitchell had a slow start but improved every game. The “paint touches” Pitino is urging onto others will be important for him. His game is slashing to the basket, absorbing contact and finishing. He also can make free throws if fouled. He’s a good defender already, with his speed and strength adding to U of L’s perimeter defense. He should flourish in the system.

4. LEWIS SHOWED FLASHES. It’s a more difficult adjustment for him, because he’s learning to play point guard in addition to starting alongside Snider. It’s not his natural spot, and Pitino was correcting him as much as anyone. At the same time, you could see his desire to win on display in U of L’s fourth game against the national team, when he made a trio of big shots late to finish with 21 points and lead the Cardinals to the win. He should be coachable. Pitino said of Lewis and Lee both that “we need to get them playing faster.” Lewis averaged 11 points per game but shot just 36.2 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three-point range. That percentage should get better as he gets more comfortable in the offense and his shot selection improves.

5. TURNOVERS WERE TOUGH. The Cards averaged 18.4 turnovers per game in the five games played by the “A” squad. They had 15 in each of the first two games, then the number went to 17, then 19, then 26 in their finale in Puerto Rico. The last game may well have been an aberration — it was played on a high-school sized court and the Cards lost the ball several times by slipping on wet spots.

But you have to remember this. They were playing with a 24-second clock, which meant more rushing at the end of the shot clock. The new 30-second clock will take some getting used to for college teams, which is one reason this experience is more valuable.

“When there’s less than 6 seconds left on the shot clock and you have to make that extra pass to get the shot you need, it’s good to have been under that pressure in game situations,” assistant Kenny Johnson said.

Pitino says he hopes when practice begins to get Lee, Lewis and the other newcomers more acclimated to playing the game at a faster tempo.

6. ONUAKU AND MATHIANG ARE BETTER. Free-throw struggles notwithstanding, both players showed the ability to catch the ball and finish in the post, and they’re already solid defenders and rebounders. U of L needs to begin to look for Onuaku more in the post. Several times he sealed defenders off, but didn’t get the ball. And Pitino wants both to work on their interior passing.

7. THE CARDS HAVE FRONT-LINE DEPTH. Spalding can play. Johnson can play. Anas Mahmoud had one outstanding game in Puerto Rico and should see more minutes this season. Pitino also has the ability to go small and move Lee to the four-spot.

8. THE CHEMISTRY IS REAL. I’ve alluded to this earlier, but the chemistry with this group isn’t just coach-speak. Off the court, they appear to get along well and were hanging out together every time I saw them. Now, Pitino has a different definition of chemistry. “I told the guys that basketball chemistry is defense and passing,” he said. That kind of on-court chemistry will take work and time.

9. EVERYBODY GETS HOME HEALTHY. As physical as the play was, and as dangerous as the moisture was on the court where the Cards played the final night, that wasn't always a given. Anas Mahmoud was able to go 100 percent after his summer knee surgery. So the Cards come back in about as good a physical shape as can be expected. They were a bit tired on the final day, which is to be expected, and why I wouldn't put too much stock in some of the things that happened in the final two games -- for better or worse. But seeing how his team reacted to that kind of strain was a positive for Pitino.

10. OVERALL CONCLUSION. The big thing is that Lee looks as if he is as good a scorer, an guy the Cardinals can rely on at the end of the shot clock. They’ve got a number of guys who are improving on the front line. They have Lewis and Snider at the guard spots, with Mitchell able to come off the bench, along with David Levitch, who should play even more this season.

Pitino could use lineups where, in man-to-man, the Cards are able to switch everything. That hasn’t always been the case, and makes the team’s match-up zone look even more difficult. The Cards already were showing zone and morphing into man on Pitino’s call in the final game in Puerto Rico, and figure to improve upon that defensive system as the year goes on, a system that will become even more difficult for opponents to deal with under the 30-second shot clock.

It’s not an overpowering team. A year from now, this collection of frontcourt players could be really good. How far U of L goes probably depends on the speed at which that group as a whole develops. It’s not an elite team. It probably won’t be ranked to start the season, nor should it be. But it is the kind of team that could be ranked at the end. If the attitude remains where it is now, Pitino should have a fun year with this group. 

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