E.J. Anosike brings more than just rebounding to Tennessee

A light in the sports wilderness! Finally!

Obviously, I’m quite thrilled to be talking about an actual real basketball event of any sort. Plus, this one figures to go better than my last preview of a transfer, who was a guy that didn’t even end up at Tennessee. E.J. Anosike has a ton to offer a Tennessee team that will be almost perfectly split between freshmen and old hands: a newcoming old hand that brings sorely-needed rebounding skills to the worst defensive rebounding squad in the SEC.

Beyond that, there’s more to Anosike than his admittedly great rebounding skills. You don’t get to be #6 on ESPN’s Top Graduate Transfers list exclusively by rebounding, and you don’t get to be an important piece of an SEC squad with just one skill. Anosike can score, can shoot, and likely enters as a seriously useful bench piece for a Tennessee team in desperate need of useful bench pieces. (In case you’ve happily forgotten, Tennessee went with a six-man rotation in the final four games of the year and just about stopped playing all of the freshmen + Uros Plavsic entirely.)

The goal with this piece is in two parts:

  1. Figure out what E.J. Anosike’s skills and limitations are;
  2. Also figure out the best ways Tennessee can emphasize the good parts and hide the less-good ones.

As such: consider this a Show Me My Opponent where the opponent is actually your new pal E.J.

WHAT E.J. ANOSIKE BRINGS

Solid, useful post skills

The data for Anosike against high-end competition is obviously going to be limited; Sacred Heart’s home of the Northeast Conference hasn’t won a single first-round NCAA Tournament game and the conference itself ranks 27th of 32nd on KenPom. So, yeah, the Pioneers of Sacred Heart didn’t get to play Kentucky and Florida three times in a season. Per KenPom, Anosike got to play against six Tier A (Quadrant 1 equivalent) opponents in his three-year career, with an additional five games against Tier B (Quadrant 2 equivalent).

The Tier A stats aren’t perfect – 11-for-26 from two, two 4+ foul games, three double-digit losses – but Anosike himself seemed to handle the spotlight fairly well. In Sacred Heart’s two Tier A games in 2019-20, Anosike got as many free throw attempts (18) as he did shot attempts, which is pretty remarkable.

Anosike wasn’t quite as dominant on the boards as he was against lesser competition, but getting five offensive rebounds against Providence is something that…well, nobody on Tennessee would’ve done this past season. His Tier B stats were better: 15.5 PPG, 9 RPG, and a 55.6% hit rate from two. In particular, he had a lot of success inside the perimeter against Tier B opponent UCF, going 6-for-9:

I can’t tell you for certain what Tennessee’s schedule will look like in 2020-21, but you can pretty much know Anosike will face tougher competition than ever before. Tennessee played 19 Tier A + B opponents in 2019-20 and 20 in 2018-19; Anosike must rise his own game to match the competition. That said: Tennessee will likely play half or slightly under half of its schedule against the competition level that Anosike demolished at Sacred Heart.

Potential to be unlocked as a shooter; hits shots off the dribble pretty well

The headline sums it up fairly well, but I want to talk about sample sizes. E.J. Anosike attempted 403 free throws at Sacred Heart; he attempted 136 threes, with all but five of them coming after his freshman year. In his sophomore year, Anosike made 36.5% of his 52 attempts; in his junior year, 25.3% of 79. Here’s my two points:

  • We almost certainly know much more about Anosike’s free throw shooting than we do his three-point shooting;
  • We can then say that Anosike’s truth lies somewhere between the two extremes of his sophomore and junior years.

Anosike got open frequently in Sacred Heart’s offense, and I find it hard to think that he wouldn’t get open more often in a Tennessee offense that has Santiago Vescovi, Jaden Springer, and Josiah-Jordan James at the very least. Anosike’s Synergy splits are quite bizarre; he’s actually a pretty good shooter when at least somewhat guarded.

However: he became one of the worst shooters in his conference when left open.

As usual, my guess is a combination of small sample size + statistical anomaly. It’s meaningless, mostly. What’s more meaningful is this: in 2019-20, players who made between 70-75% of their free throws – as Anosike has done every season of his career – averaged a 34% hit rate from three. The middle two-thirds of the sample ranged everywhere from 30-38%. Considering Anosike was at the extreme bottom end based on a 79-shot sample but was above the average one year before, it’s reasonable to think he can hit that 30-38% range from three. That gives Tennessee something they didn’t have off the bench, and it makes him especially valuable in small-ball lineups.

Oh yeah, and his off-the-dribble pull-ups look good to me. I would prefer that he either takes one more dribble towards the basket or just takes the three, but if he’s comfortable from 17+ feet and hits at the rate we’re looking for on mid-range attempts (40% or higher), then you can’t really discourage that as a coach.

A more versatile P&R piece than Tennessee’s had in some time

With an important qualifier, that is. Yves Pons did a solid job when called upon as the roll half of a pick-and-roll, and popped out for wide-open threes about once every couple of games. I wish Tennessee had run that more, but I’ve also wished they’d use more ball-screen actions for most of the last three years. Anosike offered a very diverse split of rolls, pops, and slips at Sacred Heart, and it’s not really something that anyone at Tennessee has done to date.

He’s unafraid to drive to the basket from the perimeter:

And he’s good at finishing off of more traditional looks:

How much Anosike plays is heavily dependent on Yves Pons staying/not staying for 2020-21, but if Pons does stay, you’re looking at a guy who can realistically give you 15 minutes a night of diverse offensive action and high-end rebounding.

Oh yeah, and the rebounding

It is really good. Pound-for-pound, Anosike is likely the best non-6’10″+ rebounder Tennessee has had since Jeronne Maymon or even Jarnell Stokes. This appears simple, but Anosike anticipates his own misses very well:

And I admire that Anosike is really smart as a rebounder, in that his first instinct isn’t always to go straight back up. I love how he finds an open man here:

Even in a bench role, this is a type of player that can frustrate Tennessee opponents into some bad fouls. Six different times last season, he attempted 10+ free throws; Tennessee as a team did that eight times all season, and half of those were John Fulkerson in the final month of the season. If opponents hated how many fouls Fulkerson drew down the stretch of SEC play, the potential is there for Anosike to draw a lot of ire from those that run sports radio stations in the state of Kentucky.

On-ball defense needs work

To be frank, Anosike’s got a lot to do on the defensive side. The advanced metrics aren’t impressed with his defense, giving him a below-average Box-Plus Minus all three years at SHU. (This could be a team-wide issue, of course, as SHU was terrible defensively. That said, Anosike only graded out as the third-best defender among SHU’s regular starters and fourth-best out of the rotation as a whole.) In particular, he’s struggled to keep up with shooters on the perimeter:

And Synergy has him as a rather paltry isolation defender.

Of course, Tennessee can limit this damage by putting Anosike on larger guys that aren’t good shooters, i.e. 70% of the SEC’s starting centers. He doesn’t lose many rebounding battles, so you don’t have to worry about the height difference. That also leads into his main positive as a defender.

Good, solid post defender

Synergy rates out Anosike as being very good in the post across all games, which makes sense. His skill set represents that of an undersized 4 by height only; it is worth noting that Anosike is 245 pounds and appears well-built. He’s held his own against the best competition SHU faced, along with everyone else.

Tennessee can use these skills against the stiffs of the schedule, as I mentioned, as well as against basically any PF/C in Quadrants 3 & 4. I don’t think anyone is currently anticipating Anosike to start; we are all generally anticipating him to be a useful, good piece from the bench when Tennessee needs him to be.

Various other skills

These are more flashes than anything of serious consistency, but they’re worth noting nonetheless. At times, Anosike shows active hands, and perhaps with better defensive coaching, he’ll do it more often.

Synergy says Anosike got much better at pick-and-roll defense from 2018-19 to 2019-20, and the video looks to back it up. In 2018-19 he struggled to make decisions fast enough; in 2019-20, he appeared more decisive and better at forcing tough shots:

More of that and Tennessee has a quality defensive piece in some specialized spots. Also, you don’t need any video to be reminded of his excellent rebounding capabilities.

HOW TENNESSEE USES HIM

Uh…exactly where you think? By height, Anosike would theoretically be locked in at the 4 or even the 3. However, Anosike didn’t play the 3 at all at Sacred Heart, and it’s hard to rationalize playing a guy at the 3 that you hope can get to 34% or thereabouts from three. Anosike will be at the 4, and I think he’d be a really good fit as a super-small-ball 5.

Imagine the following lineup whenever Fulkerson needs rest:

  • PG: Vescovi or Bailey
  • SG: Keon Johnson
  • SF: Springer (or JJJ)
  • PF: Pons
  • C: Anosike

Is that a small lineup? Sure…in theory. Johnson is 6’4″ and Springer 6’5″, so you’re not going all that small. Anyway, look at that lineup. It contains a point guard (either one!) that’s comfortable out to 30 feet, two hyper-athletic wings, the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and an elite rebounder that is willing to shoot threes. All five players can and will shoot, and that’s not something Tennessee has offered in my lifetime.

Even so, Anosike at the 4 is worthy of thinking about happily, too. I think he and Fulkerson can play at the same time in a way I absolutely never thought Nkamhoua and Fulkerson or Plavsic and Fulkerson could. Plus, I’m not totally out on the idea of playing Anosike with one of Nkamhoua/Plavsic as a second-string lineup, but that’s mostly because it’s not a lineup with both of those players at the same time.

Anyway, this is a nice addition to a Tennessee team that I think pretty much everyone has in their 2020-21 top 15-20. Could they end up better than that? Of course, and having depth pieces like this is how you ensure a higher floor in March.

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