The tryouts last month for USA basketball's U19 team provided a glimpse of what the pecking order at Arizona should be this upcoming season.
Brandon Ashley, Arizona's sophomore-to-be power forward with so much promise, didn't make the team. Incoming freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson also didn't make it. Incoming freshman Aaron Gordon, on the other hand, is the team's leading scorer through four games.
Gordon's play in Prague suggests that he's going to be the star in Tucson. Mock drafts suggest the same. And if there's a wildcard in the national title hunt next year, it's Arizona. Gordon and his elite athleticism (see video below) has a lot to do with that.
The Wildcats are also an intriguing pick because of the frontcourt duo of Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. For that intrigue to turn into legitimacy, Ashley and Tarczewski need to produce as sophomores.
A lot of water-cooler talk this summer has been whether Gordon will play inside or out, but the most important question facing Arizona this offseason is this: Can Ashley and Tarczewski live up to expectations?
Brandon Ashley—Is He Improving?
Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News told Arizona beat reporter Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star that he didn't "see any difference" during the tryouts from what Ashley was last season.
Ashley still has plenty of time to improve this offseason, and it's not like he was terrible last year. He averaged 7.5 points and 5.3 rebounds. The concern for Arizona is that Ashley is a player that has been followed around by the word "potential." At some point, you want to see better results.
Johnathan Givony of DraftExpress.com was also at the tryouts, and his report on Ashley was more critical than "he didn't see any differences." Givony wrote:
One of the biggest disappointments at this event relative to his talent level and the accolades that have followed him in his career thus far, Brandon Ashley struggled to establish himself in any way, shape or form throughout the week and was unsurprisingly part of the first round of roster cuts.
6-8, very smooth, and very much looking the part of a major prospect on first glance, Ashley has done little to improve his frame since the first time we saw him a few years back, leaving many question marks regarding how much time he's spent in the weight room. Not quite strong, aggressive or tough enough to bang with the other post players down low, but not skilled enough to spend as much time on the perimeter as he seems fond of, Ashley is very much stuck in between positions at the moment. He can make an occasional jump-shot with his feet set, but is just an average ball-handler, having a difficult time finishing around the basket through contact. Defensively, he lacks intensity in a major way and regularly had rebounds taken away from him in traffic, not being helped by his short wingspan and underdeveloped frame.
Givony and DeCourcy both went on to say that Ashley would benefit from revving up his motor. Translation: He needs to play with more effort.
Ashley's numbers at the end of the season last year certainly left a lot to be desired. He scored in double figures only once in the final nine games.
Luckily for Miller, he has a mode of motivation. The coach is spending the summer convincing everyone that Gordon will play small forward, which wouldn't threaten Ashley. Miller told DeCourcy that Gordon, Ashley and Tarczewski need to be able to play together.
But the more productive spot for Gordon could be as a stretch-4, and Miller has the talent on the perimeter to play Gordon inside. The Wildcats would be just as athletic—if not more—by making Hollis-Jefferson the starter at small forward.
If Ashley started the year on the bench, that would send a message. If there's a silver lining for Arizona from the U19 tryouts, it's that Ashley has already received the message. He needs to improve.
Tarczewski—Will He Get More Chances?
Tarczewski has not had an offseason venue like the U19 tryouts to have his game dissected. Instead, we have the final stretch of the season to evaluate what he could become in 2012-13.
The results at the end of the year hint that Tarczewski would be a really productive player if he had the opportunities. Over Arizona's last 11 games, Tarczewski shot 32-of-50 (64 percent) from the field and averaged 7.9 points per game.
That is hardly domination, but it was difficult last season to put up huge numbers in the post for the Wildcats.
Mark Lyons was a shoot-first point guard, and none of the Arizona guards really looked to pass first.
That's not a recipe for getting a lot of post touches. That's a caveat that Ashley deserves when you look at his numbers as well.
The good news for both Ashley and Tarczewski is that transfer point guard T.J. McConnell averaged 4.4 assists as a freshman at Duquesne. If it's opportunities that the big men need, he should be able to deliver.
If it's a lack of assertiveness that was holding back Ashley and Tarczewski, that could be an issue. The Wildcats can be good without their numbers. They proved that last year.
But can they be great?