Roster Breakdown: The Big Fellas

Alonzo J. Adams-USA TODAY Sports

This is the final installment of the 2013-2014 roster breakdown. Part I featured the point guards while Part II focused on the wings and shooting guards. Today, we round things out with the big guys, easily the strength of the Cyclones

The Personnel

Fred Hoiberg loves shooters and when I say that he loves shooters, I mean that he loves shooters. The entire Iowa State offense is designed around creating open looks from the perimeter and putting five guys on the floor that can hurt the opponent from deep. Last year's Cyclone edition especially excelled at this as the entire rotation had to be accounted for regardless of where they were on the floor. With this year's team, that doesn't figure to be much different, but if Iowa State is going to play in a third consecutive NCAA tournament, it will be because of the inside presence of its two best players - Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang.

In Ejim, The Mayor has a 6'6" senior who was recently named preseason, first-team All Big 12 and is coming off a junior campaign where he led the Big 12 in rebounding (9.3) and double-doubles. Ejim is the only remaining player from Hoiberg's initial campaign in '10-'11 and has steadily gotten better throughout his career. He posted career highs as a junior in points (11.3), FG% (50.4), 3PT% (34.8%), assists (1.5) and the aforementioned rebounding. Given how well Ejim has played, especially the last two years, it's astonishing to think that this was a guy that some thought would take a backseat to a starting front court that would feature Royce White and Anthony Booker. Well, White was as good, if not better than advertised, but Ejim easily beat out Booker for the other forward spot and he never gave it back. Ejim has evolved from a promising freshman to a sophomore glue guy to a dynamic junior. The next step in his evolution is becoming a complete offensive player.

Opposite Ejim is Niang, the uber-skilled sophomore with worlds of potential in front of him. Niang spent most of the non-conference portion of his freshman year coming off the bench, but was inserted into the starting line up at Kansas and the move paid major dividends. The small-ball front court of Ejim and Niang was a match up nightmare for Big 12 opponents and Niang bucked the freshman trend by actually getting better as the season wore on. We all know the book on Niang. He's not a physical specimen and doesn't have explosive athleticism, but he's an incredibly smart basketball player with a wealth of offensive skill. I've said this many times, but I fully expect Niang to lead the Big 12 in scoring at least once during his time in Ames. Big things are on the horizon for Georges.

So Fred Hoiberg mostly knows what he's going to get from Ejim and Niang, but it their back ups that could end up being a major storyline in '13-'14. Percy Gibson returns for his junior season, coming off what just about everyone would classify as a disappointing sophomore campaign. Gibson regressed in just about every way possible last year. He was an offensive black hole who never passed and used the same bulldozer drop step move every time he touched the ball, refusing to adjust to defenses that clearly knew what was coming. Defensively, he loafed and was exposed underneath and eventually lost all of his minutes to Anthony Booker. There's potential with Gibson and I really don't know why he played so poorly last season, but one has to hope that a fire's been lit under his ass going into this year.

The final piece is junior college newcomer, Daniel Edozie. At 6'8" 235-pounds, Edozie looks the part. He came to Ames as a relative unknown and after watching him this summer in CCL action, I'm not sure that I really know anymore about his game. He's incredibly raw and far from being a refined offensive player, but he's got some bounce to him and he played his ass off this summer for whatever that's worth.

As I pointed out with the wings, there will be some varying line ups and I expect Dustin Hogue to step in on occasion and play big in abbreviated stretches.

Strengths

I doubt this will come as a surprise, but having Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang suit up for you every night is most definitely a strength. The duo of Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin at Baylor and Kansas big men, Perry Ellis, Tarik Black and Joel Embiid will probably get most of the headlines this season, but production wise, I don't know that there's a front court in the conference that will be as productive as Ejim and Niang. Back in May, I wrote this piece, comparing Ejim and Niang to Jefferson and Austin of Baylor. The Cyclone big men compared quite favorably and I don't see any reason why that won't be the case again this year.

Niang proved to be a match up nightmare for opponents as a freshman, showing both an impressive array of finishes in the post, but also possessing the ability to step out and knock down shots from deep. His 51.5% field goal percentage led Iowa State and he opened a lot of eyes by burying 39.2% of his threes. Ejim, as I mentioned earlier, also was a threat from deep, hitting on 34.8% of his treys. It's no stretch to say that this might be the best outside shooting big man duo in the country. Early word from practice is that Ejim has become a much better shooter during the off season as well. Big 12 defense beware.

Some other various strengths:

  • I love the way Niang sees the floor. I don't think most fans realized just how well he passed the ball last year. The best stretches that Percy Gibson had were when he was on the floor the same time as Niang, benefiting from great looks.
  • We all know that Ejim led the conference in rebounding, but to say that he simply led the conference in rebounding is not enough. Ejim dominated the boards in conference play finishing first in rebounds, offensive rebounds and defensive rebounding percentage. There's not a harder worker in the conference on the glass than Melvin Ejim.

Weaknesses

Fouls.

Ejim and Niang can get a little foul happy. Okay, they can get really foul happy. Niang was among the top (bottom?) five foulers in the conference and Ejim led the conference in total fouls and foul outs. Unfortunately, he couldn't hit for the Triple Crown, finishing a disappointing second in fouls per game. Perhaps it's the downside of the small-ball philosophy, or maybe it's because they're just foul-prone guys, but Ejim and Niang have to find a way to stay on the floor this season. Iowa State can't afford to have one or both guys sitting on the bench for extended stretches. Granted, if Gibson and Edozie surprise, this could become less of an issue.

That brings me to my next point; what kind of depth does Iowa State really have in the front court? Gibson has showed some promise on occasion in his two years, but he could end up being the difference between another exciting year of Hoi-ball, or a disappointing step backward. If Gibson can give Iowa State at least 15 solid minutes each night, Iowa State is going to be awfully tough to beat. If he plays like he did as a sophomore on those nights that Ejim and Niang get into foul trouble, it could be a long and frustrating year.

As for Edozie, I just don't know. To be completely honest, I thought he was a little too raw in CCL action. Granted, that's not a league for big men, so it's tough to really know, but I just didn't see enough skill out of Edozie to make me think he'll be an impact player this season. I've been wrong about these things before, though, and will be the first to admit it if I'm wrong.

I feel like this is the appropriate time to point out that if Hogue can play big, it will make things much easier for Hoiberg this year. I compared Hogue to somewhat of a poor man's Ejim earlier in the week and it that's the case, Iowa State should have just enough depth to get by.

And since I pointed that out, I also want to mention that I really wish Richard Amardi was still on this team. Given the choice of having DeAndre Kane and Amardi, you take Kane ten times out of ten, but that doesn't mean that this team couldn't have used a player with Amardi's ability. In any event, I wish him the best of luck at Oregon and am glad he found a place to play.

Relative Big 12 Strength

If we're talking about just Ejim and Niang, that duo doesn't take a backseat to anyone around the league. Adding in the total package of Gibson and Edozie makes things a little less clear. Throw Hogue into the picture and you have to hope that tips the scales positively for the Cyclones. I hope you're picking up on a theme here that Percy Gibson is a critical component to how well Iowa State plays this year. I also hope that you're picking up just how much that scares the shit out of me.

Prediction

Ejim deserved the honor of being named to the preseason all-conference team, but I wonder if they got it right. I think Ejim will have an outstanding senior campaign, but I have to wonder if Niang just might be in store for a monster season of his own. He's slimmed down and spent the last few months working on his body and it showed. I also expect Hoiberg to use Niang much the same way he used Royce White and Will Clyburn over the last two seasons. Don't be surprised if Niang is the one initiating the offense from time to time. I mentioned earlier just how impressed I was last year with the way he passed the ball and while you don't necessarily want your best offensive weapon dishing the rock, it certainly doesn't hurt if he finds a healthy balance between playmaker and facilitator, much the way White did.

As for Gibson and Edozie, I guess I have to officially go on record with something here. I'm sticking to my gut feeling with Edozie. Until he plays a full season at this level, he's going to have a lot of adjusting to do and Iowa State can't afford to have him learning in live game action. So what about Gibson? Is it a cop out if I say wait and see? Probably, but he's a wildcard. I really want to believe that he's spent the last few months in the weight room and on the practice floor, working on his body and his game. I also want to believe that the addition of Doc Sadler to the coaching staff has ignited the fire within Gibson. I also want to believe that the Baltimore Orioles' Chris Davis did it all naturally this year, but I have my doubts. It seems bizarre to say that a back up forward could be Iowa State's most important player, but in this case, there's some validity there.

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