With the big news last week that 7' center Jakob Poeltl is returning to Utah for his sophomore season, the list of needs for the Runnin' Utes got quite a bit shorter. Utah only lost two players to graduation, but one was a big one, guard Delon Wright, with the other being valuable backup center Dallin Bachynski. While he does not have the height of Bachynski, Utah is adding 6' 9" forward Makol Mawien, who is a great shot blocker and a good shooter. He will add talent and depth to Utah's big man rotation.
Wright was the undeniable leader of the Runnin' Utes last season. His size, athleticism, and high basketball IQ made him a great player, leading to him winning the Cousy Award as the nation's best point guard. He led the team in almost every statistical category. He averaged 14.5 points (first on the team), 4.9 rebounds (second), 5.1 assists (first), 2.1 steals (first), and 1.0 blocks (second) per game. Wright Averaged the most minutes of any player, and the team would often struggle if Wright was out for a significant period of time (like the end of the first half against Duke). It would be impossible for any one player to replace everything that Wright did for the Runnin' Utes in the 2014-15 season. Utah still has a strong core of players, so we look at what kind of player Utah needs to add to take the proverbial next step.
A Scorer Who Can Create Shots
Utah has several good shooters (Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge both shot over 40% from beyond the arc), but what they lack is a guy who can drive to the lane and create. Utah had periods in many of their games last season where they would go into a scoring drought that it took minutes to get out of. Having a player who is capable of creating shots and scoring to break those droughts would be key if the Runnin' Utes want to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. The only player on the team last season who could drive and score consistently was Wright. With Utah's shooting talent, having a player who can drive can also create open looks for Utah's shooters like Taylor, Loveridge, and Dakari Tucker when the defense crashes in to stop the drive. The inside-out offense with a talented scorer would fit perfectly with the players Utah already has.
Utah has a potential candidate to fill this role in JC transfer Gabe Bealer. The 6' 5" guard comes to Utah from the same junior college as Wright. In his sophomore season at City College of San Francisco, Bealer averaged 12.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game. He shot over 50% from the field and can get to the rim and score. One player who would certainly fit this role in the future (he is in the 2016 class) would be Lone Peak point guard Frank Jackson. Utah has stiff competition if they want to land the Lone Peak standout. If they do get the former BYU commit, they get a player who scored over 50 points in a high school game.
An Elite Passer
Gone along with Wright are his 5.1 assists per game. Last season, the team often struggled with entry passes into the post, and feeding the ball into Poeltl down low will be key. Poeltl is Utah's most talented returning player, and led the team in field goal percentage last season (0.681). Utah's top returning starter in assists last season was Taylor, who averaged only 3.3 per game.
Utah does not currently have a player in their recruiting class that would fit this role. However, when he played last season, guard Isaiah Wright showed flashes of potential and may have been the best passer down low on the team even as a true freshman. Isaiah Wright averaged 1.7 assists per game while only playing 12.6 minutes per game. If he can develop this offseason, he may be able to step up and be leader in assists on the team. It is also possible that head coach Larry Krystkowiak finds an under-the-radar player late in this recruiting cycle who could fill this role as well.