Drexel forward Austin Williams attempts to block Charleston guard Grant Riller's shot at the Daskalakis Athletic Center.
(Luke Risher/The Empire)
Alihan Demir was throwing back door passes. Austin Williams was pinning shots and cleaning up the boards. Tadas Kararinas was coming off the bench and scoring. The Drexel Dragons were rolling to their seventh win of the season over one of the Colonial Athletic Association’s top teams, the College of Charleston. Things were going right.
The Dragon’s 87-82 overtime win was arguably their best of the season. It was a pure representation of how important the production of their big men would be heading forward.
Last year, Drexel head coach Zach Spiker fixated his offense around big man Rodney Williams. Williams established himself as one of the CAA’s best players, using his multifaceted playmaking ability at the ‘4’ and ‘5’ to average 15.6 points per game, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.5 assists. Dragons’ fans knew that they had some big shoes to fill in the years to come with Williams’ departure. The senior could finish, attack the rim, and play in the post. In addition, he added a three-point shot along with a passing ability that opened up opportunities for everyone around him.
Many looked to Austin Williams to help fill Rodney’s shoes. The senior had averaged 7 points per game, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks after posting only 26 total points in the two years prior. He showed an ability to hit a little baby hook shot and protect the rim. This year, as a senior, many fans thought he would be relied to score upon even more, but they wondered if he would have any help in the frontcourt. With Spiker’s desire to play an uptempo offense, there was an expectation that the Dragons’ may go small without a proven entity in the frontcourt next to Austin Williams. That’s until Alihan Demir arrived.
The transfer from Central Wyoming College had to sit out the first five games of the season per NCAA rules, but he was quickly thrust into the starting lineup. Despite receiving 30-plus minutes in three of his first five games, it took some time for the sophomore to grow accustomed to Division 1 basketball. During that five game span, he averaged a mere 7.8 points per game and 4.6 rebounds while never taking more than 9 shots. That changed quickly, as Demir would put up 13.5 points per game and 5.5 rebounds while taking 10.5 shots a contest over the last 12 games, establishing himself as a major part of the Drexel offense.
Austin Williams has seen the recent development in Demir’s game as well.
“He is definitely still growing every game and getting better and better,” Williams said following the Charleston game. “It started in practice and now it’s transitioning into the game.”
Demir has showed a lot of the same versatility that had made Rodney Williams so successful in his time at Drexel. Demir has played in and out of the paint, while also attacking the basket off the dribble and knocking down 44% of his three-point attempts. A large part of his success has also come from his ability to pass from the high and low post. Demir, who played point guard in high school, has tallied an assist in all but two games, notched 3 or more assists six times, and places third on the team in assist percentage. Whether it’s scoring for himself or creating for others, Demir’s success on the offensive end has had a ripple effect on the team, placing him second of regular minutes receivers in offensive box plus-minus.
“I think he adds another element to us,” Spiker said after their win over La Salle earlier in the season. “Offensively, he’s got a great IQ and feel...He adds the ability to make good, simple IQ plays. He can shoot and he will shoot. And he’s just getting more and more comfortable.”
Demir’s game has perfectly complemented Austin Williams’ game, who plays exclusively in the paint on the offensive end. Even though Williams hasn’t scored as much as he did before Demir’s entrance, Williams has seen more opportunities to score, specifically in the last eleven games, when Demir has stepped up his game. While he hasn’t converted at his usual rate during the span, Williams has averaged 7.8 shots per game, up from the 6.7 shots per game he was taking in the games prior. One can’t help but think that given his career field goal percentage of 57.8, he will begin to convert more as the year progresses.
Defensively, Williams’ strengths have also complemented Demir’s. While Williams is primarily a rim protector and shot-blocker on the defensive end, Demir’s quickness and perimeter instincts have allowed him to cover the opposing team’s ‘4’ man, even in small ball situations. This has given Demir some of the toughest matchups in the CAA, including College of Charleston forward Jarrell Brantley (17.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.3 spg) and William & Mary forward Nathan Knight (19.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.1 apg, 2.5 bpg). As a result, Williams has been able to exclusively defend the basket, averaging 2.7 blocks per game, first in the CAA. In turn, Williams has compiled a defensive box-plus minus of 2.4, third in the CAA, and a block percentage of 9.3, also the best in the CAA by 1.3 percentage points. Spiker has raved about Williams’ defensive prowess saying, “We feel as though for every shot he blocks, he probably alters twice that much,” Spiker added.
Williams has also attacked the boards as well as anyone in the CAA on both ends of the floor. He is third in the CAA in total rebounds with 183, while compiling an offensive rebounding percentage of 11.7, fourth in CAA and a defensive rebounding percentage of 21.0, fifth in the CAA. His all around ability to score, defend, and protect the rim has made him one of the most effective players in the CAA.
“I’m so proud of Austin and the progress he’s made,” Spiker said after their win over Lafayette. “It has nothing to do with our coaching staff and everything to do with his work ethic. He would text me pictures to say he’s going to [run to] Penn’s Landing during the summer time -- Penn’s Landing is nowhere close to here… He put the work in in the summertime and now you’re seeing the fruits of his labor.”
Off the bench, Spiker has turned to Tadas Kararinas, Tyshawn Myles, and even Sam Green in small-ball situations. While Green’s sample size is limited due to injury, Kararinas and Myles have had more substantial roles. Kararinas has extensively been used as a reserve big man when Demir and, more often, Williams needs a blow. Kararinas has been tough and has shown an ability to shoot and compete. As a player with strong defensive abilities, Myles, who is second to Williams in the top defensive box-plus minus and first on the team in defensive rating, is the more seasoned option. Spiker has praised the improvements he has made, especially prior to his recent injury.
“Tyshawn Myles was playing probably the best basketball of his career before he got hurt,” Spiker added following the Charleston game. “He [was willing] to just do whatever was asked as a ‘4’ man or a ‘5’ man. He was guarding guys on the perimeter and bringing energy.”
The Drexel big man core has often been overlooked throughout the transgression of the season by a studded backcourt, headlined by sophomore Kurk Lee and transfer Tramaine Isabell. The frontcourt’s showing against a team like Charleston has exemplified just how important it is for Drexel to have their big men producing as a unit. If Drexel wants to be successful, they’re going to need to play through them as the year progresses and Spiker has noticed that, especially after a game against Lafayette.
“In the first half, we were 1-12 when the ball did not go in the paint. We took 30 shots [in the first half]. I think we had down that we were 12-18 when we had a paint touch,” he said.
Right now, the highest usage rate of any Drexel big man is Austin Williams, fifth on the team at 18.2%, a number the team will ideally want much higher as the year progresses. While there are many other aspects that will help lead the Dragons to wins, using the big men as playmakers on the offensive end and versatile moving pieces on the defensive end will just open up more opportunities for the talented guards to continue producing. But that success is all going to start with consistent contributions from the whole Drexel frontcourt unit.
-Drexel loses to Charleston in the quarterfinal of the CAA tournament