Riley shores up hoops roster with Coward

This was the piece that was missing.

Good morning Cougs! Apologies for the sparseness of content from Craig and I over these last couple of weeks — in addition to things slowing down in the world of the WSU sports, I had to do a little traveling for the death of a family friend before attending both Pearl Jam concerts in Seattle last week: The first with my lovely wife and the second with one of my sons. How lucky am I?

If you’re a Pearl Jam and/or Stevie Ray Vaughan and/or Jimi Hendrix fan, here’s a fun bonus for you: Yellow Ledbetter into a full Little Wing back into Yellow Ledbetter for the penultimate song1 of night one. It’s a rarity: They’ve only played Little Wing 28 times out of their hundreds and hundreds of shows.

Meanwhile, Craig traveled to San Diego to see one of his favorite bands, Dayseeker, after winning a raffle put on by the band that covered the cost of the whole trip and included a tattoo from famed tattoo artist Bobby Johnson.

With the school year winding down, I’m ready to get back on that horse. Let’s reward you for making it to Thursday by catching you up with some thoughts about the men’s basketball roster.

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A huge addition: Cedric Coward

Last week, David Riley more or less finished off his roster by securing the addition he really needed when yet another one of his former players, Cedric Coward, pulled his name out of the NBA draft and committed to WSU.

What makes Coward different from the other guys who followed Riley from Eastern is that he is, quite simply, a bucket. He’s a primary scorer — the kind of guy that can get you points when you need them. There might be other guys on roster who will eventually be able to do that, but Coward has already proven that he has the ability to be that dude, and I think we saw last year that when you’re looking to count on up transfers, that’s a pretty important asset.

Coward averaged 15.4 points for the Eagles last year, which isn’t super eye-popping, especially on a team that had six guys average 9 points or more. What does catch your eye is that about 60% of Coward’s field goal attempts were inside the arc, and he made 123 of 182 from there — a whopping 68% conversion rate.

Here’s a table to provide some helpful context:

Player

2s% (overall)

2s% (league only)

Cedric Coward (23-24, EWU/Big Sky)

123-182, 68%

83-116, 72%

Isaac Jones (23-24, WSU/Pac-12)

198-332, 60%

114-200, 57%

Isaac Jones (22-23, Idaho/Big Sky)

203-319, 64%

128-216, 59%

Obviously, Jones was facing a higher level of competition last year than Coward, but comparing their junior years in the Big Sky is useful. Against roughly the same level of competition, Coward had dramatically more success inside the arc than Jones. And he did it in a very similar way to Jones: By working in the post, even though he is a 6-62 guard and not a 6-9 forward.

You can get a great sense of Coward’s game from watching this video, which includes some stats that are not sourced, but which I presume come from Synergy.3 About 20% of his shots came in the post, where he ranked in the 91st percentile by scoring 1.21 points per possession. That’s elite for anyone, but it’s kind of insane for a guard — and goes a long way toward explaining why he maybe didn’t shoot as many free throws as you might expect. He’s not really a slasher off the dribble.

Unlike Jones, though, he’s also excellent as a catch-and-shoot guy — his transition from catch to shot is extremely quick and difficult for opponents to guard. He hit 37% on his 3s overall last season, but 43% in Big Sky play.

Check it out:

The addition of Coward takes the Cougs from 120ish in barttorvik.com’s preseason projections up to No. 91. That’s a major addition, and it moves the Cougs into the range where Kyle Smith’s teams started the last couple of seasons — meaning, the underlying talent is such that it’s within reason to think that the team can make a serious push for the postseason again.

I’d feel much better if the team had one more high-level impact player — like, say Jaylen Wells. But Wells ain’t walking through that door: He’s decided to leave his name in the NBA Draft, which is honestly the second best news we all could have gotten from him. It’s hard to imagine him staying in without a draft promise, and it will be extremely cool to have another guy in the NBA who is “out of Washington State.” There’s a decent chance the Cougs actually get two guys drafted, as Jones impressed a ton of people during the pre-draft process. Again — very cool.

Riley does have one or two more scholarships to give (depending on whether Parker Gerrits is on scholarship), but I doubt it goes to a major impact player — unless Casey Jones shows up.4 He’s another very good EWU guy who has been curiously absent from the player movement conversation. There have been rumors on our members-only slack about a surgery and even perhaps a religious mission trip, but nothing has been publicly reported. Most of the player movement between schools has settled at this point, so I’d bet on that last scholarship going to either a high school player who falls through the cracks (a Spencer Mahoney-type, who was a late addition last year) or an international player who comes available unexpectedly.

Betting on upside

Of course, Coward isn’t the only addition to the roster over the past few weeks; Riley has added a handful of guys who are intriguing in different ways. Let’s roll through each of them.

Rihards Vavers

6-7/195, Quinnipiac

One thing that’s clear about Riley at this point is that he definitely has a type — he loves his lanky wings who can shoot.5 Vavers fits the archetype. Riley has had a lot of success developing guys like this, and I think that’s precisely what this is: A development project.

Vavers had a bit of an unfortunate freshman season at Quinnipiac, working his way into the starting lineup early in the year, only to be forced to the sidelines with various maladies. Perhaps that stunted what he was able to do, and perhaps if he is fully healthy this year, he’ll prove to be an impact player. I’m skeptical of counting on a guy who was a bit player for the No. 172 kenpom team even after he came back from injury, though.

The good news is that I don’t think we’ll need to count on him. Vavers being a two-year project who could be an interesting piece off the bench this year is good enough. And if he turns out to be better than that? Major bonus.

ND Okafor

6-9/235, California

Look, we all know that WSU can’t go head-to-head in recruiting with other schools for top-level talent. That’s why I whole-heartedly endorse what one coach has described to me as the “distressed asset” approach. In real estate, a distressed asset is one that under normal circumstances would be desirable at a high price, but for whatever reason its value has slipped. Okafor is that.

As a high school prospect, he was a high-three star guy who had a number of notable offers, including Arizona, before committing to Mark Fox at Cal. After a notably unproductive year as a freshman (86 offensive rating in 30% of the team’s minutes with pretty paltry rebounding numbers), Mark Madsen replaced Fox and promptly recruited over the top of Okafor, who stuck around. He barely got off the bench in the first 10 games before suffering a season-ending injury.

So the question is this: Is he the guy who couldn’t ever get any traction at a low-end high major program (which Cal was) or is he the guy who was a sought after high school recruit? Was he (like so many others) held back by Fox before being marginalized by the next coach, who recruited a couple of bigs over the top of him?

Betting on the former while also not counting on him to be a major contributor is a good wager for Riley to make. If it works out, you’ve got a nice piece on the interior who can, at the very least, rebound and block some shots — something that’s not exactly a strength of the Eastern guys who have come down the highway.

You can’t fill a roster with these “distressed assets” and expect to have it all work out, but you can definitely add guys like that around the edges.

Nate Calmese

6-2/164, Washington

Another distressed asset! Calmese had a great freshman year at Lamar — 32 minutes per game, 17.6 points, 108 offensive rating, 31% usage — before transferring up to Washington, where he … barely made a dent for the Huskies. He played just 13% of the team’s minutes and didn’t even get off the bench in half the team’s games.

Again, I love making this kind of bet on a guy. I don’t actually care that Lamar was one of the worst teams in the country in 2023 — to produce the way he did as a freshman under the kind of workload being asked of him is impressive to me. And the fact that Mike Hopkins didn’t see value in him doesn’t deter me — he’s certainly not the first guy to play for Hopkins in Seattle and see his development stall.

Let’s get him back to doing this:

Tomas Thrastarson

6-6/???, Iceland

Another guy who is precisely the kind of player WSU should be trying to add. Thrastarson — from Iceland — was originally a 2025 recruit, but he has reclassified to 2024 in order to come to Pullman. He spent this past season as a 17-year-old playing in the Iceland’s top professional league, averaging 17 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists.

Now, the “top professional league” in Iceland is not exactly high quality competition; it’s maybe akin to low-major college basketball, so I don’t place much stock in those stats. What I do place stock in is what I see on this video. And what I see is a guy who is a natural ball handler and passer with excellent body control in tight spaces:

His 3-point shooting in the league wasn’t great, but he did light it up from deep in a U-18 international tournament after the season. Honestly, the mechanics look just a little wonky, which probably is what leads to inconsistency. As with Vavers, he looks to me like a guy who is probably going to need to develop a bit, which is probably why he wasn’t more highly sought after by bigger programs. But you can see the skills and the athleticism. The tools are there, and if they can come along quickly, he could be a great find.

With that, here’s how the roster now looks:

IN

LIMBO

OUT

G - Isaiah Watts (returning)

G/F - Spencer Mahoney (portal)

G - Myles Rice (Indiana)

C - Ethan Price (EWU)

F - Isaac Jones (graduation)

F - LeJuan Watts (EWU)

F - Andrej Jakimovski (Colorado)

C - Dane Erikstrup (EWU)

C - Rueben Chinyelu (Florida)

G - Kase Wynott (HS)

C - Oscar Cluff (South Dakota State)

G - Marcus Wilson (HS)

G - Jabe Mullins (Montana State)

G - Parker Gerrits (returning … walk on?)

G - Dylan Darling (Idaho State)

G - Cedric Coward (EWU)

G/F - Kymany Houinsou (Loyola Chicago)

G/F - Rihards Vavers (Quinnipiac)

G/F - Jaylen Wells (NBA Draft)

F - ND Okafor (Cal)

G - Joseph Yesufu (West Virginia)

G - Nate Calmese (UW)

G - Tomas Thrastarson (HS)

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1  They’re closing shows on this tour with Setting Sun, the last song off their new album. It is, quite frankly, an absolutely killer finishing song. The house lights — which go up with Alive, and stay on through the next couple of songs — go back down for one last time. It’s so good.

2  Coward was listed at 6-4 during his freshman year at Willamette University before being listed at 6-6 during both years at Eastern. This is just speculation, but based on how he looks on video, I suspect the 6-6 is generous. Not that it really matters for our purposes.

3  I don’t have access to Synergy, so I can’t say for sure, but these sure sound like a Synergy stats, given the use of percentiles.

4  He’d take us to 80 in barttorvik.com, for what that’s worth.

5  Steele Venters, Angelo Allegri, Jake Kyman …

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