I spent ten days over the holidays with friends and family in my homeland in Iowa. Somewhere in these annual nostalgic returns, I always find myself coordinating schedules with my dad, trying to find a bar where we can meet up for some sporting event, preferably one where our loyalties lie on the same side. The rising stability of my alma mater’s (the University of Iowa) basketball program has offered that which we seek and so it was on a Tuesday night we descended on a truly gluttonous BBQ joint near the Drake University campus called Jethro’s. Jethro’s specializes in a five-pound artery-clogging burger sandwich named after one of Drake’s recent basketball heroes: Adam Emmenecker. (I will forever be amazed at the glory that accompanies a sandwich-eating event, but that’s what happens at Jethro’s.)
Without audio and strangely surrounded by LSU fans in the heart of Des Moines, Iowa, we settled in with our beers to watch Iowa host then-top ranked Michigan State who was without their All-American, All-Everything forward Denzel Valentine. Iowa led all game despite its best player and the subject of this piece putting together an underwhelming offensive performance. Jarrod Uthoff, a sunken-cheeked 23-year-old from Cedar Rapids, IA came into the game averaging around 18 points/game, but was held to just ten while struggling with foul trouble and committing eight turnovers. In a nod to the two-way nature of his ever-developing game, Uthoff, the Big 10’s leading shot blocker, swatted six Spartan shots. Iowa led the entire game and my dad and I, along with my buddy Hamilton, walked away with feelings of satisfaction and a desire to carry the momentum to another watering hole.
Stats provided by sports-reference.com/cbb
This recent bonding in the motherland coupled with Iowa’s strong play this season (ranked 19th in the country with back-to-back wins over ranked Big 10 teams) has compelled me to explore Iowa through Uthoff. He’s the best player on the team, an Iowa native that went from skinny, gaunt-faced kid who persevered through some ugly transfer nonsense at Wisconsin to Iowa where he bided time behind eventual NBA player Devyn Marble and Wizards draftee Aaron White to a dynamic two-way threat who can apparently carry some sinewy muscle on an otherwise lithe frame.
But it’s not enough to develop physically and it’s not enough to just be 23. At 6’9”, 221lbs, Uthoff plays the four for Iowa where he’s equally at ease attacking bigger defenders off the dribble, spotting up behind the arc, or punishing even narrower opponents in the post. 15 games into the season, he’s averaging over 18 points/game on 50% shooting from the field and 45% from three. And what’s more, at 6’9”, he’s become somewhat of a volume shooter from deep where he’s taking nearly five threes/game and making two. While he slots in at the four, he’s a wing on the Hawkeyes which makes his shot blocking ability so compelling.
His wingspan was measured at just 6’10.5” at the Nike Basketball Academy, but he looks kind of raptorish out there with dangling arms that harass the hell out of opponents. He’s fourth in the country averaging 3.3 blocks/game, second in total blocks with 49 and fourth in block percentage at 11.7%. All these blocks and he’s not in any way a rim protector. He moves well laterally and expertly times when to commit to the block attempt. His blocks appear to come in man-to-man situations where opponents continue to underestimate his ability to close space and on help situations where he swoops around with unbiased menace knocking shots off target. A few days ago, Adam Jacobi of Black Heart Gold Pants of SB Nation went a step further with his analysis:
Uthoff has more than doubled his blocks, and now ranks third nationally in blocks at 3.2* per game, but he’s “only” 17th in block percentage** at 11.68%, per Ken Pomeroy ($). That’s still elite, but we see that part of his ability to accumulate so many blocks is his ability to stay on the court for more minutes than most shot blockers, and he does that with an amazing ability to stay out of foul trouble. In fact, Uthoff commits only 2.6 fouls per 40 minutes, and that is one hell of an accomplishment. Not only is it the lowest of anybody in Pomeroy’s top 100 in block percentage, nobody else is even below 3.0 (and only a handful are even below 3.5).
Part of that ability to stay on the court and avoid fouls is because Uthoff’s not patrolling the lane like so many traditional rim protectors. He’s quicker and lighter on his feet so he’s able to avoid fouls where many college bigs struggle. And that’s what makes his 3.3bpg so damn impressive.
Anyone who’s read this blog with any regularity knows I get particularly giddy when I can marry stat combinations into unique historical context. And this is what sucked me into Uthoff’s strange Iowa City gravity: since 1995-96 (the first season Sports-Reference.com/cbb has these stats), no other player in college basketball has average 3+ blocks and 2+ threes/game. And it’s not even close. (As an aside, Jacobi explores this same topic in his piece and my heart sank when I saw it, but we’re still going to plumb the historical context of the Uthoffian achievement.)
Uthoff blocking shots (mostly)
To find statistical comps for Uthoff, we can open up the filter on either criteria – 3s made or blocks. Jacobi already opened up it by dropping the blocks to 2/game which pulls in former Naismith and Wooden award winning Shane Battier. Not bad company for a kid that didn’t even break the top-100 preseason player ranks of CBS or ESPN.
I decided to take a different angle and keep the blocks static (3+) while lowering the threes/game to find someone who at least disrupted defense in a similar fashion. The filter has to be reduced all the way down to one 3/game before we get some company.
Criteria: at least 3bpg and 1 3PM/game:
- Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa, 2015-16: 3.3bpg, 2 3pm/g
- Chris Boucher, Oregon, 2015-16: 3.1bpg, 1 3pm/g
- Alec Brown, Green Bay, 2013-14: 3.1bpg, 1.4 3pm/g
- Greg Mangano, Yale, 2010-11: 3bpg, 1.1 3pm/g
- Eddie Griffin, Seton Hall, 2000-01: 4.4bpg, 1.4 3pm/g
I’ve never heard of Alec Brown, Greg Mangano, and had to look up Chris Boucher to see if I knew who he was (I didn’t). Eddie Griffin’s another story as his freshman season was one of the few things I remember from 2000-01 when I was a sophomore in college. And as a reminder, none of these other guys was hitting 2+ threes/game.
To beat this dead horse a little more: what Uthoff’s doing is unprecedented in the college game. He’s not a specialist player who can hit a couple spot up threes and get help-side blocks. He’s averaging nearly 19 points/game as the focal point for a potent Iowa offense that averages over 80ppg and ranks 24th in the country in offensive rating (per sports-reference). In three recent games against ranked teams, he’s scored 32 (30 in the first half with four total blocks) against then 4th-ranked Iowa State, the aforementioned 10 points (with six blocks) in the MSU victory, and 25 (with five blocks) on the road against 14th-ranked Purdue. For the season, Iowa’s played five ranked teams, has a 3-2 record in those games and Uthoff has stepped up seeing his season averages go up as the quality of opponent increases: 21.8ppg (+3), 4.4bpg (+1), 34.4mpg (+~6) while his shooting stays flatly solid at 45% from three.
I have this compulsive need to ask out loud and inquire about Uthoff’s NBA prospects. NBADraft.net and DraftExpress have left him off of their mock drafts, but ESPN’s Chad Ford has him 39th overall on his big board. DraftExpress though, has a thorough, fair, and mostly positive scouting report that offers a firm handshake-type reassurance. It’s like, “we’ve got a chance here.” But Uthoff, like all basketball players, doesn’t deserve to have his identity as a player defined by pro prospects. He deserves to have his immense collegiate achievements speak for themselves. And regardless of what the future fates have in store for Uthoff, he’s already finding ways to bring fathers and sons closer and that immeasurable quality is as beautiful, if intangible as any once-in-a-generation stat-lines he might conjure up.