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Analysis: What to expect in Kerr Kriisa’s debut

Arizona Wildcat James Akinjo, 13, dribbles the ball past Stanford Cardinal Michael O’Connell, 5, on Thursday, Jan. 28.

The Arizona men’s basketball team’s head coach Sean Miller held a press conference Tuesday afternoon previewing the upcoming slate of games. This turned into a Kerr Kriisa Q&A as Miller filled us all in repeatedly on what to expect from his touted freshmen’s debut. 

Kriisa is a 6-foot-2, 175-pound point guard ranked No. 92 overall in his recruiting class by 247Sports. Some may ask why the debut of a player with that ranking is such a big deal. Kriisa, however, isn’t your typical four-star freshman. 

Kriisa already has an extremely refined and polished offensive skill set as he has been playing professionally in Lithuania and in the EuroLeague, which is commonly known as the second-best league in the world to the NBA. Kriisa has also been running the point guard position for the Estonia national team since he was 15 years old. He even went back to Estonia to play for the team while the NCAA was taking their sweet time approving his waiver to play this year. 

Kriisa has been playing more professional basketball than about 95% of the first-round draftees in the upcoming NBA draft pool combined. He is poised to make his Arizona Wildcat’s debut on Feb. 4 when the Wildcats travel to Utah for another Pac-12 game. 

Here’s what you should look out for in Kriisa’s debut on Thursday. 

In Europe, teams run a similar offensive and defensive concept to the NBA, as most leagues are filled with professional-style athletes and not 18 to 21-year-olds. You will rarely see a 2-3 zone look from any teams and will also primarily see a lot of four flat, high screen and roll action involving your best playmaker and big man.

In this clip, you will see Kriisa catch the ball off a scrambled possession and immediately go into Estonia’s default high screen and roll. Coming off the screen, he recognizes early that the defender is playing a drop coverage and not letting him penetrate the paint. Kriisa’s hesitation dribble freezes the big man before he can even get a good contest on this mid-range pull up. 

You will see this play 50-plus times on your regular NBA night and is something only James Akinjo can currently do for Arizona. Kriisa’s mid-range game is pretty deadly and he goes to it often whenever needing a bucket. With his craftiness and ambidextrous dribbling, he can pull up easily going right or left.

This clip here is one of Kriisa’s more high-level showcases. He recognizes immediately the defender is cheating the screen and did a good job of playing on top of the screen so that if Kriisa decided to come left, he would be forced well out of scoring range. Not only did he recognize this early, but he also has the awareness to lead his defender on top of the screen just so he can hit his counter move, which is this tight spin. Another drop coverage defense by the big man and Kriisa makes him pay with the pull-up mid-range. The IQ to not only recognize the hard hedge by the on-ball defender but also to force him over the screen to reject it is something most 19-year-old freshmen should never have. It is a prime example of the little tidbits he has picked up playing in Europe. 

Something you haven’t seen yet is his ability to attack the paint. Here, you will see he notices early that it is a rare occurrence of a zone-look defense — but it’s not your typical 2-3 zone. The defense is actually playing a 3-2 zone, attempting to eliminate any chance of an above the break 3. Kriisa displays here his hidden quickness. He doesn’t seem like someone who will blow you away with a first step, but off the catch, there is an immediate screen to shock the defender on the weak side. 

Kriisa uses his strong foot rip-through move with good intentions towards the basket, not horizontally. By the time the first dribble is completed, Kriisa is already in the paint past the lazy attempt of a step in by the ball-side wing and finishes tough at the rim. Arizona has the potential to have a very spaced lineup with Azuolas Tubelis at the five, followed by James Akinjo and Kriisa running the backcourt duties. Expect to be able to see a lot of this from those two with a clear paint.

Earlier, we saw Kriisa’s ability to pull up from about 14-18 foot range and make that mid-range shot. These two plays right here are where Kriisa will make his money in the NBA. The analytics boom in the pros won’t go away for a while as the numbers tell us threes are worth more than twos. Crazy concept, I know. 

The current top guards in the league all operate off high screen and roll or isolation action. Guys like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving and James Harden are all looking for their shot coming off the screen. In both of these clips, the defense switches on the screen, but the switcher goes under the screen both times instead of hedging. Kriisa has such a quick trigger and clean stroke that he has no hesitation before pulling up from three. Kriisa shot 41% from three in the Lithuanian League last year. He is a dangerous threat to hit from deep and once the defense game plans for that and raises up on the screens, he will have the ability to attack like the clip before. Another example of a play that only Akinjo can confidently do right now for the Wildcats. 

Here is another impressive clip. This takes a high-level IQ, floor vision, strong handle and passing ability to complete this play. After Kriisa receives the ball on the dribble handoff — which is supposed to act as a screen — he calls for the screen right back going the other way. The big man misses this screen again but notices early and slips the roll. The defense plays this pretty well actually as the big hedges on the switch, and the guard retreats to the paint to cover the immediate roll pass. 

Somehow, Kriisa is able to realize that the third defender’s rotation is a bit late as he is supposed to step in under the basket when the guard trails to cover the corner pass. The defender knows he’s late and tries to front the big to eliminate the pass but Kriisa does something that few guards in college can currently do. 

This retreat dribble he does creates a brand new passing lane that was not there before. Performing this retreat dribble, Kriisa now has the ability to pass it over the big on-ball defender and his center in the paint has now sealed, creating a clean passing pocket. The pass is perfect over the defender’s hands and leads his big right into the dunker’s spot for an easy two.

It is well known how good of a shooter Kriisa has been in Europe. It is also well known how quickly he can get his shots off and how smooth his shooting stroke is. This is a simple play but not one a lot of players make as the off-ball movement is becoming pretty sparse these days. Kriisa’s post player gets in trouble and spins into a double team, needing help quickly. A fundamental rule in basketball is the best threes are inside-out threes like this one here. 

Another fundamental rule is when a player drives the lane or is posted in the lane, you flare to the corner, away from the ball and play. You want your defender to always have to make a decision between help defense or ball denial. When his post player gets stuck in the double team, Kriisa starts flaring to the corner like you are supposed to and easily gets himself open. The contest is actually pretty good on this shot, but it is no match for this quick release and high-arching shot here. A couple of these and the defense has to respect you, just opening more driving lanes for Akinjo and Bennedict Mathurin while also getting more single post-up opportunities for Azuolas Tubelis. 

This is simple basketball here. The floor is spaced and everyone is cleared out. It’s just Kriisa versus his defender, no help. His first dribble move is quite impressive, and I bet you he learned it from some Chris Paul tape. 

The classic “yo-yo dribble.” He gets his defender thinking he’s driving right, just to push it in front to the left hand without performing any right to left crossover movements. He has the step already and he knows it, but instead of going all the way to the rim where two defenders are now waiting for him, he is able to stop on a dime without stepping back for that killer pull-up I mentioned earlier. The defender’s only hope is to swipe at the ball as his momentum is already carrying him past Kriisa. This is some next-level body control from a player this age.

Now, Kriisa is not a perfect player by any means. He will need to fill out a little bit with muscle, so he can consistently attack against older teams and can slip a little bit defensively by reaching and not staying in front of his man. Offensively, however, he has a lot of tools to become a really good college point guard for many years and eventually translate to this modern NBA game. Plus, it’s always good to have a successful Kriisa at guard wearing the Arizona jersey. 

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