CJ Elleby and Isaac Bonton were the ones that sparkled on the stat sheet last week and deservedly received much of the praise for leading Washington State to its first sweep of the Oregon schools since 2013.
With 93 points between them, the sophomore forward and the transfer guard were responsible for 57 percent of the Cougars’ scoring in a 72-61 upset of the eighth-ranked Ducks and an 89-76 victory against the Beavers two days later.
Elleby and Bonton may have been the headliners, and they may be in most Pac-12 Conference games WSU manages to pull out this season, but the Cougars were also dependent on a few young supporting actors who were getting ready this time last year to put a bow on their respective high school careers.
While their elder teammates delivered the offense in bunches, the freshman duo of Noah Williams and DJ Rodman were in the middle of nearly everything the Cougars did defensively, keeping the Ducks to their lowest scoring total of the season while holding the Beavers to just 2 of 13 from three-point range.
“It’s great. Just tickled,” first-year WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “You usually don’t want to play them until you think they’re ready, and you don’t know until you put them in there if they’re ready. Noah’s just kept getting better, DJ’s been up and down and I finally gave him a swift kick in the rear before Thursday’s game. Said, ‘You’ve got to do it, man. Time to do it.’ And he did.”
Both players were pressed into action earlier in the year – Williams before Rodman – but now they’re integral parts of the rotation, especially with the injury crisis that’s overcome the Cougars in year one with coach Kyle Smith. With guards Marvin Cannon and Jaylen Shead still shelved, Williams has taken a place in the starting lineup and played a career-high 32 minutes against both Oregon and Oregon State.
Tony Miller’s now missed a spate of games with an ankle injury, so Rodman’s been one of the first Cougars off Smith’s bench, logging a career-high 23 minutes against the Ducks, then exceeding that with 30 minutes against the Beavers.
Smith describes it as a major luxury to get his young players on the floor without having to sacrifice in the win/loss column.
“To get these minutes and experience in a win is ten times better than the old, ‘you’re playing your young ones and you’re getting better,’ ” Smith said. “That excuse … it just doesn’t fly. When you win, it’s a tremendous thing.”
Williams, the Seattle native and former two-sport star at powerhouse O’Dea, has been a dominant defender since his first game with the Cougars and someone teammates have labeled as a future Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
He also gave the Cougars a scoring lift against OSU, with 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting, while dishing out three assists.
“He’s a winner, he’s a competitor. I’ll go to war with that guy,” Smith said. “He’ll make some errors every now and then, but his heart’s in the right place and he’s proud to be a Coug. He wants to be the best he can be and it’s neat to see. Hopefully just keeps ascending.”
Rodman’s development has been more gradual. In eight of the team’s first 12 games, he played fewer than 10 minutes and didn’t score. But his progress, coupled with Miller’s injury, brought him off the bench in a bigger role on Thursday, and Rodman took advantage, scoring a career-best eight points while grabbing five rebounds.
“He’d been really good in the summer and the fall at times. Sometimes he’d be the best player in the gym,” Smith said. “And it’s normal freshman stuff with academics and that. Just, I think he’s a little – what’s the right word – he’ll defer. He’s OK with letting the older guys (handle it). It’s normal for a freshman. I’m like, ‘No man, if you can help us. And you have to go in there with the right attitude and do the best you can.’ ”
The freshman from Newport Beach, California, is athletic at 6-foot-6, 190 pounds, a solid rebounder and someone who’s more than capable on the defensive end of the floor. Rodman, who already seems to be a more accurate 3-point shooter than his NBA father, made 4 of 8 from beyond the arc last week and is 7 of 20 on the season.
“He felt good out there. It’s not his shot-making, it’s everything,” Smith said. “He’s got a good feel and we need some strong bodies, and he played well. We went back to it the next night and it seemed to work again. I think he spaces the floor, he helps us offensively and he’s kind of a steady defender. He just gives us a little more sturdiness, and maybe the rebounding, too. When he’s on the floor, good things have been happening.”