Dana Altman has won with grad transfers and freshmen, with top-100 recruits and under-the-radar prospects, with junior college players and fifth-year seniors and pretty much every other combination of basketball talent imaginable.
It’s fair to say Altman has never had a team like this one. Take a quick glance at Oregon’s 2018-19 team photo, and you see right away what makes these Ducks different.
They’re tall. Really tall.
The Ducks will open their season Tuesday night with nearly 21 feet of freshmen playing in the post. Their starting lineup could include 6-foot-9 senior Paul White, 6-9 sophomore Kenny Wooten and 7-2 freshman Bol Bol.
In an era when many teams are going small, the Ducks decided to go big. It would be tempting to say they spotted a market inefficiency, that they tried to zig when everyone else was zagging, but the actual explanation is more simple than that.
“We just went after the best players available and guys we thought were fits,” Altman said. “We did a little bit better on the bigger end this year and missed on a couple guards.”
The result is one of the most intriguing and unconventional rosters Altman has ever assembled. Judged on talent, the Ducks were picked No. 1 in the Pac-12 and ranked No. 14 in the preseason Associated Press poll. But it’s one thing to have talented pieces, and it’s another thing to make them fit.
That will be the ongoing challenge for Altman and the Ducks this season. More than any other team Altman has coached at Oregon, this one will evolve as the year goes along — especially with 6-9 freshman Louis King, one of the Ducks’ most talented players, not expected to make his debut until December.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to play a different style, make people adjust to us rather than us adjust to them,” Altman said. “It will be different for us, and there will be some major adjustments in November and December to try to play that way.”
The face of this roster makeover is Bol, possibly the most unique talent in college basketball, a 7-2 unicorn who can swish a turnaround three-pointer just as easily as he can throw down a reverse dunk.
Troy Brown was Altman’s first one-and-done, and it’s virtually a given that Bol will be the second. That means Altman and Bol have the next five months to learn each other’s language and make the most of a partnership that exists because of the NBA’s draft rules and the craziness of college basketball recruiting.
Altman is an exacting and demanding coach, but he’s also shown a willingness to let players be themselves. The question is how much the Ducks can tweak their system to fit Bol’s unique skills and how readily Bol will embrace some of Altman’s core messages.
“He’s a very good athlete and graceful for 7-2,” Altman said. “He’s got to bend his knees and think of himself more as a versatile player, someone who can slash inside and someone who can step out.
“He definitely can score from all three levels, but he’s got to think of himself differently.”
That’s true of Bol, and it’s true of the entire team. The Ducks have been known in recent years for their versatility, for their ability to spread the floor and surround the three-point arc with shooters.
When they made the Final Four in 2017, the Ducks played a lot of three- and four-guard lineups and often had no one taller than 6-9 on the floor. With freshman Will Richardson injured, the Ducks don’t have four healthy guards on scholarship at the moment.
That puts a ton of pressure on Payton Pritchard as the Ducks’ only established ballhandler, and it means the focal point of the team will have to shift.
“We know our strengths,” said White, who was sometimes the tallest player on the floor for the Ducks last season. “In the past, Oregon has been recognized as a running team. We’re still going to run with our bigs, but we’re going to look to pound it inside and utilize our mismatches.
“I mean, not too many people have a 7-2 guy that’s as skilled as (Bol) is or somebody like Kenny who can jump out of the gym.”
At a time when lots of other teams are going small, the Ducks will present matchup challenges galore. It remains to be seen whether a team constructed as they are, with so much depth inside and so little on the perimeter, is one that can win big in modern college basketball.
Altman has made the pieces fit before. But he’s never had a puzzle this big.