Purdue’s best shooter needs consistency.
The bible of Purdue basketball has its own 1st and 2nd Chronicles at this point. Under Matt Painter there is basically a lineage of Midwestern snipers that have been recruited almost exclusively to come in and hit open threes. Bobby Riddell begat Ryne Smith who begat DJ Byrd, who begat Kendall Stephens, who begat Dakota Mathias, who begat Ryan Cline, who begat Sasha Stefanovic. What’s in common with all of these players is that Purdue’s offense does significantly better when they are knocking down threes.
Ryne Smith was essential as an outside shooter with Robbie Hummel’s all-around game and Lewis Jackson’s driving and distribution ability in 2012. Dakota Mathias really made everything go his final two years on campus with both his passing and lethal shooting. Cline was always a great shooter, but the Tennessee game will always be his magnum opus. That leaves Sasha Stefanovic. We have seen flashes. We know what he can do, but like so many other guards, he needs consistency for Purdue to soar.
Sasha Stefanovic – 5th Year Senior in 2021-22
2018-19 Stats: 36 Games played, 0 starts. 11.5 mpg, 2.5 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 0.4 apg, 39% FG, 41% 3FG, 35.7% FT
2019-20 Stats: 30 Games played, 22 starts. 26.4 mpg, 9.1 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.7 apg, 38.5% FG, 38.3% 3FG, 81.6% FT Team leader in 3-pointers, attempts and percentage (64 of 167).
2020-21 Stats: 25 Games played, 24 starts. 29.4 mpg, 9.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.6 apg, 41.6% FG, 40% 3FG, 84.2% FT
In many ways this was Sasha’s best season yet. His overall shooting percentage was the highest it has ever been. He was much more versatile than he had been in past years. As a freshman he shot only 16 two-point field goals against 61 threes. This year he added the drive to his repertoire, and he shot 36 two-point field goals to 125 threes. This resulted in him getting to the line more, where he was a solid 48 of 57. He also had a career high 64 assists, peaking with 8 in the Wisconsin game.
Like Eric Hunter Jr., however, there was definitely a dip late in the season. Hunter may have lost his legs a bit because of his offseason knee injury. Sasha definitely was affected by his COIVD spell that cost him three games in late January. Once he returned he was only 9 of 35 from three, so just a little over 25%. That was a big drop from the 45.5% he was shooting from long range pre-COVID bout.
When Sasha is going it opens up so much for Purdue’s offense, especially with Jaden Ivey. I know I have mentioned Ivey in regards to Purdue’s guards, but it is very clear that he needs a consistent running mate in the backcourt. He needs someone who can handle the ball, hit open threes, occasionally drive on their own, and, in general, be a compliment to his awesomeness. With Sasha’s shooting ability he can be that guy. He can be the Cline to Ivey’s Carsen.
Purdue had difficulty getting him open at times though. It seems like we had to often run him through a series of Reggie Miller-esque screens to get him an open look late in the year. Teams were able to guard him. Ohio State effectively removed him from the game in the Big Ten Tournament and against North Texas coach Painter quite literally removed him from the game in the second half. He had a great start with seven of Purdue’s first 14 points and nine total in the first half, then disappeared in the second half for… reasons.
Sasha was not alone in Purdue’s defensive struggle on the perimeter this year. It seems like everyone struggled with the overhelp that led to a lot of open threes. Often the only reason Purdue didn’t struggle more was teams shooting very poorly from long range even with open looks. North Texas did not do that. They always made the extra pass and made Purdue pay. All of Purdue’s guards were cooked on this.
The good news is that it can be fixed, and as long as we go from “bad” to “serviceable” it will help a lot, especially as the offense also becomes more consistent as well. As a team Purdue shot 33.5% from three. During the three-year run of Sweet 16s with two Big Ten titles Purdue shot, 40.6%, 42%, and 36.4% from three. That’s on all of Purdue’s guards, not just Sasha. Raising Purdue’s percentage 5% gives us a couple more threes per game, and improving the perimeter defense to erase a couple more from opponents can be a gigantic difference.
Sasha has had some great games in his career. He bombed away on Virginia in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. He was 5 of 7 from three for 18 points against Notre Dame this year. He is a smart passer that can defer to his teammates. He is a guy that can get hot and bury six threes in a game and he is probably Purdue’s most trusted shooter with a game-winner at Northwestern in 2019-20 to his credit.
But again, it comes back to consistency. Yes, he averaged 9.3 points per game, but that was a lot of 14-18 point games outweighing 3-6 point games (and even a few scoreless ones). Purdue lost six of its 10 games this year either by 5 points or less in regulation or in overtime. In those games Sasha had 4 (Miami), 14 (Rutgers), DNP (at Maryland), 0 (Minnesota), 0 (Ohio State, B1G Tourney), and 9 (North Texas). I am not placing the blame for these losses on Sasha, but they all have a common themes: Purdue’s guards as a whole struggled on both ends.
That is where Sasha really comes in. As Purdue’s best long range shooter we need to find way to get him open looks and we need him to hit them when they are there. We also need him to step up his perimeter defense and be smarter on the over help. The clear demarcation of Sasha’s COVID layoff created a late season shooting outlier, but when he is getting open looks it opens so many things up for Purdue’s offense. We need that shooter, period, be it him or Brandon Newman (or to a lesser extent, Isaiah Thompson, but I will touch on him later). Even hitting 1-2 threes per game frees up so much for Purdue’s offensive flow.
We need Sasha to be Cline, and I know he can do it.