X's and O's: Columbia’s future has already begun

(Photo: Ben Goldsmith, Logo: Chase Manze)

(Photo: Ben Goldsmith, Logo: Chase Manze)

The Lions’ 2018-2019 campaign came to an end in bittersweet, overtime fashion as Harvard snapped Columbia’s three-game winning streak in the final game of the season. Senior Quinton Adlesh missed the potential last-second winner in his final game for Columbia, a tough ending for Adlesh, who has been one of the team’s most consistent stalwarts for the past four years. Nonetheless, with just three seniors (Adlesh, C.J. Davis, and Peter Barba) departing at the end of the semester, Columbia’s future looks bright.

But one only truly knows how bright the future looks by examining it; let’s do that by comparing two of the team’s brightest first-years with two of its top upperclassmen.

Tapé and Nweke, Renaissance Painters

Patrick Tapé concluded his junior season with a bang, earning Ivy League Player of the Week accolades in the penultimate week of the season. First-year Ike Nweke played in all 28 of the Lions’ games and led the bench in rebounding. Yet while both saw the majority of their minutes at center, the two are very different players.

Both are eager to score. One is a more experienced and diversified scorer. Tapé, who hit a step-back three-pointer (Shock! Awe!) in the final game of the season, has begun to diversify his game from interior-only to perimeter-friendly. Penn’s A.J. Brodeur outplayed Tapé earlier in the season when the Penn forward attacked Tapé off the dribble from the perimeter. Perhaps by design and perhaps by necessity, Tapé expanded his own game in subsequent weeks to incorporate more purpose and creativity off the bounce from his traditional spot in the high post. He puts the ball on the floor more. He drives more. He scores more, too.  

Whereas Tapé’s best perimeter offense comes when he attacks calmly, or at least acknowledges the restrictions of his size, Ike Nweke’s brightest moments derive from his explosive energy inside. They come primarily in going strong to the basket after getting the ball on the block. He’s worked on his post moves throughout the year, adding a number of turnaround jumpers to his arsenal, but Nweke is at his best when his momentum goes toward the basket. He doesn’t have Tapé’s outside-in game or his controlled dribble-drives and he occasionally disappears from the post for a few possessions per game; Tapé’s impact is always present.

In all fairness, Tapé is simply taller and longer, a traditional big man. Nweke plays like a big man, but at 6’7”, he’s also the same listed height as Randy Brumant, a tweener forward who has more verticality and who is slowly developing the three-point shot that Nweke does not have. 6’11” transfer Joseph Smoyer will get minutes next year so the question is whether Columbia would sacrifice its spacing to have Nweke play the 4 next year, likely squeezing Brumant out of the starting lineup.

The answer may lie with the first-year’s roommate.

Maka Ellis Answers the Q

We’ll get to Ellis’ role in the frontcourt later, but the above Q is Quinton Adlesh, who as mentioned above concluded his final game as a Lion in heartbreaking fashion on Saturday night.

Ellis seems to be the natural replacement for Adlesh. He’s played a bevy of crunch-time minutes, hit some big shots, and is hitting three-pointers at a 41.5 percent clip, higher than Adlesh’s 37.2 percent mark (Adlesh has also taken 135 more threes, so don’t get the wrong idea). Gabe Stefanini could slide to shooting guard with the return of Mike Smith if Jake Killingsworth retains his starting spot, but there’s a potential starting role, or at least sixth man void, that Ellis could fill.

Adlesh does a lot that Columbia won’t be able to replace so easily. He’s a lethal shooter, off catch or curl, and a tenacious defender. Adlesh moves smoothly, stopping on a dime or shimmying around a screen. At his best, he is an adventurous, imaginative passer, using his shooting to unlock defenses and daring to slip the ball through tight (sometimes too tight) windows.

Ellis is not there yet. He has more energy, faking and swerving around defenders into an increasing number of open mid-range jumpers. He has not yet developed the court vision that Adlesh has found over his four years here. Ellis is a scorer, not a facilitator. But he will polish his scoring abilities even further once he develops the passing skills that Adlesh eventually added to his own repertoire.

Back to the Future

The silver lining, of course, is that both Ellis and Nweke are first-years. The fact that both have made real impacts in their first year is extremely promising. They still have work to do, but who doesn’t? With Ellis and Nweke, Columbia has paved its road to the future.

“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” said Doc Brown. But even he would concede that we certainly need driving lanes.

It may be best to keep both Nweke and Ellis out of the starting lineup next year (though the primary lineup is a different story). Smith, Stefanini, Killingsworth, Brumant, and Tapé are probably Columbia’s leading five, with either Killingsworth or Brumant out first for Ellis. When the current crop of juniors graduates, Nweke and Ellis will most likely become full-time starters. There’s still time. They still have a few tricks to learn, like Tapé shamelessly impeding defenders under the hoop as a fleeter finisher flits to the hoop, or Adlesh driving, kicking, and relocating for a Steph Curry-like catch-and-shoot three.

But Columbia’s future is here now, and it’s looking good. Sorry, W.C. Fields: on the whole, I’d rather be at Columbia.

SportsJosiah Cohen