Since becoming Northwestern men's basketball coach in March, Chris Collins has emphasized to his players that, apart from the center, the positions on the floor are often ambiguous in his offense. Almost every player is expected to be able to handle the ball, pass and shoot from the perimeter.
If that's the case, like it is for many teams, then there seems to be no point in continuing to identify players as one of five positions: point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center. This is what Stanford engineering student Muthu Alagappan had in mind when he used topological data analysis to determine what he believes are the 13 true positions of basketball.
His positions are offensive ball-handler, shooting ball-handler, role-playing ball-handler, combo ball-handler, defensive ball-handler, three-point rebounder, scoring rebounder, paint protector, scoring paint protector, role player, All-NBA 1st Team, All-NBA 2nd Team and one-of-a-kind. Clearly Alagappan's work was directed toward NBA players, but we thought it would be interesting to apply these positions to Northwestern players and try to take away some of the ambiguity. We also provide an example of an NBA player who we feel possesses a similar style.
Kale Abrahamson: Three-point rebounder. Abrahamson hit 34 three-pointers in his freshman campaign a year ago for an average of more than one per game, despite getting limited minutes for much of the season. But it wasn't until late in the season when he hit his stride on the glass. Over the last four games, he averaged nearly six rebounds per game and went after boards mercilessly.
Similar to... Mike Dunleavy Jr., Chicago Bulls. Almost half of Dunleavy's shots come from beyond the arc, and the 6-foot-9 small forward has a career average of 4.5 rebounds per game. He and Abrahamson both have the height of a post player but hover around the perimeter.
Chier Ajou: Paint protector. We haven't seen much from Ajou on the offensive end, as he only scored eight points on the year. The 7-foot-2 sophomore didn't see much action last season, but he was brought in because his length could make him a formidable force in rebounding and blocking shots. At this point, it seems more likely that he'd have an impact on the defensive side of the ball than on offense.
Similar to... Omer Asik, Houston Rockets. Like the Houston big man, Ajou is a load down low that can grab rebounds and block shots. At the same time, neither are very polished finishers around the rim.
JerShon Cobb: Combo ball-handler. This kind of study was made for Cobb. He's incredibly versatile, and the reason he's put in this position is that he can either play on the wing or be the primary ball-handler. In Wednesday's exhibition against Lewis, he showcased his skills by going coast to coast for a layup right before the halftime buzzer. Cobb's ability to play multiple positions will be key for the 'Cats this year.
Similar to... Joe Johnson, Brooklyn Nets. Both Cobb and the Nets swingman could handle the ball more if asked, but they tend to play off the ball. They can fill it up from the outside or get to the basket.
Nikola Cerina: Scoring rebounder. Not much was seen from Cerina a year ago, but over his first two seasons at Texas Christian University, he averaged over five points and four rebounds while playing just 20 minutes per game. He has several solid post moves, but he couldn't stay on the court because of injuries. If he can give NU what he gave the Horned Frogs early in his career, it will take a lot of pressure off of starting center Alex Olah.
Similar to... Boris Diaw, San Antonio Spurs. Cerina is a little undersized (6-foot-9) to be the man in the middle for the 'Cats, much like the 6-foot-8 Diaw. Even so, the two of them find ways to score down low or step out for jump shots.
Drew Crawford: All-NBA Second Team. Here, we're going to take Alagappan's position and make it "All-Big Ten Second Team," which Drew Crawford could certainly be named to this season. Rather than an actual position with specific skills, this just seems to be a category for an elite level of player. Crawford can shoot from the outside and has a mid-range game. He can rebound as well as get in the passing lanes for steals. It would've been tough to group him into a certain category.
Similar game to... Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors. Thompson is more of a volume shooter than Crawford, but both can get hot from outside. Once they get going from beyond the arc, it's very tough to slow them down.
Tre Demps: Offensive ball-handler. Last year, Tre Demps showed that he could come off the bench and be a sparkplug on offense. He was very quick to pull the trigger, which could be good or bad on any given night. He didn't make a huge impact on the defensive end, as he only had 11 steals in 31 games. A more consistent Demps would be crucial for the Wildcats.
Similar game to... Monta Ellis, Milwaukee Bucks. Both are constantly moving, looking for openings and trying to get shots off on every possession. They won't be thrown off by a couple of misses. These guys just keep shooting.
Aaron Liberman: Paint protector. Not much can be said about Liberman, because he still hasn't seen the floor since walking on a year ago. However, he did average 8.7 blocks during his senior year of high school. It's safe to say he does most of his damage on the defensive end.
Similar game to... Hasheem Thabeet, Oklahoma City Thunder. Like Thabeet, Liberman is tall, lanky and he blocks a lot of shots.
Sanjay Lumpkin: Role player. This position describes a player who does a little of everything. Sickness and injury limited Lumpkin a year ago, but Collins has raved about what he brings to this team. Despite the fact that six of his teammates are taller than him, Collins said he's the best rebounder on the team. He's also a very solid defender, can knock down outside shots, run the floor and find open teammates.
Similar game to... Shane Battier, Miami Heat. We've yet to see if Lumpkin lives up to this, but based on what Collins has said, he has an outside shot, rebounding tenacity and defensive prowess worthy of a comparison to Battier.
James Montgomery III: Role player. Montgomery earned a scholarship by playing hard in every practice and doing what his coaches tell him to do. He's been called the team's best perimeter defender by Collins, but he can also handle the ball and provide a little bit on offense. His game is predicated on hustle, and it doesn't matter whether he's on offense or defense.
Similar game to... Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies. Allen doesn't do nearly as much on the offensive end as he does on defense. He's a lockdown perimeter defender, much like Collins has said about Montgomery.
Alex Olah: Scoring rebounder. Olah's offense was raw last year, but he showed flashes of a smooth jump shot and a hook shot. This year, he's more polished, and he'll likely get significant touches on the offensive end. The rebounding has been on and off, but a leaner, more athletic Olah should be more physically capable of attacking the glass than he was last year.
Similar game to... Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies. Olah might not be as polished on defense as the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, but they both have similar offensive games. The two of them rely heavily on their jump shots and a nifty jump hook.
Dave Sobolewski: Role-playing ball-handler. Sobolewski was key to the team's success last year because of his ball-handling, but it wasn't really clear how important he was until he left the floor. Without him, the Wildcats struggled to even get the ball past half court against a full-court press. With Cobb and Crawford back as offensive weapons, he shouldn't be forced into trying to do too much offensively this season.
Similar game to... Luke Ridnour, Milwaukee Bucks. Ridnour controls the pace and usually doesn't let things get out of control, much like Sobolewski. Neither turn the ball over much and are generally reliable from three-point range.
Nate Taphorn: Three-point rebounder. We haven't seen nearly enough to judge whether Taphorn will be a good rebounder on the college level, but he did average seven boards as a senior in high school. What's not up for dispute is how he's a knock-down outside shooter. He'll be a key guy for drivers like JerShon to pass to when defenses collapse on them.
Similar game to... Nicolas Batum, Portland Trail Blazers. Batum and Taphorn are both guys who can knock down three-point shooters but aren't limited to it. They're hustle players who get after it on the boards.