This transitional offseason for the Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball team is far from over, especially now that American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Jarron Cumberland has decided that he will make a run at the NBA Draft. That doesn’t mean he is gone entirely, but he is at least considering the possibility. Cumberland has time to make the best decision possible no matter which way he ends up going, but the Bearcats need to at least prepare for the possibility that he will not be playing at UC next season.
Cumberland wouldn’t be the first Bearcat to look at making a change, but whereas Nysier Brooks was an important front court contributor and Rashawn Fredericks added depth, Cumberland very much was the Bearcats last season. He was their best player at the very least and going by the standards of his AAC Player of the Year award, the best in the entire conference. The Bearcats have the depth to replace Fredericks and enough talent to make up for Brooks’ departure at least partially, but losing Cumberland would be a problem they won’t be able to easily solve. If it were to happen, they’ll need someone or perhaps more than one player to step up. The question is who will that be?
If we go strictly based on who plays the most similar position, the answer is Keith Williams. Although he was far from the all-around contributor that Cumberland was, Williams did rank third on the team in usage percentage (21.7) and if Cumberland were to go, he would be the top returning player in that category. That means that Williams already knows a bit about playing with the ball in his hands for long stretches, something that will take some getting used to for anyone hoping to replace Cumberland and his incredible 32 percent rate from last year. Williams was also the second-best scorer by volume on the team (9.9 points per game) and at 6’5” and able to play shooting guard and small forward, he can cover the same types of spots on the floor as Cumberland.
Williams still has a long way to go before head coach John Brannen can consider him the perfect replacement for Cumberland. Williams has not shown much in terms of distributing ability in his first two seasons, with a career assist rate of less than 9 percent. He is also still trying to find a consistent rhythm from three-point range (27.6 percent last season) and has rarely been called on to be the primary scoring option. Adding that type of pressure can’t be discounted when projecting his performance going forward. Of course, Cumberland wasn’t always the play-making machine he was last season, but his assist rate has never dipped below 14.9 percent and reached a carer-high of 25.6 percent last season. In addition, he has shot 36.3 percent from three in his career. If the Bearcats hope Williams can make up for Cumberland’s potential departure, those are the two areas he needs to address.
Perhaps looking for a way to replace Cumberland isn’t as easy as picking someone who can play the same position. A team’s best player can be found anywhere on the floor, so why not the front court? That is where Trevon Scott is primarily stationed and he has already shown tremendous improvements over the last 12 months. He set personal bests of 9.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last season and was exceptional down the stretch. Scott also became a better free throw shooter and added a three-point shot to his game (30.8 percent) in 2018-19, while continuing to be a surprisingly good passer, with his career assist rate settling in at 10.5 percent, even if it did fall to a career-low 9.7 percent last season. Scott has already expressed his belief in Brannen’s new offensive system, so its possible that he will take up the mantle if Cumberland leaves.
Expecting one player to effectively replace Cumberland is probably not the best idea, however. If he were to go, the Bearcats will need to cobble together strong production across the roster to avoid major regression. They could find some of the lost distribution from Logan Johnson (18.1 percent assist rate) and soak up some of the extra minutes on the wing by expanding the roles of Trevor Moore, LaQuill Hardnett and Prince Gillam Toyambi. They could even get help from 2019 commit Samari Curtis or look for some more reinforcements via transfer. That means that the person who might shoulder the greatest responsibility if Cumberland goes to the draft is Brannen himself. Although Cumberland could excel in Brannen’s system, if he decides to leave, then Brannen will really have to be at his best in terms of creating rotations and implementing a successful game plan.
The Bearcats relied on Cumberland heavily last season and the results were relatively fantastic. If they can’t lean on him next season, then its clear that the whole team — coaches included — will have to step up.