Analysis: Amauri Hardy takes center stage in 2019-20 UNLV roster projection

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Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels guard Amauri Hardy (3) passes the ball by Wyoming Cowboys forward Hunter Thompson (10) during a game at the Thomas & Mack Center Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019.

Mon, Aug 12, 2019 (2 a.m.)

The Rebels’ roster has been remade by head coach T.J. Otzelberger, as six newcomers have been added over the offseason to bring UNLV to its full allotment of 13 scholarship players. While two of the new additions will sit out the upcoming 2019-20 campaign as redshirt transfers, the rest figure to play key roles as Otzelberger attempts to build the UNLV program to fit his vision .

Though preseason practice is still several months away, the completion of the roster makes this a good time to run through the Rebels' potential rotation. Since the last time we projected the lineup (shortly after the conclusion of the 2018-19 season), two starters transferred and the style of play has changed completely from Marvin Menzies' post-heavy approach to Otzelberger's spread attack.

Based on what we know about the personnel and the play style, here's what UNLV basketball could look like when the 2019-20 season tips off:

Starting lineup

Point guard: Elijah Mitrou-Long, senior

Mitrou-Long did not shoot the ball well last year at Texas, and that is a huge obstacle to playing time in an Otzelberger backcourt. But the grad transfer does play solid defense and distribute the ball at an acceptable level, which should earn him minutes. His main job will be to provide ball-handling and allow Amauri Hardy to flourish as a scorer.

Shooting guard: Amauri Hardy, junior

Hardy could excel as a point guard, but it appears Otzelberger wants to unleash him as a full-fledged scorer. That means letting Mitrou-Long run the point while Hardy takes dribble handoffs and goes to work in downhill situations. Given Hardy’s skill as an isolation scorer (0.852 points per possession on iso plays last year, best on the team), this role should suit him fine. Look for Hardy to break the 20-point mark on many nights.

Shooting guard/small forward: Jonah Antonio, senior

A case could be made for starting sophomore Bryce Hamilton as the third guard, but Antonio might be the better fit. In order for Otzelberger’s offensive attack to fire at full capacity, the Rebels need outside shooters to threaten the defense; no one on the roster is better suited to fill that role than Antonio, who made 40.9 percent of his 3-point attempts at junior college last year. By comparison, Hamilton shot just 29.6 percent from long range as a freshman. For now, Antonio is the more reliable floor-spacer.

Forward: Donnie Tillman, junior

Tillman’s commitment two weeks ago was huge for Otzelberger because the 6-foot-7, 225-pounder allows the Rebels to play small as their base lineup. Tillman averaged 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds last year at Utah, and he made 36.1 percent of his 3-pointers. Tillman is currently petitioning the NCAA for a waiver to play this season, and if he gains eligibility (as expected) he could be the perfect stretch-4 for the bombs-away Rebels.

Center: Mbacke Diong, junior

It appeared Diong was going to take a giant leap forward last year, but after a strong start to the season he suffered an injury, lost his starting job for a bit and ended up averaging 6.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. Contrary to popular belief, Otzelberger can and has given significant minutes to non-shooting big men. If Diong proves to be an elite shot-blocker in the Mountain West, he’ll play a ton even without making outside jumpers.

Bench (rotation)

Guard: Bryce Hamilton, sophomore

Hamilton may be the most talented player on the roster, capable of breaking down defenders off the dribble and scoring buckets in bunches, but his defense and his outside shooting lagged last year. For now he’ll open the season as a key reserve with the upside of being a microwave sixth man. If he plays up to his potential, he'll get all the minutes and touches he can handle.

Forward: Nick Blair, senior

Blair was put on scholarship because Otzelberger likes his potential as a small-ball forward who can rebound with toughness and handle the ball a little. If Blair hones his 3-point shot (33.3 percent last year), he could be a 20-minutes-per-game guy.

Forward/center: Vitaliy Shibel, senior

When Otzelberger wants to put five shooters on the floor — and he’s going to want to do that fairly often — Shibel will play center. The lefty was originally recruited to Arizona State because of his ability to stroke long-range shots; he hasn’t shown that ability yet in college (25.5 percent from 3-point range at ASU), but he never played the kind of consistent minutes that might allow him to get into a groove. Shibel figures to get that shot at UNLV. Also, note his year — Shibel is currently trying to gain an extra year of eligibility, but if the NCAA denies his claim he will be a senior this season.

Guard: Marvin Coleman, sophomore

Due to offseason turnover, there are some unbalanced areas of the roster. One thin spot is primary ball-handlers, as the Rebels are untested beyond presumed starters Mitrou-Long and Hardy. Coleman was a walk-on last year, but he showed some defensive chops. It was enough for Otzelberger to put him on scholarship. Coleman looks like he’ll get a crack at being the team’s backup point guard.

Bench (depth)

Guard: Jay Green, sophomore

If Coleman can’t get the job done at backup point, Green would be next in line for a shot as the primary reserve. Green has good size (6-foot-5), but he hasn’t played any meaningful minutes; he logged 62 total minutes as a freshman and then redshirted last year.

Center: Cheickna Dembele, junior

Dembele is a tremendous leader, but as a defense-only player he may find himself at the bottom of the minutes food chain. He was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA for last season, so he’s still got two years of eligibility remaining.

Redshirts

Guard: David Jenkins, junior

The biggest addition of the offseason, Jenkins will be a superstar-level offensive player for the Rebels — next season. For 2019-20 he'll have to settle for lighting it up as part of the scout team.

Forward: Moses Wood, sophomore

Wood is all projection at this point, but the lanky 6-foot-8 forward did make 37.3 percent of his 3-pointers at Tulane as a freshman. That rate would have ranked him second on UNLV last season, so he could turn into a key cog in 2020-21 with a year’s worth of added muscle.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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