Kyle Smith says the moment might call for a toast.
At some point during the 2020-21 college basketball season, Ryan Rapp will line up a 3-pointer, release a short jumper or guide a transition layup off the glass to score his first points for the Cougars.
Smith may throw his hands up in elation. Washington State’s bench will probably erupt as if it locked in an NCAA tournament berth. Rapp, the sophomore guard from Australia, will breathe a sigh of relief as the metaphorical weights tumble off his shoulders.
“We giggle,” Smith said during a postgame press conference Sunday. “I’m going to call a timeout if Rapp scores this year, we’re just going to celebrate.”
Two years ago, the joke may not have landed so well for supporters of WSU’s basketball program. Rapp’s stat line through five games may not have either. But the Cougars are 5-0, Rapp is still an integral aspect of what Smith’s team does on both ends of the floor and, surely, the law of averages will eventually work in his favor.
Rapp, who has logged the sixth-most minutes of any WSU player this season, is 0 of 14 from the field with zero points. He’s missed all nine of his tries from beyond the arc, and hasn’t earned a trip to the free throw line in 90 minutes on the floor. While Rapp wasn’t brought to Pullman to be a high-volume shooter, or scorer – at least not as an underclassman – that he hasn’t done so through five games makes him a statistical anomaly.
By comparison, Efe Abogidi, who has played four more minutes than Rapp, is up to 32 points, and Jaz Kunc, who’s played five fewer minutes and not at all in the last two games, has scored 29. Freshman combo guard TJ Bamba has logged 24 fewer minutes than Rapp, but has scored 26 points off the bench.
WSU’s coaches will be quick to point out that while Rapp is scoreless, his minutes aren’t pointless.
“He’s going to come out of it, he’ll be fine, but he is, he’s guarding, he gives us another ball handler,” Smith said. “It’s just helping us there.”
A few times every game, Smith turns to his bench and signals to the Melbourne native who was once committed to play for him at the University of San Francisco. He can’t count on Rapp giving WSU a bucket at any point during his 18 minutes per game, but the second-year coach is confident the Cougars will either expand their lead, or cut into the opponent’s lead, while the sophomore is on the floor.
Smith and his analytic-minded coaches crunch dozens of numbers that don’t show up on a box score, but Rapp tends to excel in one of the more common statistical categories: plus-minus. While it has its critics, and many coaches don’t place much value in it until a certain number of games is played, plus-minus is probably the most comprehensive measure of a player’s total impact.
“Deep down, it’s the most important one,” Smith said. “It’s just, it’s not a big enough sample size usually. … I tell our guys specifically, all this stuff goes into – really our system’s predicated on winning plus versus losing plays. So make more winning plays. Emphasizing intangibles and defensively, that stuff. And you can feel when the score goes the wrong way, a guy goes in there sometimes. But (Rapp) has been scrapping and he’s a positive, so he makes some shots it should be even better.”
Rapp has been a plus-minus miracle for the Cougars this season, and especially in the past three games – wins over Oregon State, Idaho and Portland State. Over that stretch, he was a combined +26, a number that’s only matched by starting shooting guard Noah Williams. Rapp’s plus-minus peaked at +13 last week against Idaho, a game WSU won by just three points, and he was a +8 in the most recent game against PSU. Of note, Rapp was 0 for 3 from the field in both outings.
For the season, Rapp’s average plus-minus is a +3.8, behind that of only Williams (+5.8), Andrej Jakimovski (+5.8), DJ Rodman (+5.6) and Volodymyr Markovetskyy (+4.2).
According to WSU assistant and analytics guru John Andrzejek, the Cougars have been “about 5% better on both sides of the ball when Ryan’s been in the game.”
Yes, that includes offense, where he’s still an effective option in the backcourt without directly contributing to WSU’s point total himself. Of the three primary ball-handlers, Rapp has the best assist-to-turnover ratio, at 1.83, while Isaac Bonton is 0.94 and Williams is 0.86.
The tandem of Rapp and Williams has been especially successful in 2020-21, with the Cougars winning 101-75 in the 106 possessions those two have been on the floor, according to Andrzejek. With Rapp on the floor, usually playing point guard while Bonton and Williams stay off the ball, WSU’s assist-to-turnover ratio increases to 1:1.
“Anecdotally, we feel he has helped us offensively,” Andrzejek said, “because it allows Noah and Isaac to play off the ball and get some easier catch-and-shoot 3’s.”
Rapp may not be the swarming defender Williams is, and he’s yet to record a steal this season, but he’s not a liability guarding the ball, and coaches note the strides he’s made closing out on 3-point shooters.
They insist he’s a capable scorer, too, even if those who’ve watched the first five games are still skeptical. Rapp came off the bench to make two key shots in WSU’s upset of UCLA last season, made 7 of his first 13 as a freshman and at times this season, has been the team’s leading scorer in private scrimmages.
So, the first 90 minutes of Rapp’s sophomore campaign have been positive from a plus-minus standpoint, but realizing that, it’s also easy for coaches to imagine the impact he’d have if a few shots fell.
“I wish I knew. If I knew, I’d fix it,” Smith said. “… Really challenged him to get better in the other aspects of the game. It’s not unusual for guys to go through that kind of thing. He’ll be fine, I hope. … He’s helping us.”
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