One of them is averaging 19.5 points per game in Pac-12 play – the second-highest mark in the conference. The other is coming off the most productive weekend by a Washington State player in program history.
This week in Arizona, Kyle Smith may have the luxury and burden of folding senior point guard Isaac Bonton back into Washington State’s starting lineup, while simultaneously trying not to suppress the hot hand of sophomore Noah Williams, who fueled the Cougars to a sweep of Cal and Stanford, scoring 72 points in his teammate’s absence to earn conference and national player of the week honors.
It’s no guarantee that Bonton, or reserve guard Ryan Rapp, will return for WSU (14-10, 7-10) in time for Thursday’s 8 p.m. tipoff against Arizona (15-8, 9-8) in Tucson, but both will travel with the team this week. Smith told reporters Tuesday, “I feel good about (Bonton) playing at some point. Hopefully, Thursday would be great.”
Bonton, who hurt both ankles in WSU’s Feb. 13 loss to USC, will still have opportunities to play in the regular season if he misses Thursday’s game.
The Cougars play Arizona State in Tempe on Saturday (1:30 p.m.) and again on Monday (noon).
Before his injury, Bonton was the only player in the Pac-12 with 20-plus points in eight conference games. Since then, Stanford’s Oscar da Silva and ASU’s Remy Martin have caught Bonton in that category, but even amid a three-game absence, Bonton’s 19.5 ppg in Pac-12 games still rank second in the Pac-12 and his 18.4 ppg in all games rank fourth.
The Portland native scored a career-high 34 points last season against Oregon State and he’s scored 25-plus in five games this year.
Now that Williams has demonstrated the ability to score in bunches, setting a career high with 32 points against California and topping it two days later with 40 against Stanford, Smith and his staff have a beautiful dilemma on their hands as the end of the season approaches.
How do the Cougars ease Bonton back into his high-usage role without hindering the production of Williams?
“I think they’ll balance each other out a little bit,” Smith said. “I think they’re very close on and off the court and they’re pretty unselfish. They’re growing that way. DJ (Rodman) banged a few shots against UCLA and Isaac came over, ‘Let’s find a way to get DJ a shot.’ He wanted to put him in the package to that, so I think we’re playing with a little more purpose and playing through our post.
“We’ve got to put the ball inside there and they’re good post players. That’s something that’s emerged over the course of the season and the more balanced we can be, the better we’ll be, but obviously, I think Isaac and Noah will lead the way.”
It’s true no two players on WSU’s roster are closer off the court than Bonton and Williams, both underrated Pacific Northwest products who arrived in Pullman last season with a goal of redefining the program’s culture.
They made progress in that vein last season, with great help from CJ Elleby, and have taken another step in the right direction this year, guiding the Cougars to their first winning regular season since 2010-11. Before Williams helped WSU close out Stanford in triple overtime, he relayed a moving message to his elder teammate in a pregame video tribute.
“I’m getting a little emotional thinking this is about to be your last go round here,” Williams said in the message. “… My love is unconditional for you. No cap.”
The steady progress of freshmen such as Efe Abogidi, Dishon Jackson and Andrej Jakimovski, coupled with the emergence of role players like Rodman, Rapp, Jaz Kunc, and the recent outbursts of Williams, should instill confidence that the Cougars can pick up two or three more victories before the 2020-21 season ends – especially if Bonton is available to play against the Wildcats or Sun Devils.
“If you watch us play, our inside attack, they’re young,” Smith said. “That’s a place we need to put the ball, but then our guards have been making plays all year. That’s been Isaac and Noah. Then you’ve got guys that are good blenders that space the floor, like Jaz, DJ, Andrej. So, it worked out that way, (Noah) made a lot of shots and hopefully he can keep continuing and if Isaac gets back in there, it’ll probably be closer to normal to what you’ve seen previously.”
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