Wake Forest’s loss was Kentucky’s gain this week, as All-ACC big man Olivier Sarr announced that he was transferring to finish his college career in Lexington, giving the Wildcats a huge boost to a rotation that lacked frontcourt experience after the departures of Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina.
Sarr entered the NCAA’s transfer portal roughly a week ago, following the termination of coach Danny Manning and the hiring of former East Tennessee State coach Steve Forbes.
While apparently attempting to woo Sarr back to the Demon Deacons for his senior season, Forbes found himself in some deep waters with some interesting comments about Kentucky’s academic standards compared to the ones in Winston-Salem.
“I think the most important thing is, why would you go to Wake for three years, put all that time in to get this prestigious degree, and end up getting your degree at a place like Kentucky,” Forbes asked theoretically during a radio show appearance on May 5.
After a bit of chirping between the fan bases for a few hours, Sarr committed to Kentucky the next day, giving the Wildcats a proven center that could help round out what has the potential to be one of the nation’s deepest and best rotations this season, pending the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sarr noted that it had a been a trying time for him following the firing of Manning, along with the decision to either enter the 2020 NBA Draft or stay for his senior season. Manning suggested that Sarr stay in school and was then fired a day before the underclass deadline for draft entries, leading a potential opening in Sarr’s eventual waiver process that could see him play for Kentucky this season. (John Clay wrote a great breakdown on the entirety of Sarr’s situation here.)
The most important thing for Kentucky right now is to complete the process of getting Sarr’s waiver approved (along with potentially adding another piece to the puzzle, hint hint), but if and when it does, Kentucky got exactly what they needed in the transfer market following Matt Haarms’ commitment to BYU.
Sarr’s more of what John Calipari and his staff wants with a 5 on offense
It’s not to say that things couldn’t have worked with Haarms as Kentucky’s centerpiece in their starting five this season. It would’ve taken some adjustments and time, but Haarms would’ve also been a solid piece that could play inside and out.
But, when you look back at all of the talented bigs that Calipari has coached during his time in Lexington, most of them have played with their back to the basket with the ability to face up and score.
Olivier Sarr’s offensive attack has become just that after two previous seasons where he was used more away from the post and wasn’t nearly as effective, plus adding an additional 40 pounds before his sophomore season.
This past season, he shot 66.2 percent on 130 total attempts at the rim with 41 dunks with just seven 3-point attempts (made one) after two previous seasons with 40 total attempts (made 10).
After averaging just over six points per game with 5.5 rebounds in 25 games during his sophomore season, Sarr broke out during this past season to the tune of 13.7 points, nine rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game in 30 total appearances.
He scored 18+ points in seven different games, including in back-to-back performances against Duke and Notre Dame where he logged 55 total points and 28 rebounds while making 17 of 21 total free throws in the two contests combined, finishing the year with 10 double-doubles.
The advanced numbers loved Sarr. During 11 contests against top-50 teams this year, Sarr’s true shooting percentage was 63.2 percent, up from his 59.6 overall percentage. His defensive rebound percentage (DRB%) was 25.8, a top-20 number in all of college basketball last season. He ranked 25th in the country fouls drawn per 40 minutes (6.6) and his free throw rate was an otherworldly .692. (For reference, Nick Richards’ FTr last season was .571.)
Not only was he drawing fouls at a strong rate, he was making them. Sarr shot 137-of-180 (76.1%) at the line this past season. Kentucky is constantly among the nation’s leaders in free throw attempts, so having an experienced big man that can make freebies is an added bonus. It’s like Richards never left in this department.
One of those numbers matched his past performances well and that’s his shooting percentage as a roller. According to Synergy Sports (via Brian Gesinger), Sarr shot 84 percent as the roll man in Wake Forest’s pick-and-roll actions last season. That’s excellent.
Whether plays are specifically designed for him off the roll or the ball-handler simply looks elsewhere in the set, Sarr rolls towards the rim harder than most big men. He’s not a quick kid, but he’s certainly mobile with good hands.
Kentucky’s going to be a massive team with the addition of Sarr, a legitimate 7-footer, so having guys like Davion Mintz, BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke that can get downhill is going to lead to some teams trying to ‘ice’ and ‘hedge’ pick-and-roll actions. Those defensive actions are going to potentially give Sarr some easy looks on the move.
Along with his post play and his knack as a roller, Sarr had seven games with 4+ offensive rebounds, including eight in his last game for Wake Forest where he had 20 points and 13 rebounds against Pitt in one of the few games that was played during conference championship week before the coronavirus shut the sporting world down.
His 9.3 offensive rebounding percentage was 10th in the ACC and his 11.4 overall ORB% was 0.1 better than ... Nick Richards.
Defensively, he’s not the anchor Nick Richards and bigs of the past were, but he’s serviceable with disruptive length
It’s not surprising for a 13-18 (6-14 in ACC play) team to be a bad defensive team, so when watching Wake Forest games of this past year, it’s not surprising that they ranked 227th in opponent field goal percentage (43.8%), 172nd in opponent 3-point makes per game (7.1, only 0.2 percentage tenths worse than Kentucky I might add), and were 304th in opponent points per game (74.9).
Along with their guards lacking good perimeter defensive tendencies, they struggled staying with the ball in pick-and-roll situations. In those instances with Sarr’s involvement, he was more often than not, a drop 5 trying to contain his man and the ball and teams would expose that.
In this particular pick-and-roll look from Notre Dame, Sarr drops off the shown screen from John Mooney. With Mooney rolling hard to the rim, Sarr tries to limit the space between him, Mooney and the drive. It’s a great dump-off pass for the score and the foul, but put Sarr in a no-win situation. If he sticks with Mooney, Temple Gibbs takes the ball all the way to the cup himself anyway.
These types of scenarios are avoided much more in Kentucky’s defensive schemes. The Cats like to either switch everything or guards/wings (say, Ashton Hagans for example) fight harder through/around the screen and allows the big to stay with the screener whether he rolls or pops out.
In more one-on-one situations, Sarr can hold his own against bigs, but like a lot of players, will need to make sure his closeout attempts don’t allow some guys to go right past him, like this example against former Kentucky target Matthew Hurt. He’s not quick enough to recover after biting on the fake and even with his length, fouls Hurt at the rim.
These types of situations are what teams try to do with Wake, especially teams that had big men that could step outside and shoot. The more they pulled Sarr away from the restricted area, the better off their chances were of getting something going towards the rim.
It wasn’t all gloom and doom for Sarr out there either. He had his moments where a guard tried to get the best of him and couldn’t. You don’t want to give up the baseline, especially to talented players like Cole Anthony, but size and length can make a difference if you do.
He’s not going to be asked to defend the perimeter all the time of course and on the blocks, the added weight he’s put on has helped him on more than just the offensive end.
In three years at Wake Forest, Sarr blocked 85 shots. His block percentage dropped from 5.4 in his sophomore season to 4.6 this past year, but even on bad teams, his defensive box plus-minus was 2.5 or better in all three seasons.
His eligibility is up in the air, but his projected impact isn’t
Along with many others, I called Sarr committing to Kentucky a blessing in disguise following Haarms’ move to BYU. When you factor in what was on the market at the time for Kentucky in terms of big men, this was the best-case scenario for the Cats.
Believe it or not, Kentucky may not be done. They’re still in the hunt for Evansville transfer DeAndre Williams, who does expect to have an approved waiver if he decides to not stay in the 2020 NBA Draft and comes back to school.
Still, if Williams doesn’t join Mintz and Toppin, Kentucky hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth with Sarr when they needed one badly.