He doesn't look like anyone's idea of a superstar, which is perhaps one reason Jerrelle Benimon is among the most underrated college basketball players in America. He's 6-foot-8, 245 pounds, built big and a little on the soft side, more along the lines of a tight end than a power forward. When he brings the ball up the court, he looks exceedingly uncomfortable, bending awkwardly at the waist and dribbling low to the ground, like an ungainly sixth-grader furiously trying to master the foreign movements of his growing body, and for a second you almost forget that the impressive part is that he's doing it at all. With the possible exception of UCLA's Kyle Anderson, there isn't a more versatile big man in the college game.
Another reason Benimon's gone unappreciated: He plays for Towson, which is only two years removed from a 1-31 season. Benimon sat out that season after having transferred from Georgetown, where he spent two years gathering dust on the bench, stuck behind Greg Monroe and Julian Vaughn. "We knew we had the scholarships available," said head coach Pat Skerry, a former Pitt and Rhode Island assistant who was hired by Towson in 2011, "and I told my assistants we needed to flip over every rock. There isn't a scientific formula—when you aren't a top 50 to 75 program, you have to look everywhere for players.
"While I was at Pitt, I had scouted Georgetown, so I knew about Jerrelle's body and game. I knew he was a big, strong guy that could rebound."
He soon found out that Benimon was a lot more than that. If an NBA general manager constructed the ideal forward to play in the current iteration of the league—or any iteration, really—he would design a big with Benimon's soup-to-nuts game. "Jerrelle is such a unique talent," Skerry notes, "and we play him like [ex-Iowa State forward] Royce White." When an opponent attempts and misses a shot, Benimon typically corrals the rebound—the big's heft (240-plus pounds) and wingspan helps him grab roughly a quarter of those misses. Rather than outlet the ball to a guard like Four McGlynn or Rafriel Gufrie, Skerry wants Benimon to initiate the team's offense: not only are Benimon's size and passing touch perfectly suited to exploit openings for teammates, but if Benimon leads the break, he can attack if he has an offensive advantage rather than wait for a pass.
You don't often see players on the college level reach the fullest expression of their abilities. Coaches have systems to maintain, and no matter the variety of their talents, players are slotted into prescribed (and very often circumscribed) roles, and so the sight of a 6-foot-8 guy pulling in a rebound and running the break himself is a rare and welcome sight. You think of Billy Owens at Syracuse, or Draymond Green at Michigan State, or of the many, many skilled big men who worked the high post at Georgetown over the years.
Now, a year after keying the greatest turnaround in NCAA history (the team won eighteen games in 2013) Benimon has transformed the Tigers. As scientific formulas go, having a big with the foot speed to get by most 4s or 5s and the strength and ball-handling to ward off pesky defenders—often able to drive 94 feet for a lay-up—isn't a bad foundation. The Tigers are having another over .500 campaign—before 2013, it had been seventeen seasons since Towson finished with a winning record—and Towson goes into the CAA tournament as a potential NCAA tournament team. This is astonishing, considering no one on the roster was alive the last time the team cracked a bracket. They're second in the conference, and will need to win the tournament to dance, but the squad is vying with Delaware for the league's title because of Benimon's contributions.
What makes Benimon so crucial to Towson? Well to start, he basically is the Tigers offense, leading the team in every major category and playing by far the most minutes (he's 17th in KenPom's Player of the Year ratings). This comes to an absurd extreme when you notice the quirk Skerry has installed this year: Nearly a quarter of Benimon's possessions are ISOs, and more than half of those are at the top of the key. And so on some 80 possessions this season, you saw him working the ball up top like a gigantic point guard, or a waterlogged LeBron James—take your pick. The reason? Benimon is virtually unguardable one-on-one.
Benimon is way too quick for a taller defender, and his arsenal of feints allows Benimon easy access to the rim, and to the stripe, where he shoots a healthy 72.5 percent. Amazingly, more than half of Benimon's 366 field goal attempts in 2014 have been around the rim, mostly on non-post-ups; armed with a soft touch and an ability to absorb a hack and finish the play, Benimon makes 56.1 percent of these non-post paint touches.
Similarly, Benimon has an advantage against a smaller defender: Not only can he post and repost until he is a foot or so from the bucket, but the forward's unorthodox-looking jump shot—he appears to aim and then flick the ball at the basket, like he's shooting a fadeaway at a dart board—is pure. One of Benimon's standard ISO moves is a pull-up jumper—his move is almost always to his right, though he can take the left baseline if pressed—stopping on a dime before unfurling his shooting motion. He converts more than 44 percent of his two-point jump shots, and he rarely depends on others to create—just six percent of those attempts are assisted.
Benimon isn't listed on many mock draft boards right now, but you don't have to look much further than Boris Diaw to see how a skillset like Benimon's could be useful to the right team. And other than UCLA's Kyle Anderson, there aren't many 6-foot-8 players with his ability to pass and create. Ironically, Benimon has developed into the prototypical Hoya big—JTIII likes his forwards mobile and able to facilitate his non-Princeton Princeton offense, whether moving the ball around the court from the high post or dribbling at a defender and then passing for a back door cut. And on closer examination, Benimon's numbers compare favorably to Greg Monroe and Otto Porter; not only are all three offensively efficient but they posted assist rates over hovering around 20 percent. All of which is to say that while he isn't going to anchor an NBA offense like Towson's, there should be a place for Benimon in the league.
It helps that he's shined against Towson's high-major competition. During a loss last season to Temple, Benimon dropped 30 points, and he connected on twelve of nineteen twos during consecutive November losses to Villanova and Kansas this season. Against College of Charleston, the only other conference team with a potential NBA forward (Adjehi Baru), Benimon annexed and took control of Towson's offense, scoring 41 points in two games and shooting 12.1 free throws per 40 minutes.
For the second year in a row, Benimon has been named the CAA's player of the year, and there isn't a more valuable player in the league. The Towson coaching staff uses plus-minus to judge the effectiveness of various lineups, and he consistently posts the highest individual winning percentage. When judged by Value Add, a formula that designed by John Pudner that is the college basketball equivalent to WAR, Benimon is clearly the conference's most valuable player, generating more than four wins for Towson.
Tonight, Towson plays James Madison in the first round of the CAA tournament at 6 p.m. ET. You won't be catching the most talented player in the country, or even a lottery prospect. But you will be seeing something even rarer: a fully actualized college player, with a team built around his strengths, and a leash long enough to maximize them.
Towson lost to 3-seed William and Mary in the CAA semifinals on Sunday.
Image via AP