Juwan Gary’s debut season at Nebraska was cut short by a season-ending shoulder injury in January. Even so, in the 17 games he did play, the 6-foot-6 transfer from Alabama played a big part in Nebraska establishing the physical, defensive identity that led to Nebraska’s early-season success.
Now, Gary is working his way back to full strength and will look to make an even bigger impact in 2023-24. To get a feel for how he might do that, let’s first look back at his 2022-23 season with the help of Synergy Sports.
Gary started all 17 games he played in his first season at Nebraska, averaging 9.5 points, 6.5 rebounds (including 2.1 offensive) and 1.4 steals while often guarding the opposing team’s best forward or wing.
We’ll touch on his defense at the end, but let’s first dive into the nuances of his offensive game and how he fit into Nebraska’s system.
Overall, Gary scored 0.903 points per possession (PPP) last season, ranked in the 54th percentile and considered “good.”
Gary does most of his damage at the rim. He shot 58% (40-of-69) there according to Synergy, which is ranked in the 53rd percentile (“good”). That figure is buoyed by his perfect 12-for-12 mark on dunks, and he also converted both of his tip-in attempts. On layups, he shot just 47.3% (23rd percentile, “below average”).
Gary also shot a respectable 5-for-11 on runners but only 2-for-7 on hook shots.
Unfortunately, the jump shot numbers are pretty ugly. He shot just 29% on all jump shots, most of which were 3-pointers (though he did shoot 4-for-7 on mid-range jumpers). That ranks him in the 29th percentile (“below average”).
He actually shot 5-for-9 on on jumpers off the dribble (2-for-3 on 2s, 3-for-6 on 3s), but his catch-and-shoot numbers were quite poor at 21.6% (10th percentile). He shot 13.8%, or 4-for-29, on guarded catch-and-shoot 3s (4th percentile). He was a little better on open looks — 35% on 20 attempts from 3 — but he missed both of his 2-point attempts and ranked in the 32nd percentile (“average”) overall.
With that baseline established, let’s take a look at how he scored his points for the Huskers.
Nebraska didn’t run many (or perhaps any) plays for Gary, leading to 37.1% of his possessions (66 in total) coming in spot-up situations. Unfortunately, he wasn’t particularly effective , scoring 0.723 PPP (22nd percentile, “below average”) and shooting 27.4% (7-for-23 on 2s, 10-for-39 on 3s) with a 4.6% free-throw rate.
We have to start with the jumper. He shot 23.1% (9-for-39) on spot-up catch-and-shoot jumpers, all but one of which were 3-pointers. He wasn’t a good shooter at Alabama and he only showed meager improvement at Nebraska though he seemed to have more of a green light regardless as he fired up 3.4 attempts per game while connecting at a 26.3% clip.
Coach Fred Hoiberg has talked about a balance issue he identified within Gary’s shooting mechanics, and that definitely showed up on tape and led to some wild misses at times. It’s something he’s been focusing on while his shoulder rehab has limited his ability to work on other parts of his game.
“He was able to do a lot of one-hand shooting and really address some of the things to hopefully make him a more consistent shooter,” Hoiberg said last month. “He had some really good games for us out there but I think when you look at what he was able to work on because he couldn’t use his left arm, it will hopefully fix a little bit of the balance issue that he’s had since he started his his college career.”
Because he’s not a good shooter, teams tend not to close out hard on him, which limits the number of driving lanes. That leads to a lot of well-defended possessions and contested shots when he puts the ball on the deck. He isn’t a terribly dynamic ball-handler nor is he particularly quick, which means he doesn’t often cleanly beat his man and get to the rim for easy looks. There are a lot of plays where he tries to muscle a shot up through or over a defender that walls up on him. He also will often look to finish with his right hand even on the left side of the basket, which again leads to contested attempts. Because he doesn’t often get to the basket cleanly, six of his 15 misses were blocked.
I’ve focused mostly on the negatives here in the write-up, but here’s a look at some of the good things he did in spot-up situations.
The volume was significantly lower in every other play type, but he was very effective in small doses in a few areas. That includes transition.
Gary logged 22 possessions (12.6%) in the open floor and scored 1.409 PPP (93rd percentile, “excellent”) while shooting 63.2% from the field. He only hit one 3 (a pull-up) on five attempts but shot 11-of-14 inside the arc and drew fouls at an 18.2% rate.
First and foremost, Gary runs the floor hard and puts pressure on the opponent’s transition defense. Whereas in the half-court defenses are generally playing from a position of strength (between the offensive player and the rim with help defenders in position) it’s much more difficult to cut off drives when trying to get back down the court. That opens up more opportunities to get downhill and allows Gary to show his power and athleticism more than in the halfcourt. It also makes it easier for him to play above the rim.
Gary also recorded 22 possessions as a cutter and scored 1.364 PPP (80th percentile, “very good”). He shot 13-of-19 (68.4%) with two trips to the foul line and one turnover.
Gary does a good job of playing off others (especially Sam Griesel and Derrick Walker last season), finding gaps in the defense and moving into blind spots when defenders turn their heads to focus on the ball. He’s effective working the baseline and playing in the dunker spot, and he finishes both above and below the rim as a cutter.
One of Gary’s strengths as a player is his tenacity on the offensive glass as he boasted an 8.5% offensive rebound percentage (pretty solid for a player of his size). He again logged 22 possessions looking to score after securing an offensive rebound and scored 1.227 PPP on them (71st percentile, “very good”). He shot 13-of-20 (65%) and got to the foul line three times including an and-one.
Gary has a quick second jump and uses it to follow up his own misses for tip-ins and put-backs. He’s physical when the shot goes up and fights for position, and he consistently makes teams pay for not boxing him out with his pursuit of the ball. He really made his presence felt on the glass in Nebraska’s overtime win at Minnesota with a pair of key put-backs late.
Other Play Types and Summary
Transition, cutting and offensive rebounding — the ways Gary scored most effectively last season — are all more or less hustle and IQ plays where the offense player is able to capitalize on advantageous situations more so than creating scoring chances with great skill.
Gary’s limitations as an offensive player popped up some in the spot-up section above, but they also reveal themselves in his inability to be effective. In a lot of the play types that rely mainly on self-creation. Between off screen, hand off, pick-and-roll ball-handler, post-up, isolation and pick-and-roll roll man, Gary logged 36 possessions and scored just 23 points, shooting 8-of-27 with nine turnovers.
Because of his lack of dynamic quickness, shiftiness as a ball-handler and a consistent jump shot, Gary relies on a lot of bully-ball as a creator and generates a lot of difficult shots that can be easy to defend. He’s also not a particular dynamic passer, logging just 14 assists in 17 games.
Gary’s motor, physicality and intelligence make him an effective off-ball player who complements other on-ball creators, though his inability to consistently space the floor with his jump shot does make it easier for teams to pack the paint. Nebraska will have a chance to put more shooters on the floor next season, however, with the likes of Brice Williams and Rienk Mast joining returners Keisei Tominaga, Jamarques Lawrence and C.J. Wilcher, which could provide a path for Gary to be even more effective in 2023-24.
I just spent 1400 words focusing on his offense, but Gary’s calling card as a player is on the other side of the ball. Together with Emmanuel Bandoumel, he earned a “Blackshirt” from athletic director Trev Alberts for his efforts on the defensive side of the ball.
When Nebraska was at full strength, Bandoumel and Gary often took on the toughest non-center defensive assignments, though Nebraska switched one through four. While he isn’t the quickest laterally, his tenacity and physicality make him a good fit to take on bigger wings.
Off the ball, Gary is a smart help defender who rotates to the right spots and reacts well in scramble situations to find the open man to cover. Because he doesn’t have the quickest of feet, he isn’t terribly impactful when he tries to transition from help defense to closing out to a shooter, but he does a good job of working to slide his feet and keep his chest between the ball-handler and the basket when his man attacks his closeouts. He also does a good job of communicating switches.
In non-spot-up situations, Gary struggles to navigate screens at times, usually choosing to go under or call for a switch rather than fighting through. Quicker players can occasionally get the best of him in space as well. Even so, he put some good reps on tape in those situations and generally held up in isolation as he is active with his hands and works hard to move his feet.
Juwan Gary has his limitations on both sides of the ball, but he’s very good at things that make him a valuable role player on a successful team and he might fit even better on this year’s Nebraska roster than he did on last year’s. Hopefully a fully healthy year will give him a chance to show off even more of his game in his second season at Nebraska.