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With Isaiah Taylor back, how high is Texas' ceiling?

1/2/2015

Friday morning brought some welcomed news for the Texas men's basketball team: Point guard Isaiah Taylor was cleared to play in time for Saturday's Big 12 opener against Texas Tech.

On Nov. 20, when Taylor suffered the broken wrist that would sideline him for 10 games, the news was unfortunate but not dire: Texas had backup point guard Javan Felix ready to step in to ball-handling duties, plus guards Kendal Yancy and Demarcus Holland there to pick up leftover backcourt minutes. There was even an argument to be made that Texas could be slightly more efficient offensively without Taylor. In 2013-14, Felix had the team's lowest turnover rate and represented more of a 3-point threat (he shot 34 percent on 178 attempts) than Taylor, who barely even looked at the rim beyond the arc last season (he was 5-of-19 all year).

That hasn't been the case. Texas has held the line, in large part thanks to the work of Jonathan Holmes, who shot 44 percent from 3-point range and 45 percent inside the arc in nonconference play. The Longhorns got out of New York with two wins (they beat Iowa and then Cal a night later), won at UConn and even gave Kentucky a legitimate challenge until deep in the second half at Rupp Arena. But the Texas offense has been surprisingly turnover-prone without Taylor. Felix has a 22.3-percent assist rate. Holland is an impressive weapon attacking on the break, but he's coughed up the ball on 27 percent of his possessions. Yancy's turnover rate is similarly high. None of the three have positive assist-to-turnover ratios.

The result has been an occasionally stagnant Longhorns offense. Texas is recording almost three possessions per game fewer than it did a year ago; it's slower and more plodding than with Taylor in the lineup. Felix is a cautious dribble on ball-screens, preferring to put the defense on his back and probe into traffic. Meanwhile, teams with the size to defend Texas' bigs (see: Kentucky and Stanford) have made the Longhorns look pretty easy to deal with. When the ball enters the post, it makes sense to double both because Cameron Ridley, Myles Turner and Prince Ibeh aren't assured passers and because, with the exception of Holmes, the Longhorns can be contained with smart rotations on the wing. That hasn't necessarily translated into worse offense. Texas is on pace to eclipse last season's points-per-possession mark even without its best guard in the lineup. But the real strength of this team is its defense, which has excelled even without Taylor.

This team could yet be a national title contender if the offense can get there. The question is, what would Texas look like with Taylor in the lineup?

The answer will have a lot to do with whether Taylor is improved, and by how much. A year ago, the freshman guard led the Longhorns in usage percentage and he showcased an ability to get to the rim and some promising passing instincts. But he also shot the ball poorly. When he wasn't passing on 3s (which was most of the time), Taylor shot just 40 percent from inside the arc. He led all Longhorns in two-point attempts by a wide margin. Despite smart defenders playing off and under ball screens, Taylor still found his way into the defense. But he wasn't always Texas's most effective option.

Because his wrist injury came so early, Taylor's development remains an open question. He showed flashes early, though, hitting four 3s in Texas's first two games (on eight attempts), just one fewer than he had all of last season. He shot 12-of-22 from two-point range. His assist rate was still high, and his turnover rate was down. That's just two games worth of data; it's as small as samples get. Still, if it's any indication of where Taylor is as a player after a year of offseason work -- if he's a better shooter and finisher, and a more assured ball-handler -- then Texas's offense is in line for an immediate and noticeable boost.

If Taylor is merely what he was a year ago, well, that's still something. Post-ups and kick-outs need not always end in spot-ups. Driving at a closing defender is often as good a way -- at least against man-to-man, and very often in zone, too -- of turning a stretched rotation into a good look. At the very least, Taylor provides an attacking option off the dribble, with size and explosive athleticism, that the Longhorns have missed. If his return provides nothing more than more effective penetration and a few more open shots for Holmes, that's a huge help, too.

Over the summer and into the fall, Taylor was hailed as Texas's best player from the 2013-14 season. In reality, he was the Longhorns' most-used player, a beneficiary of statistical volume as much as anything else. But his work last season was promising on a variety of fronts. If he can live up to that promise, we might soon be adding Texas to the short list of teams -- Duke, Virginia, Wisconsin -- with a realistic chance of upending Kentucky's seemingly inevitable national title run. Either way, the Longhorns are about to get better.