The day was March 19, 2022, and the occasion was the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Jeremy Sochan’s Baylor Bears had fallen behind by 25 points to the North Carolina Tar Heels with 10 minutes left in regulation. Game over, right?
Wrong. Sochan and the Bears scrapped and clawed their way back to tie the game and force overtime. They ultimately fell to the Tar Heels in the extra session, but Sochan’s performance left a strong impression.
Man, this guy sure does remind me a lot of Dennis Rodman.
As someone who (admittedly) watches very little college basketball, I had no idea that Sochan had already embraced the comparison, even dying his hair and deciding to wear the same jersey number Rodman did when he was a member of the San Antonio Spurs.
That’s all well and good, but in his heyday, Rodman was an All-Star. So the question for the rookie now becomes:
Can he someday develop into an All-Star too?
First things first, if you’re going to garner comparisons to Rodman, you need to be a menace on the offensive glass. And fortunately for Sochan, he’s got that down pat. He’s 10th among all power forwards in offensive rebound percentage (ORB%), according to basketball reference.
Offensive rebounding juices overall team efficiency because collecting an offensive rebound does not count as a new possession. So basically, you are getting two shots for the price of one. For instance, the New York Knicks are fourth in the NBA in offensive rebounds per game and, as a result, are tied for sixth in offensive rating.
Sochan’s knack for offensive rebounding also signals that he’s a strong cutter (71st percentile in cutting efficiency, per NBA.com), a great vertical athlete (they don’t call you “Sochan The Destroyer” for nothing), and an eager transition contributor (65th percentile in transition possessions per game).
Offensive rebounding, cutting, play-finishing around the rim, and punctuating sequences on the fast break will make up the bedrock of Sochan’s offensive value moving forward (along with one other feature we’ll talk about in a little bit).
With this in mind, most of his value is actually going to derive from his defense (the Spurs’ defense is awful, but it’s not because of Sochan!).
During his career, Rodman built a reputation as a guy who knew how to get under people’s skin. Sochan has definitely inherited this trait. He’s what I like to call a “matchup pest,” meaning that he’s great at annoying his individual assignment – regardless of whether he’s on or off the ball.
- First clip: Sochan picks up Jalen Brunson full court and completely disrupts his cadence. Brunson eventually gets the switch, but at that point, he’s already too off-balance to regain control.
- Second clip: The Utah Jazz love running All-Star Lauri Markkanen off of off-ball screens to get him into favorable play-finishing situations. So Sochan counters this with aggressive ball denial that forbids Markkanen from accepting any screens at all.
He’s not an elite cornerback yet (Stephen Curry gave him the slip multiple times during their mid-January clash). But he can credibly shadow positions 1 through 4 (and sometimes even centers, depending on the matchup).
What often gets lost in the sauce about Rodman is that – outside of his time with David Robinson in San Antonio – he never played with an elite rim-protecting center. Yet his defenses were always elite. And it’s because Rodman provided secondary rim protection of his own (having John Salley by his side also helped).
Before he was traded, the Spurs would sometimes let Jakob Poeltl switch out onto the perimeter (he’s typically a drop big man) because they knew Sochan was still present on the backline to clean up any spills down the aisle. That hardly ever happened last season.
He’s in the 65th percentile in blocks per 100 possessions among rookies (minimum 20 games played). He’ll never be an anchor down in the interior, but the chances of him developing into a secondary rim guardian are favorable.
This will be a huge development if his shooting never comes along (more on this in a bit), because it means teams can afford to have a more offensively-inclined center (like a Nikola Jokić/Nikola Vučević type) because they don’t need to worry about them being the sole paint protector.
You’d think someone as wild and fearless as Sochan would rank higher than the 50th percentile among rookies in steals per 100, but here we are.
As we established, Sochan can jam up any receiver at the line of scrimmage, but when you ask the corner to shift to free safety, he’s not nearly as destructive.
Look at these two clips: one from Sochan and one from his fellow colleague Tari Eason (a player he was often compared to during the draft process). Notice the stark difference in off-ball activity here between the two forwards.
While one could argue that Eason (second clip) was in a better position to make the play than Sochan (first clip), the proper protocol in those situations doesn’t change. You need to gap that space at the nail, show your length, and dig down at the ballhandler. Eason does that, and Sochan does not.
Side note: Eason is actually first among all rookies (minimum 20 games played) in steals per 100.
Since Sochan likely won’t be an elite rim protector, he needs to up the ante on his defensive playmaking (steals, deflections, charges, etc.) if he’s going to become the All-NBA caliber defender that Rodman was in his prime (Rodman was more of a charge guy than a bandit, but you get the point).
The good news is that his lower playmaking numbers might be situational. The Spurs are one of the most inexperienced teams in basketball. And because of this, Gregg Popovich may be instructing his players not to gamble for steals and deflections, so they can focus on learning how to make the proper rotations.
This theory checks out for two reasons. First, the Spurs are 17th in opponent turnovers per game, so it’s not like he’s the only one out there not forcing turnovers. And second, in his lone season at Baylor, Sochan averaged 2.9 steals per 100, which is higher than defensive dynamos like Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels were able to muster up in their singular collegiate seasons.
Now time to address the elephant in the room: Sochan’s shooting. On the season, the rookie is shooting 26.1% on 2.2 attempts per game. No matter how you slice it, that’s a tough hit rate to swallow. And what’s even worse is that it throws a complete wrench in the Spurs’ spacing, as teams will completely disregard Sochan when he’s out on the perimeter.
Optimists will point to Sochan’s burgeoning free throw percentage as a sign that he can improve his 3-point jumper. For those unaware, Sochan switched to a one-handed free-throw release on Dec. 19. And since then he has been shooting a respectable 75.9% from the charity stripe.
The problem with that argument is that the reason he went to such an unorthodox release is that he was struggling to control his guide hand (his non-shooting hand). And unfortunately, you can’t eliminate your guide hand from the equation on live-ball jumpers the same way you can with uncontested free throws.
With that said, Sochan does mitigate the congestion he creates by attacking these soft coverages off the dribble with the same conviction that his non-shooting ancestor once did. He’s got an expanding array of attacking moves he can utilize to finish at the rim or in the midrange (first clip).
But even more worthy of intrigue is his passing vocabulary, which, much like many of the facets of his defense, is beyond his years and already above average for his position (third clip).
Unlike most rookie comparisons to Hall of Famers, this one isn’t too far off the mark. Sochan is a great offensive rebounder, cutter, athlete and passer for his role and position.
And on defense, while he’s far from a perfect defender, all his shortcomings are more so correctable than systematic. When you factor that in with his length, quickness, tenacity, and seemingly endless motor, you have a player with elite defensive upside.
So… All-Star potential?
As of right now, I’m going to say no. While it is true that he does have the makeup to be this generation’s Rodman, players like that (ones who don’t provide high-end rim protection, shooting, or self-generated offense) don’t bring enough to the table to be All-Stars in today’s day and age.
In today’s NBA landscape, that type of player is more similar to Vanderbilt and McDaniels (we name-dropped them earlier for a reason) – two guys you probably can’t name 100 players better than but who probably won’t be All-Stars.
That isn’t a knock on Sochan. Regardless of the era you’re in, players like Rodman, Vanderbilt and McDaniels are the kind of players that end up playing essential roles on title contenders.
And ultimately, that’s what I think Sochan will be – a glue guy on a team in serious contention to win the NBA title.