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Go Hard in the Paint: Analyzing the Post Play of Tyler Cook

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Can Iowa’s big man put in a big year?

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Iowa vs Illinois Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

While Iowa’s 2017-2018 basketball season was one of woefully-unmet expectations, the play of then-sophomore power forward Tyler Cook stood as clear bright spot in an otherwise dreary season. Throughout his two years in Iowa City, Cook has scored in double figures 44 times, has posted nine double-doubles, and is only the second player in program history to compile more than 500 points and 200 rebounds as a sophomore. Cook seriously flirted with the NBA this past spring before returning to school in hopes of improving on his Honorable Mention All-Big Ten season and elevating his stock in the 2019 NBA draft.

While Cook improved his mid-range jumper last season and will likely need to expand his range further to have a shot at sticking in the NBA, his bread-and-butter remains his low-post game. Cook is a particularly proficient dunker who can use his athleticism, excellent vertical leap, and strong body control to explode to the rim while driving:

Or from a standing position:

Cook’s leaping ability, combined with his willingness to run the floor, also makes him a real threat catching lobs and finishing above the rim, especially in fast-break situations.

However, Cook’s low-post offense extends beyond his rim-rattling abilities. Cook has honed his offensive game since coming to Iowa and has developed a nice repertoire of post moves, making significant improvements on his hook shot and drop step. Not only has Cook improved his back-to-the-basket game, but he has become increasingly comfortable finishing at the rim or taking more finesse shots on the low block with either his right or left hand, making him far more difficult to defend.

Looking at the video above, plays like the turnaround jumper banked high off the glass against Virginia Tech at the start of the clip or Cook’s artful left-handed finish against Colorado at the 1:40 mark were far more common last season than they were during Cook’s freshman campaign. Cook relied heavily on his natural athleticism and finishing ability to dominate in the paint as a freshman, but the increasing maturity and versatility of his low-post game helped him develop into a legitimate offensive star last season.

The following clip from the Big Ten Network shows a number of elements to Cook’s game that make him such a dangerous offensive threat on the block:

First, Cook does a nice job quickly rolling to the basket after setting his pick on Mo Wagner and displays his athleticism as he explodes to the basket off his right foot. As the commentators note, Cook also uses his right arm to shield himself from the defender and prevent him from legally contesting the shot; the only way for the Michigan player to stop Cook from scoring is to hack at Cook’s body instead of the ball. Finally, Cook displays his remarkable ability to finish through contact, something he has excelled at throughout his Hawkeye career. Cook improved his free throw percentage from .598% to .661% last season, and with his proven ability to score in spite of contact from the defender, further growth at the charity stripe this year could make his offensive output even greater.

Fran McCaffery has talked about Tyler Cook’s improvement as a ballhandler during the offseason, which could help him further expand his arsenal of offensive moves both in and out of the post. This play from last season best highlights the potential impact an improved handle could make on Cook’s game:

Mo Wagner appears woefully unprepared for Cook to go behind-the-back, and to his credit there is little in Cook’s college film to suggest the presence of that move in is repertoire. Cook is at his best when he is attacking the rim, and improved ball-handling skills that allow Cook to successfully navigate the crowded paint and get to the rim with greater frequency could do wonders for his game in 2018-19.

Statistics from Iowa’s 2017-18 campaign reveal just how important Cook’s interior offense is to the Hawkeyes’ success. While Cook finished third on the team in both offensive and total win shares last season, the difference in his field goal percentage between Iowa’s wins and losses is extremely stark (per Sports Reference):

Field Goal % in Wins vs Losses

Value G FG FGA FG%
Value G FG FGA FG%
Game Result Loss 107 215 0.498
Win 85 124 0.685

While it’s normal for players to shoot much better in wins than they do in losses, none of the Hawkeyes’ regular contributors had such a large variance in their shooting performances between victories and defeats last season. Additionally, while perimeter players like Jordan Bohannon and Isaiah Moss might find their shooting percentages artificially deflated in losses in which they take more difficult three-point shots in an attempt to catch up to their opponents, this explanation certainly cannot account for Cook’s numbers since nearly all his shots are coming from the post. These numbers make one thing perfectly clear: the Hawkeyes tend to win when Tyler Cook shoots well and lose when he shoots poorly.

Cook’s game-by-game shooting efficiency isn’t the only area in which is low-post game could stand to improve going into the 2018-19 season. While Cook led the Hawkeyes in rebounding at 6.8 boards-per-game, he ranked only twelfth in the conference in this metric (Michigan State actually had two players ranked ahead of him) and averaged fewer rebounds-per-forty minutes than his returning teammates Luka Garza and Cordell Pemsl, according to ESPN. Cook has certainly shown his ability to make plays on the offensive glass:

but greater consistency in this realm would greatly aid in his ability to dominate on the interior.

Cook’s offensive success in the low-post also does little to excuse his frequent struggles as an interior defender. Cook allowed 110.1 points per-100 possessions last season, which ranked seventh among Hawkeye players in the regular rotation and was actually a worse figure than the one he produced his freshman season (106.3). Cook knows his defense has to improve for him to make it to the next level, and the same athleticism that allows him to excel on offense should also allow him to thrive on defense. Cook has shown flashes of his defensive prowess in the past, using his leaping ability to block shots.

If Cook can strengthen his footwork to help him stick with quicker defenders, improve his reaction time on defense to make him a more instinctual help-defender, and continue to become more tenacious as a rebounder to minimize the number of second-chance shots his opponents can take, he could still grow into an interior defensive anchor for the Hawkeyes while also improving his NBA draft stock.

Tyler Cook’s ability to dominate on both ends of the paint will go a long way towards determining the success of the Hawkeyes in 2018-19. Cook made a huge leap between his freshman and sophomore seasons, and similar growth will be necessary for the Hawkeyes to be capable of making noise in the Big Ten race this year.