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On a Team Full of Stars, Joe Toussaint Could Be Iowa’s X-Factor

If Toussaint can build on his strong freshman campaign and develop into a more complete player in 2020-21, he could very well prove to be the missing piece McCaffery has been searching for since he arrived in Iowa City. 

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Expectations for Iowa basketball are sky high in the 2020-21 season, and with good reason. While Luka Garza, Jordan Bohannon, Joe Wieskamp, and the rest of Iowa’s star upperclassmen are more than deserving of the preseason attention they’re receiving, Iowa’s ability to reach its ceiling this year may depend heavily on the play of an underclassman point guard who could very well be the X-factor on a veteran-laden team. Sophomore Joe Toussaint started twenty games in place of the injured Bohannon in 2019-20 and showed flashes of brilliance peppered in with the bouts of inconsistency one might expect from a true freshman point guard playing in America’s toughest conference. If Toussaint is able to build on his promising freshman campaign and develop greater consistency without sacrificing the raw talent and explosiveness that made him so dangerous in 2019-20, the Bronx, NY native could provide Iowa with exactly what the team needs to reach heights not seen by the program in decades.

Iowa has had several strong teams during Fran McCaffery’s time as head coach, but a common weakness among these squads has been the lack of quickness and athleticism on the perimeter. While past Hawkeye point guards like Jordan Bohannon, Mike Gesell, and Anthony Clemmons have had successful careers due to their crisp sharpshooting, intuitive passing, and defensive acumen, it’s been years since the Hawkeyes have had a single point guard who can consistently beat opposing defenders off the dribble, lock down opposing perimeter scorers, and push the pace in transition. Accordingly, Iowa has oftentimes struggled when matched up against teams who have the length and athleticism to shut down its collection of rangy sharpshooters or who have multi-level perimeter scorers who can beat the Hawkeye defenders both on the catch and off the dribble.

Joe Toussaint’s freshman campaign provided plenty of evidence that he could develop into precisely what the previous Hawkeye teams have been missing. Toussaint’s speed and athleticism are impossible to ignore on the basketball court and were the source of his greatest strengths last season, and was the reason Maryland’s Anthony Cowan called him the toughest player he had to guard in the Big Ten. Toussaint’s fantastic straight-line speed allows him to take defenders to the hole, makes him an absolute terror in transition, and enables him to turn defensive stops into points on the other end of the court.

Toussaint’s quickness also gives him the ability to guard speedy perimeter players, while his surprisingly physical style of play on defense prevents him from being overpowered by larger opponents. Toussaint was arguably the Hawkeyes’ best perimeter defender despite being a freshman in 2019-20, a season in which he led the team and was in the top ten in the conference in steals (1.2 per game) and held the best defensive rating per 100 possessions of all guards in Iowa’s regular rotation. He could stick with shifty offensive weapons one-on-one, and his speed made him an effective help defender by enabling him to quickly assist his teammates on the ballhandler’s weakside.

Yet while Toussaint’s highspeed abilities enabled him to make several plays for Iowa last season, they were also the genesis of many of his biggest mistakes. Toussaint’s tendency to play the game at top speed often resulted in turnovers (a team high 2.0 per game) and wasted offensive possessions when his attacking mentality would lead him into avoidable double-teams that disrupted the flow of Iowa’s offense. His aggression on defense also led to several avoidable fouls, as Toussaint committed more fouls per 100 possessions than any other members of Iowa’s regular rotation (6.3). Toussaint’s proclivity for fouls and turnovers put a hard cap on his playing time last season, which is why he averaged fewer minutes per game against both conference and non-conference opponents than dependable senior backups such as Ryan Kriener and Bakari Evelyn.

Toussaint was something of a double-edged sword for the Hawkeyes last season, and hopefully the experience he gained last year and the progress he’s made during the offseason will allow him to minimize his mistakes in 2020-2021. But given the makeup of the returning team this year, Toussaint’s potential value is too significant for him to cede all of his minutes at the point guard position to Bohannon and McCaffery even if he remains an imperfect player. If Iowa hopes to play meaningful games deep into the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, there will come a time when they need someone to beat their man off the dribble or to go check the opposing point guard who has been lighting them up all game. As amazing as Bohannon and Iowa’s wings are, there is no player better suited to playing these situational roles than Toussaint.

Bohannon may well reclaim his starting role from Toussaint this season, but the sophomore point guard could still prove to be a priceless asset off the bench if that occurs. Toussaint’s skill at pushing the pace on offense will allow the Hawkeyes to put opponents on their heels by playing at a quicker tempo when he enters the game, while his ability to run the point will enable Bohannon to play off the ball more this season when the two players share the court, allowing Iowa to explore his immense potential as a catch and shoot weapon coming off screens. Furthermore, Toussaint could be an excellent spot-starter for when Iowa needs quicker lineups to handle offenses whose guards can beat other Hawkeye defenders off the dribble, and could very well find himself closing games such as those even if he starts these contests on the bench.

Finally, Toussaint can solidify his role on the team by becoming a more consistent scoring option this season. Toussaint made only 37.8% of his field goals last season and was a sub-.300 shooter from beyond the arc. These shaky shooting numbers led to streaky offensive performances for the freshman; while Touissaint scored 32 points over a two game stretch against Penn State and Nebraska, he scored a combined six points during his next three games while shooting only 2-12 from the field.

There is plenty of reason for optimism that Touissaint can improve his shooting in 2020-21. Toussaint displayed excellent form while knocking down 83% of his free throw attempts last year and grew increasingly confident with his outside shot as the season progressed. A more consistent jump shot could not only boost his minutes this year by enabling him to remain on the court with more lineup combinations without sacrificing too much perimeter shooting, but would also allow Iowa to consistently surround Luka Garza with four credible three point threats at all times, making it virtually impossible for teams to double-team him without risking an open jump shot for a player capable of hitting it. Connor McCaffery’s growth as a jump shooter last season turned him from a player defenses could ignore on the perimeter to one who could punish teams who chose to do so. Hopefully Toussaint can match or exceed that level of improvement during his own sophomore campaign.

For Toussaint to turn a corner in his development this season, he must continue to profit from his athleticism while minimizing the avoidable mental mistakes caused by his overreliance upon it. Toussaint’s speed makes him precisely the weapon Iowa needs this season, but with Bohannon and McCaffery returning as proven playmakers at point guard, Fran won’t hesitate to bench the shifty sophomore if his errant play results in too many mistakes. However, if Toussaint can build on his strong freshman campaign and develop into a more complete player in 2020-21, he could very well prove to be the missing piece McCaffery has been searching for since he arrived in Iowa City.