If you did not see much of the Toledo Rockets last season, I can’t entirely blame you. The Rockets played a grand total of six nationally televised games last year and man that’s a travesty. There was some great buzz around the team headed into the season; Sophomore frontcourt player AJ Edu was finally healthy, Marreon Jackson returned for his senior season after an All-MAC selection, Setric Milner Jr. transferred in as one of the top JUCO players in the 2020 class, and a number of returning rotation players filled out the roster with a solid recruiting class. Edu went down with a season-ending injury early in the second game of the season against Oakland, a massive blow for a team with a 6’5″ average height and fairly limited depth at center.
Promptly, the Rockets said screw it, doubled down on their fast paced run-and-gun principles, and became one of the best and most exciting offenses in the NCAA. With an offense predicated on motion, off-ball movement, and taking shots without hesitancy, the Rockets absolutely scorched from the 3-point line. They finished 6th in makes per game from distance in the country while hitting at a Top-40 clip of 37.2%. They were 28th in assists per game, rebounded much better than expected, and numbers aside, were just a joy to watch. While now-Arizona state grad transfer Marreon Jackson rightfully got the shine as the best player on the team & MAC Player of the Year, I was constantly impressed and intrigued by what I saw from Ryan Rollins.
Rollins had a good season on paper, especially for a freshman: 2nd on the team in scoring and usage with slightly below average true shooting.When scouring the tape, it became clear to me that Rollins was/is the best pro prospect on the team, and a real shot at being a draftable NBA player in a year or two. His flashes were just THAT good.
Rollins is a 6’4” guard with a lot of room to fill out in his frame.Make no mistake, though; he is currently a poor defender. He was listed at 180 pounds his freshman year and that tracked on court. Stronger ballhandlers routinely knocked him off base and got into his chest, taking away any real ability to contest. He had real moments of positivity at the nail and in rotation, but ball watched a good deal, resulting in back cuts fairly often.
He was extremely young, and expectedly an inconsistent defender. I’m really looking to see him use both his hands and feet defending this next season, because it’s normally one or the other rather than both in synergy. The baseline is there for him to be an at least neutral defender at the next level with positive off-ball instincts and what appears to be a significant plus wingspan (Guessing +3, Rollins said himself that he’s a +4). As he grows into his body more, the POA will improve and I’m fairly confident that his weaknesses on that end will be repped out because it’s not a competition issue for Ryan.
What sets Rollins apart, and why I’m so intrigued by and excited for his development, is the wide array of tools he showcased this past season. There’s a real poise and composure that he performs with as an offensive player, specifically as a decision maker, that lends itself to real consideration as a viable NBA prospect.
Intersection of Skill and Athleticism
I think I’ve linked and mentioned this article from Jake Rosen in every single draft/player development piece I’ve written; it’s that good. We need to look at athleticism through different lenses.
Ryan Rollins is not your typical run, jump, explosive athlete. That’s not at all to say that he’s a poor athlete, but, those things are not what will pop and lead to him getting drafted. In some more complex and less defined areas, Rollins is an elite athlete. He doesn’t have elite top speed, but his ability to accelerate and decelerate, flowing in and out of spots with strides and utilizing stutters and hesitations is what stands out most about him.
He has an incredible feel for his surroundings, where defenders are, what their reach is, and couples that with phenomenal body control and ability to change directions.
Rollins dunked 12 times this year, which is nothing to scoff at when gauging athleticism. A number of them were rather fun tip-ins on a putback which you wouldn’t expect from a guard.
This dunk shows that intersection of athleticism. He has enough requisite traditional athleticism combined with his standout areas. While this is a fine highlight finish, it’s how Rollins gets to the rim that is noteworthy. His understanding of angles and ability to change directions quickly along with his ability to control his body and handle allow for him to get this wide open dunk once he feels his defender reach.
Utilization of angles and an overall herky jerky game create openings that are atypical for defenders to see due to awkward and unusual timing. This is the norm for Rollins’ game.
Here’s another great example. Rollins throws the jab step (a favorite of his), but the defender recovers well, so he drives into him, uses the off arm, and torques his body into a rather small window to get an opening on a difficult attempt.
Not everything has to be difficult for Ryan Rollins to succeed, but those are some of his brightest moments. Part of the reason I’m so interested to see what happens for Rollins this next year is that he could grow into his body more and we could see some sort of athletic development.
Is there something there in which his burst improves after an off-season working on explosive athleticism?
Even with just minor improvements as an athlete, any added size would be a boon for Rollins.
Without being an exceptional vertical athlete and even with a slight frame, Rollins plays a VERY physical brand of basketball as hinted at above. That manufacturing of angles combined with his off-arm craft lead to him being a much better rim finisher than expected.
Per Barttorvik.com, Rollins shot 64.3% on Close 2’s. Among players in Division 1 who are 6’5″ or shorter with at least 100 attempts from that distance, Rollins was 20th in Close 2 percentage, in the same tier of 2021 draft class guards Jared Butler, Jalen Suggs, and Davion Mitchell.
Here’s a great example of that contact generation. It seems counterintuitive, but like I wrote about with RJ Barrett, one of the best ways to create separation at the rim without verticality is well timed bump offs and heat-seeking contact at the right angle.
That’s another thing with his athleticism and size overall. If Rollins adds some functional mass, I’d bank on his free throw rate skyrocketing. Part of the difficulty that comes with being a slighter finisher is that you don’t get some of the calls because, well, you’re expected to go flying with contact.
Below is another great example of Rollins’ body control and craft at the rim. He gets surprisingly good hang time and is fantastic at mid-air adjustments, which will come in later as we talk about his playmaking.
As shown below, he has an excellent ability to adjust in air around the rim even with drawn help.
What I’m most looking for from Rollins this year: does the floater come along?
When watching him, that shot is really open to him and I’d also posit that he’s going to need it at the next level. While I don’t anticipate a massive drop off as a finisher in the NBA, it frankly is just hard to play a super physical downhill drive game without the change-up of a floater, especially when running a great deal of pick and roll.
Rollins didn’t take a ton of floaters as a freshman, largely due to how often he was attacking an already tilted floor. Nevertheless, he started to really workshop it as the season wore on and there were really positive signs.
The pace, ball security, and footwork here are just so, so impressive to me. I’d also just recommend watching this NIT matchup against Richmond, definitely one of his best games in regards to micro skill flashes.
With the ball in his hands more this year, I’d love to see him try to take two or three floaters a game just to see what he can get from it. He has excellent touch indicators both as a passer and at the rim, so I believe quite a bit in him developing a floater and it’ll be a fun development process to watch this season.
Playmaking and Vision
Speaking of passing, Rollins averaged under three assists per game this season, and that greatly undersells his court vision and ability as a passer. One of the most remarkable parts of his passing ability is the intersection of his court mapping and proprioception. As mentioned earlier, Rollins has very good length, and he knows how to use it both as a driver and as a playmaker out of pick and roll as well.
The most enticing aspect of Rollins as a passer is his ability to drive and use his length as well as precise jumps to manufacture angles to release passes. He also just has excellent placement on passes, routinely finding the shooting pocket, and he puts great velocity on passes as well.
The next stage that elevates Rollins as a playmaker: faking at the rim.
I cannot illustrate enough how well Ryan Rollins sells attempts at the rim and uses his gravity to contort a defense before finding the easy pass.
The in-air manipulation and body control here are frankly ridiculous. Rollins sells the at rim attempt, knows he’s cut off, adjusts, and fires out to the corner. I would’ve loved to see Jackson fire this off rip, but it’s an assist in my mind.
Rollins has such a knack for not letting his drives die and keeping the ball alive even if it means careening out of bounds to fire off a pass. Obviously they’re very different players, but Rollins’ propensity for making angles off drives reminds me a lot of recent draftee, Marcus Zegarowski.
Rollins also shows his composure when running pick and roll especially when doubled. I’m intrigued to see how much more he gets to run pick and roll (PnR) this coming season, but even without a traditional roller, Rollins handled double teams incredibly well.
Again, he uses the jump pass well to craft an angle for an easier pass and is relatively unphased by the double.
Rollins is so good at reading when he has the defense exactly where he needs it as a driver. He gets two feet in the paint, draws help, and easily finds the open man. He scans the floor consistently without staring down the receiver and that’s so huge as a PnR operator. His little manipulations are just so impressive. That initial jab to throw off Jason Preston, the hesitation right inside the arc, a lunge left, and then firing expeditiously over the top of the defense to the open roller. Even without elite athleticism, his ability to occupy a defense with an off pace is impressive.
While the pick and roll playmaking is what I’m most excited to see grow and play out this year, Rollins is already such a good quick decision maker who makes quality connective reads with ease. That means a lot to me, because these aren’t premeditated reads. They showcase his feel and ability to make the right play, which likely speaks more to his NBA role which will likely be as a connective playmaker and second side creator.
Quick reads under pressure with accuracy makes it so much easier to envision a player sticking on the floor at the next level especially if they’re not a creator.
This pass doesn’t directly lead to a bucket, but he catches a poor pass, recovers, protects the ball, and hits the open man on an incredibly tough release point.
Another small but cool play showing that blueprint for connectivity. He gets the ball off a kickout, drives into what the defense gives, and reverses to Jackson on the relocation once the drive is cut off.
Here’s a great read off of a rebound and broken play. He gets to the paint while scanning the floor and finds the open man over the top. Quick aside, Rollins would pair so well with a quality post player at the next level. He’s such a good post-entry passer and places the ball routinely inside the catch radius of the receiver. I love random skills like that, especially considering Rollins plays on a team with fairly minute amounts of post play.
Lastly, Rollins is a marvelous transition playmaker, routinely hitting teammates with extremely well placed kick ahead passes and lobs or lead passes to cutters filling the lane. His head is constantly on a swivel and he finds the right man as the defense commits across the floor.
I cannot wait to see Rollins with a dynamic roller and vertical threat. He’s a brilliant lob passer, just awesome touch and timing.
Off the Dribble Shooting
This is the largest swing skill for Ryan Rollins that I’m expecting the most improvement and flashes in this season. Rollins has the vision, he has the handle, but can he develop the self-created shooting necessary to leverage on-ball usage at the next level? We’re not going to have a for sure answer which is what’s kind of mesmerizing about scouting!
However, I think there were very encouraging signs for Rollins as a shooter off the bounce and out of PnR. First, while he only shot 32.3% from three, I think the shot is better than the stats show. Most of his misses come from a lack of upper body strength. When he really gets his legs into the shot, it looks very crisp, but the majority of his misses have a sort of overcorrection in his upper body because he’s trying so hard to just get the ball to go the distance.
Point being, with another year under his belt and assuming some strength and body improvement in the offseason, I think that number will look significantly better this season. He’s also a pretty solid free throw shooter (78.6%), and I just believe in the touch that he possesses.
Although in a small sample (13 attempts per InStat) Rollins’ stepback gave real cause for optimism. Especially considering how much he favors jab steps and head fakes, I think we’ll see a real rise in his stepback attempts this season.
The handle is really clean and that proprioception we talked about earlier pops when self-creating space. He uses each motion of his handle, each ruse and fake his body can muster to create the right sized window. I’ve slowed down this play like 20 times and I swear there is no push off, Rollins goes hard downhill, pulls out the full stop, and goes behind the back into the wide open two.
Oh, speaking of that behind the back, this behind the back out of transition absolutely rules. Snatching souls on the break.
Ryan Rollins has such an advanced handle. He loves using in and outs and hesitations to throw off his defender in tandem with his timing. He can really go to either hand and I think there’s a lot there as a framework for him to get to more self-created jumpers.
Notice here: he freezes his man with the in-and-out and then explodes slightly forwards and to the side for the easy jumper. He’s fantastic at capitalizing the moment his man makes a mistake.
Rollins took relatively few pull-up attempts in pick and roll (less than 10 per InStat); the more common self-created attempt we saw was a jab step three after an action. Rollins takes the handoff, Acunzo clears out, and Rollins gets to work.
The defender is in fine position and ready to contest, Rollins takes the initial plant step to his right, forcing the defender to shift and Rollins then hits a ball fake and quick jab right to force the defender to take a step back and immediately rises once he has his window.
One small nitpick I have with his handle right now is that he has a tendency to look down at his hand when he tries to split a double team. He’s actually quite good at splitting the double and maneuvering through tight spaces, but it’s a hiccup nonetheless.
While he doesn’t lose the ball here, it’s always tenuous, as a significant margin of his turnovers came whenever he looked down at his dribbling splitting a double and a defender stunted hard. It’s not the end of the world, but it will be something that could be keyed in on if it’s not improved upon.
The Allure of Improvement
The Rockets open up the 2021-2022 season with a solid non-conference schedule; taking on Detroit-Mercy, Oakland, Bradley, Valparaiso, Michigan State, Richmond, Marshall, and the Baha Mar Hoops Nassau Championship in November.
Putting together a comprehensive and quality resume against good mid-major teams and especially against MSU will be significant for Rollins improving his national exposure and draft stock. Good tape early can only help in getting noticed.
I’m so enticed by what this season could mean for Ryan and the growth we’ll see. I’m not sure what he’ll develop into. I have no real idea whether or not he’ll have on-ball equity in the NBA. He may not even be draft ready until the 2023 Draft. What’s so tantalizing is that he already possesses a base skill set that makes sense at the NBA level and there’s significant room for improvement. Players who can attack the rim, pass, shoot, and play competent team defense get drafted.
There’s real talent there as an NBA prospect and how Rollins commands his extra usage and builds off of last season will be huge. Be sure to tune into the Rockets’ first non-conference game against Valparaiso on November 9th, and of course, put Ryan Rollins on your radar.