Matt Pilgrim, Will He Ever Meet His Potential?

I started to write this post last week, but the intro ended up being a novella of its own, so I never got around to what I actually intended to write about.  What that post was supposed to do was eventually try to answer the question, "When the hell is Matt Pilgrim going to become the player he is capable of being?". 

In that previous post, which is now serving as a linked intro to this post, I made a list of who I consider to be the most disappointing Cowboys of the past 15 years based on what they achieved compared to their perceived potential.  I stuck JamesOn Curry in the top spot, but I can guarantee that if Pilgrim doesn't break out in conference play this season he will rocket past everyone to the #1 spot on the unofficial Cowboy underachiever list (hell, at least JamesOn was undoubtedly the best player on the court for a season or so).  So what will "Matty from the Natty" have to do to stay off this list?...Let's discuss.

Before getting too far into this, let's agree on one thing: Matt Pilgrim is one of the top athletic talents to ever put on a Cowboy basketball jersey... I am talking top 10.  You don't agree?  OK, I can see that, but how about a couple of quotes from 2007 (what a fair two sided argument we are having):

  • Kevin Nickelberry, Pilgrim's coach at Hampton once said Pilgrim was, "the most talented player I have coached". And if you don't think Kevin Nickleberry has the stroke to make a statement like that and have it mean something, I submit to you his resume.
  • Here are some excerpts from an NBA draft profile done on Matt while he was at Hampton: "Forward with excellent versatility, has the ability to pass and handle plus face the basket or go inside, Pilgrim has a good feel for the game ... Can play with anyone in the country and dominate ... He is a terrific ball handler for someone who has played inside for so long."
    With the main negative being this: "To truly develop into a legit first round prospect he needs to hit the weights and commit himself to dominating every game" (note: this was written when he was 225 lbs)

Jump for more Matt Talk

 

For the most part, Matt was looked at as a potential first round prospect with a very unique set of skills that just needed to get his head on straight. So what has happened since 2007 to prevent Matt from reaching this potential?

  1. He never completely got his head on straight. While he isn't a detriment to the team or anything, he has had some off-court issues, and his fluctuating commitment and effort levels are very noticeable. This is obviously 100% under Pilgrim's control, and it is up to him to find the drive to be better.
  2. The point above about how Pilgrim needs to "commit himself to dominating every game" has not happened.  This is different than issue #1 as this one is not so much about effort, it is more about confidence. I don't feel like Matt Pilgrim knows that he could be (and should be) the best player on this team.
  3. Like almost all 6'8, 255 pound college players, Pilgrim is relegated mostly to the low post and interior play due to team need. This is where a lot of potential NBA PF's get screwed. He is the biggest guy in OSU's regular rotation, which means he has to play the role of the biggest guy. This means a lot of back-to-the-basket stuff, setting screens, and establishing inside position. And yes, these are all things he should be doing, but with Matt's skill set they shouldn't be 95% of what he does on a basketball court. Unfortunately for Matt, this Oklahoma State team isn't built around the principle of getting Matt Pilgrim into the NBA.

My take is that it is a huge rarity to see someone that is 6'8, 255 that has handles and as smooth of a mid-range jumper as Matt Pilgrim to go along with his decent inside game. If you made a list of college players that have those skills it might be 8 names long. Players like this don't come along very often and I am getting frustrated with not seeing him perform to the level he should (yes...I am getting frustrated, and my frustration is what is important here).  So what can happen to fix the issues I just listed that are keeping Matt from reaching this level?

Issue #1 is arguable as to whether it is fixable. I guess that is a debate for Psych majors about the nature of someone changing their behavior.

Issue #2 will come along if issue #3 is fixed.

Issue #3 is the one I would love to see worked on.  What if Matt Pilgrim spent some time outside and on the wings?  And I don't mean coming out to set a screen or rotate the ball, I mean what if he were given the freedom that Jean-Paul Olukemi has to drive and cut at will?  I don't intend this as a criticism of Coach Ford, he knows at least 4% more about how to coach this team than I do (AT LEAST 4%!), but my thinking is that you should try to exploit the biggest mismatches you have on the court, and there isn't a bigger mismatch on the Oklahoma State roster right now than a mobile Matt Pilgrim.  Watch him in transition if you need proof.  I realize that at some point you need someone big to be down low and act like a big guy, but when you put Pilgrim down low where his skill set is average, you negate the advantage.  There is no reason that JaMychal Green guy from Alabama should have been able to negate someone like Pilgrim, but when you stick Matt down low with him he just becomes another inside banger.

To ram the point home I wanted to include some video in here of Pilgrim going coast-to-coast, some baseline spin moves, and some of his excellent passes, but my video making skills are lacking, thus you will have to rely on your own memories of Matt's flashes of excellence that have been mixed in an otherwise mediocre college career.

To summarize, I am always going to feel like we were short-changed by not getting to see the real Matt Pilgrim in orange if something doesn't change soon.  Some combination of Matt asking for an expanded role, and Coach Ford utilizing him in ways that make him virtually unguardable (driving, cutting, dictating) is going to have to happen for this to become a reality.  I am hoping to see it soon.  And if we don't, and Matt Pilgrim is in the D-league in two years and in the NBA in five, I will link back to this article as the definitive proof that #1) I was right, #2) His OSU tenor was disappointing, and #3) that I am a self-aggrandizing asshole.

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