Observations: What we've learned about Iowa basketball this summer

Mark Emmert

NORTH LIBERTY, Ia. — Assessing the level of play in a summer basketball league is neither science nor art. It’s about gut feelings and fleeting impressions, weighing who has the “it” factor, trying to project which skills displayed on a tiny court in front of a few hundred fans will translate to the crucible of Division I play.

The Prime Time League has completed two of its eight circuits at North Liberty Community Center, and the good news for Iowa fans is that the entire lineup — with just two exceptions — has been present and accounted for. And for the most part, they’ve acquitted themselves well.

In this time, five intriguing early themes have emerged:

A familiar sight in the Prime Time League — Hawkeyes guard Isaiah Moss heading toward the hoop. His pairing with Christian Williams has been one of the compelling storylines of summer play.

Compelling pair

Christian Williams and Isaiah Moss have formed an odd-couple backcourt that has made for compelling viewing. Williams is Iowa’s spindly 6-foot-6 heir apparent at point guard, whose biggest need last year appeared to be a shot of confidence. He may have found that in the season’s final six games, averaging 3.2 points, and he may pick up more of it this summer courtesy of the swaggering Moss.

Williams has averaged 18 points while leading his team to a pair of PTL wins. With a wingspan of 6-11, the sophomore has shown he can be a formidable defender, and he’s chipped in 21 rebounds while scoring the bulk of his points inside (he’s 2-of-6 from 3-point range). He has looked smooth and in command.

Moss, a 6-5 wing player with a shooter’s mentality, has scored 24 points in each game while hoisting 34 shots total. He wants the ball in his hands at all times, sometimes to his team’s detriment. He is 8-of-16 from the 3, and has converted 12-of-15 free throws on drives to the basket in which he seems to hope defenders try to get in his way. There won’t be that many shot attempts available to Moss once the season starts — backing up star shooting guard Peter Jok won’t allow for it. But for the summer, Moss’ daring and Williams’ control are a hard-to-stop combination, and perhaps the best attributes of each player will rub off on the other.

Powerful Trio

Iowa’s post options are flexing their muscles and their smiles in equal measure. Ahmad Wagner, Tyler Cook and Cordell Pemsl may be young, but they could be a handful for Big Ten opponents.

If nothing else, they’ll have 15 fouls to give each game — and you can bet they’ll be hard fouls.

“We bang with each other every night in practice,” Pemsl said after scoring 16 points in his PTL debut Thursday. “We all pretty much have the same frame, so it’s going to be interchangeable between us for that 4-5 position. So all three of us should get good playing time this year.”

Wagner is a 6-7, 225-pound sophomore and the likely starting center for the Hawkeyes when the regular season officially kicks off against Kennesaw State on Nov. 11. He averaged 2.6 points while playing 10 minutes a game last winter. He is averaging 18 points and eight rebounds in the PTL.

Cook, 6-8, 240, is the most acclaimed of Iowa’s five freshmen and has quickly become the darling of the PTL's fans, with several highlight-reel dunks among his 44 points. He has a strong shot at being the team’s starting power forward this season.

His personality is as outsized as his talent. He hijacked a Pemsl media interview Thursday, draping his arm around his fellow freshman’s shoulder and smiling into the cameras as Pemsl joked about the role the duo would play for Iowa.

“We’ll be playing the 1-2 this year, and Pete (Jok) will be playing the 5,” Pemsl smiled.

“Pete might not get any playing time this year, honestly,” Cook quickly clarified.

Iowa incoming freshmen Tyler Cook, left, and Cordell Pemsl face off during Prime Time League action at the North Liberty Community Center on Thursday, July 7, 2016.

Pemsl, 6-7, 245, could be the primary backup for both Wagner and Cook if his surgically repaired knee is healthy enough to withstand the season. He certainly showed enough muscle Thursday, after sitting out the PTL opener when he was poked in the eye 20 seconds into that game.

A Dubuque Wahlert graduate, Pemsl spoke more seriously of what he and Cook can contribute once the games count.

“We both have very broad shoulders. We’re two of the heavier lifting guys on the team. We’re just naturally strong,” Pemsl said. “We know what it’s like in the Big Ten. We go to those games. We’ve played in AAU. We know what it’s like out there, so we’re just going to keep pushing and pushing and come November we’re hoping for the best.”

Enigma on the wing

Dom Uhl may be the player who determines Iowa’s success this season. A big year from the junior wing — who is working on perfecting his outside shot — could alleviate the scoring strain on Jok while taking some of the pressure off a young front court.

As usual with Uhl, it’s been hard to read too much into his PTL appearances so far. He has 46 points but is 6-of-21 from the arc. He also has 20 rebounds, but at a springy 6-9, there’s always a sense that he should be more dominant. It could be that he’s just coasting against inferior competition.

Hawkeyes shooting guard Brady Ellingson, playing on the same PTL team, certainly has been impressed by Uhl. Ellingson said Uhl has been more aggressively seeking his shot and is noticeably better from 3-point range, where he made 15-of-30 last season while averaging 6 points per game to rank as Iowa’s leading scorer among reserves.

Iowa's Dom Uhl dunks the ball during Prime Time League action at the North Liberty Community Center on Thursday, June 30, 2016.

Uhl should start at small forward this year. Backing him up would be sophomore Nicholas Baer, a versatile 6-7 athlete out of Bettendorf.

Baer has, not surprisingly, flashed an energetic all-around game this summer, scoring 45 points, with 26 rebounds and eight assists in two games. He says he’s working on his ball-handling so that he can better attack off the dribble this year. The results have been mixed so far: He’s 18-of-28 from inside the arc, but just 2-of-12 from beyond it.

Baer is liking what he’s seeing from the new-look Hawkeyes, though.

“Guys can play multiple positions and guard multiple positions,” he said. “That’s what makes us so lethal.”

Future Hawkeye Jordan Bohannon has increased his body mass by 15 points this spring to prepare for the Big Ten grind.

Bohannon's defensive concerns

Freshman point guard Jordan Bohannon has been a deep threat and then a deep disappointment in his two PTL games. The Linn-Mar product showed off gasp-inducing range in his first game, making 7-of-11 3-pointers, some from 30 feet. He cooled considerably Thursday, making only 3-of-17 from the arc.

But just as any Wooden Award talk after Game 1 was premature, any alarm about Bohannon’s follow-up performance should also be muted. He is a terrific shooter with a keen court awareness and a good handle on the ball. Basketball is in his genes — his three older brothers played Division I, and two of them (Jason and Matt) were at the NLCC to watch him Thursday.

The question for the youngest and smallest of the Bohannons (Jordan is 6-1, 170) will be whether he can defend at a Big Ten level. That will — and should — determine his playing time as a rookie. He’ll get plenty of chances to try to prove that. And, rest assured, he’ll never be in a position to miss 14 3-pointers in a Big Ten game.

Something to prove

Ellingson, a 6-4 sophomore shooting guard, may be the odd man out in Iowa’s rotation, based on his diminishing minutes last season, during which he scored 75 points but 20 of them in an early-season victory over Coppin State. He hasn’t looked like a markedly different player this summer.

Ellingson has scored a quiet 30 points, on 6-of-12 3-point shooting. He had only two points in the second half of his most recent game.

“I got a little cold; legs got tired in the second half,” he said. “Just have to work through the fatigue and push through.”

Ellingson said he’s trying to add muscle to his 190-pound frame in order to stay on the court more. He is also working to maintain his confidence. Moss may be his biggest competition for playing time.

“I view myself as a good shooter, a good offensive threat, so I’ve got to bring that to the table every night,” Ellingson said.

Senior forward Dale Jones is sitting out summer league play while recuperating from knee surgery. Freshman forward Ryan Kriener hasn’t played in the PTL yet because of an illness, but is healthy now and could fill in on a team if a fellow Hawkeye needs a night off. Freshman point guard Maishe Dailey has shown himself to be a savvy player, with 20 points in two games. Dailey and Kriener, however, are the two likeliest redshirt candidates among the newcomers.

In the final analysis, though, it’s just a summer league. Decisions made by Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery and his staff may be foreshadowed by what happens here, but certainly not determined by it.

Baer summed it up best:

“It’s not do or die. It’s not the last 10 seconds against Big Ten competition. The world doesn’t end if you don’t make a shot. It’s just trying some new things out that you wouldn’t during the season.”