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The return of Isaiah Mucius gives Forbes, Wake Forest something to build around

Wake Forest’s decision to move on from Danny Manning to Steve Forbes sparked a flurry of potential program departures. Over the last week, several players, like All-ACC center Olivier Sarr, entered the transfer portal. Not everyone will leave the program, however; Forbes and his staff are working to retain players.

That group of returnees includes rising junior forward Isaiah Mucius who, on Saturday, announced his intentions to come back to Wake Forest. This is another real get for Forbes.

As a sophomore, the wiry Mucius made a jump as a player (22 starts). Working as a space 4 in Manning’s pick-and-roll system, the 6-foot-8 Mucius averaged 7.3 points (34.6 3P%) and 4.7 rebounds per game. With a lower 3-point attempt rate — 24.1 percent, down from 37 percent as a freshman — Mucius saw his efficiency rise. His true shooting rate jumped from a lowly 40 percent to 47.2 percent as a sophomore, as did his effective shooting percentage, which rose to 46.8 percent.

Those shooting percentages aren’t exactly sharpshooter-levels; however, the increase is still notable. With improvements to his offensive profile, though, Mucius could unlock newfound blend of productivity and efficiency, while his usage goes north of 20 percent for the first time in his career.

 

Shot Zones

As his 3-point attempt rate dropped this year, Mucius took a larger share of his field goal attempts at the rim. Nearly 37 percent of his shots this season were 2-point attempts around the basket. As a freshman, that numbed hovered closer to 28 percent.

Mucius struggled at the rim, though. According to Synergy, Mucius shot 44.1 percent around the basket in the half court this season, with just 7 dunks.

With less volume, Mucius hit at a much better clip on this 3-point looks: 34.6 3P%, up from 23.5 3P% as a freshman. According to Synergy Sports, Mucius posted an effective shooting rate of 50 percent on spot-up no-dribble jumper this season.

The midrange, however, is where Mucius did some of his best work. Mucius shot just under 45 percent on his long 2s, with 60.5 percent of those makes assisted. According to Bart Torvik’s site, Mucius was one of only 10 ACC players this season to shoot 42 percent or better on long 2PA (80+ 2PA).

East Tennessee State, under Forbes, was never a prolific 3-point offense, although this season the Bucs ranked 128th nationally in 3-point attempt rate: 39.2 percent. That’s easily the highest number with Forbes as head coach.

As Wake Forest transitions from Manning to Forbes, the team’s overall 3-point attempt rate — and how Mucius fits into that picture — will be worth monitoring.

With good shot preparation, Mucius shoots a really easy ball; his form and balance are smooth. Next season, he should look to be aggressive with his shot in the 5-out motion approach of Forbes. If there’s an open look from deep, let it fly.

 

Get to the rim

During his sophomore season, Mucius attempted a total of 36 free throws: just 2.1 free throw attempts per 40 minutes. For his career, Mucius has attempted 3.1 free throws per 40 minutes.

Up to this point, Mucius has mostly worked as a second-side player, spotting up around pick-and-roll with Brandon Childress or post-ups for Sarr. Mucius has 37 career 3-pointers — all but one were assisted on, too.

He was given very few passing possessions, and has just 51 career assists in over 1,300 minutes in a Wake Forest uniform.

Mucius, from time to time, would get a post touch or find involvement in pick-and-pop action. He saw success with both play types this season, too: 57.9 FG% on post-ups (19 FGA) and 38.9 eFG% on pick-and-pops.

Mucius has a little face-up game out of the post. With good length and high release point, Mucius can get looks like this at any point of the game. He’s a potential match-up problem for opponents.

However, Mucius also flashed a liquid first step, at times. He has the ability to drive it, attack the paint and finish over rim protectors.

Going forward, Mucius could leverage his face-up game to create basket drives: isolate, shot fake and put the ball on the deck, north-south. This is where Mucius can generate some of his own offense.

With his pick-and-pop/slip game, Mucius can be utilized as a half-court weapon — one that attacks space and forces closeouts. In transition, Mucius can also function trailing 3-point shooter, too.

 

Defensive Potential

Up to this point of his career, Mucius has played on bad defenses; in each of the last two seasons, Wake Forest ranked outside the top 160 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Mucius, through two seasons, has negative Defensive BPM: -0.6. The Demon Deacons finished the 2019-20 season with a steal rate of 6.8 percent (No. 332) and an opponent turnover rate of 15.2 percent (No. 340).

Well, that’s about to change under Forbes. Through structural changes — keeping the ball out of the paint, limiting shots in the restricted area, and forcing more turnovers via more pressure — defense should be a growth industry for the Deacons.

In each of the last four seasons, East Tennessee State’s defense ranked inside the top 60 nationally in turnover rate. As far as percentages goes, this season was the high-water mark: 22.4 percent. ETSU ranked 42nd nationally with an 11.2 percent steal rate, too. During each season of that timespan, the Bucs posted defensive turnover rates of at least 20.5 percent.

Under Manning, Wake Forest’s defense never recorded a single-season turnover percentage of greater than 17.5 percent.

Despite his rangy frame, Mucius has lacked from a stocks (steals + blocks) perspective. Over his college career (1,359 minutes), Mucius has averaged just 0.8 steals and 0.5 blocks per 40 minutes. There’s untapped potential here; Mucius is capable of more event creation on the defensive side of the floor.

Over the final fives games of this season, Mucius averaged 1.9 steals and 0.5 blocks per 40 minutes. That’s a small sample, but it could be the sign of things to come. With the pressure-packed defense of Forbes — which features plenty of half-court traps and doubles — Mucius offers real versatility.

Mucius can switch, guard a variety of positions and, in theory, use his length to cause some havoc — blocks and steals.

 

UVA/Duke/Pitt Games

Over the final six weeks of the season, Mucius had three of his best performances, ever: an overtime loss to Virginia (16 points on 9 FGA), an upset over Duke (16 points on 8 FGA) and the ACC Tournament loss to Pitt (19 points on 9 FGA). In those three games, Mucius combined for 51 points (17 per game) on 26 field goal attempts (7-of-12 3PA, 6-of-7 FGA at the rim).

This is positive cherry-picking, to an extent, but two of those outings came against two of the top 12 defenses in the country: Virginia (No. 1) and Duke (No. 12). Over the final five games of the season, a run that included the match-ups with Duke and Pitt, Mucius posted an effective shooting rate of 63.8 percent.

(There’s more of that post-up game from Mucius. Also: Sarr’s short-roll passing against Duke was so freaking good.)

I was on hand for the game against Pittsburgh in Greensboro, with a front row seat; Mucius flashed so much tantalizing skill. He was in such a good flow offensively, bouncing around, looking for his shot. He was aggressive, but forced nothing. It’s unwise to read too much into one game, but he what he showed in that performance was the framework for what’s hopefully set to come: smooth catch-and-shoot capabilities (3-of-5 3PA) and aggressive basket drives (3-of-3 FGA at the rim).

No matter how you slice it, the return of Isaiah Mucius is a nice first step for Forbes.

 

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