Emergence of Nevada's 6-6 freshman follows scary scene in Mountain West opener
There was legitimate concern Nevada’s now most important reserve would never play basketball again, at least momentarily.
Josh Hall, 6-6 four-star recruit from Houston, landed awkwardly on a fast-break finish at the rim in Nevada’s Mountain West opener against San Jose State in late December.
It started as a normal basketball play in a contest Nevada would go on to win convincingly, 80-55. It ended with the freshman leaving the court on a stretcher.
When he was later diagnosed with a concussion and a shoulder strain, it appeared to be the best-case scenario. Thoughts go far beyond sport when athletes leave the playing surface parallel to it.
Now, he’s emerged as the key contributor off the bench in Nevada’s nine-game winning streak resulting in the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2007.
He scored 12 points (three shy of a career high) in Saturday’s Mountain West title game victory over Colorado State, including a pivotal three to stall a CSU run, a second-half and-one, and arguably the game-sealing offensive rebound with a minute left followed by a pair of free throws.
“That's one of the things that we're so excited about is our young players that have come into our program as freshmen,” Nevada coach Eric Musselman gushed after the game. “And Josh's development, incredible. He's not a guy that we look to offensively, but the play of the game was his left-handed layup and-one. And then right when we put him in the game he's in the right corner and bangs a three. I just thought his contributions were absolutely incredible because we didn't run a play for him and he had 12 points.”
The second-half flurry against the Rams to claim Nevada’s first MW title in program history was not an anomaly. Nevada is playing its best basketball. So is he.
During the Wolf Pack’s nine-game winning streak, Hall is averaging 6.1 points (on 51.2 percent shooting), 4.7 rebounds and maybe most importantly, 23.2 minutes per game.
He’s played 19-plus minutes in eight of Nevada’s last nine wins. In the other 29 games this season (excluding the five he missed following the injury), he broke the 19-minute barrier just four times.
Hall was on the floor for a career-high 32 points in the win at San Jose State leading into the regular season finale. He scored seven points and pulled down a career-high 12 rebounds.
“(I) just (try to) be a spark defensively and offensively,” Hall said. “Whether that be scoring, rebounding, guarding the best player on the court or just giving my teammates a break.”
His emergence is well-timed. Nevada’s reliance on its starting five is one part justified (four of the five landed on all-MW teams) and one part high-wire act.
Nearly 88 percent of the offensive production comes from starters Marcus Marshall, Cam Oliver, Jordan Caroline, D.J. Fenner and Lindsey Drew.
“I think the starters are the core of their team if you just look statistically at their team,” said Steve Prom, the second-year coach of Nevada’s opponent on Thursday night in Milwaukee, Iowa State. “But it’s tournament play. You’re not worried about fatigue. You’re worried about winning. So, you’re going to have your best players out there.”
But what happens if one is off and the others are unable to pick up the slack? What happens if one gets saddled with early foul trouble as Oliver did against the Rams in Las Vegas?
Musselman goes to Hall.
That’s what he did in the MW title game with Oliver forced to the bench after a second first-half foul. The freshman responded with the most impactful effort of his young career.
Leland King has also played well in spurts off the bench, but Hall has won the sixth-man job. Hall played 46 minutes in the MW semifinals and title game. King played two.
“Everyone gets tired at some point, but we’re all used to it at this point,” Hall said. “We have been playing a certain amount of games with six or seven people, so we are all getting pretty used to it.”
If Nevada’s first man off the bench can keep it going in Thursday night’s NCAA Tournament opener against Iowa State, the fifth tournament win in program history isn’t out of the question.
The Wolf Pack is 6-1 this season when its bench outscores that of its opponent. Then again, it’s also 21-5 when the bench is outscored.
Regardless, this will be remembered as one of the best seasons in Nevada basketball history. The 28 wins are tied for the second most ever. And Hall has overcome the stretcher to be a part of it.