The Arizona Wildcats are looking to get more offense from Sam Thomas and Helena Pueyo as they head into a rare ESPN game against No. 10 Oregon.
The Wildcats have been one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the Pac-12, partly because Thomas and Pueyo haven’t played like their usual selves.
Pueyo is only averaging 4.9 points per game after averaging 6.7 as a freshman. It’s not that she’s not making shots—she’s still shooting a team-best 39% from 3—she just isn’t being aggressive enough.
The Spaniard is only taking four shots per game, two fewer than last season despite her minutes and role being more or less the same. Pueyo played 15 minutes in the overtime loss at Washington State on Sunday and did not register a single field goal attempt.
When I asked head coach Adia Barnes how she can get Pueyo more involved, she challenged the sophomore.
“I don’t have to do anything, she’s got to come ready to play,” Barnes said. “She’s got to be ready to play and just take the shots when she’s open. But she’s not only a shooter; she’s a great basketball player. So she’s gotta come in aggressive and be ready from the bench. And I think that’s been a challenge because there’s some games where she’s not ready and she was not ready against Washington State. You can’t come in and make mistakes off the bat and make some big defensive mistakes initially. So she has to go do that and that’s a focus thing. She’s capable, but our challenge has been trying to find that that sixth, seventh, eighth person that’s consistent.”
Thomas was Arizona’s third-leading scorer last season but is fifth this year. Not only has her scoring average plummeted from 9.5 to a career-low 6.5, her field goal percentage has dipped from 43% to 36%. Her 3-point percentage has fallen even further, from 38% to 29%.
And maybe the craziest stat of all: Thomas has only attempted one free throw all season. Last season, she took 73. About two per game.
That means roughly 59% of Thomas’ shot attempts have been 3s this season compared to 49% last year, suggesting she has been very one-dimensional.
The good news is her 3-point shot has come around. She started the season 0 for 9 but is 12 for 32 since then, a solid 37%.
“In the beginning when I hadn’t hit a 3 yet, it was definitely a confidence struggle, but now I’ve just been working on my shot,” Thomas said. “Even if I’m not shooting the ball as much as I want to, I know that I’m putting in the extra work so I know that eventually one day it’s gonna like fall really well, and other days it’s not. But confidence isn’t really an issue now and I’ve been working out with Salvo (Coppa) more on my driving, so I know I have more game than just shooting.”
Since the Wildcats are shooting below 30% from 3 as a team, Barnes has preached about the importance of getting the ball inside, whether that be through drives or post ups.
But because Thomas affects the game in so many other ways, Barnes encourages her to fire away whenever she has the chance. She trusts Thomas to take smart shots.
“She’s earned that,” Barnes said. “She plays her heart out on defense. I mean, maybe at the most she takes one bad shot. Sam has earned the right to take some bad shots because of everything else she does. She’s constantly on defense. She always guards one of the opponents’ best players. So I just encourage with Sam to stay aggressive and to not pass up shots because it hurts our team. She’s one of our best shooters. Without Sam and Helena hitting shots, everybody’s inside and it’s hard for us to play. It’s hard to run offense.”
It certainly makes life more difficult for star point guard Aari McDonald, who is at her best when she can knife into the lane. When she can’t, the ball tends to stick.
“Every time Aari has the ball, everybody’s inside, and they’re guarding her,” Barnes said. “So we have to have the confidence to make plays and not only look to get Aari the ball back. We do it consistently in practice. We have to go do that in the game.”