Kansas Jayhawks forward KJ Adams Jr.(24) rebounds the ball around Iowa State Cyclones guard/forward Tristan Enaruna (23) during the first half at Hilton Coliseum Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, in Ames, Iowa.
After nearly every Iowa State loss this season, I’ve had the same question flooding my mentions on Twitter. I’ll see it discussed on the forums. I’ll have people texting me in search of an answer.
Why isn’t Tristan Enaruna playing more?
My answer to those questions has generally been simple — I don’t know. I think it was easy to speculate that it had to do something with the defensive end of the floor. We all can see the value Enaruna has brought at times for Iowa State offensively, and we also all know the Cyclones need all the help they can get on that end of the floor.
Enaruna’s minutes have been volatile, especially since the start of Big 12 play last month. We’ve seen the high-end of this with 28 minutes and 31 minutes in losses to Baylor and Texas Tech. We’ve also seen the low-end, most notably in Tuesday’s loss to Kansas when he played just eight minutes.
On Thursday, we got a little clarity from T.J. Otzelberger, and, as I expected, it ties in closely with the identity Otz has tried to forge within the program since his hiring last spring.
“He’s had a lot of those games where he starts off with a big dunk or a big rebound or those types of plays,” Otzelberger said. “When he does that, his minutes are increased. I think, for all of our guys, playing time is going to be tied to how are you helping our defense, first and foremost? Are you guarding the dribble? Are you doing a good job being physical guarding the dribble, keeping the ball in front of you? Are you doing a great job on the glass, commanding rebounds and protecting the rim?”
“Specifically, if you’re Tristan, because we’ve seen him do a great job of that. So if his minutes aren’t as high, I’d say, the reason would be that we feel he’s getting beat off the dribble, we’re not getting the rebounds, we’re not getting the rim protection.”
Tuesday night’s loss is the perfect encapsulation of the fans’ frustration with Enaruna’s lack of consistent playing time while also offering examples of these exact points Otzelberger is talking about in the above quote.
One of Kansas’ first buckets resulted from Enaruna failing to secure a rebound that nearly hit him in the face. Several possessions later, Kansas got a wide-open 3-pointer from Christian Braun, the Jayhawks’ best available shooter, after Enaruna got beat off the dribble due to poor on-ball positioning.
In this clip, Enaruna starts as the on-ball defender. He played his man too high towards the middle, which allowed Jalen Wilson a free run towards the rim once Enaruna could not slide his feet fast enough to cut off the straight-line drive. Tyrese Hunter was forced to overhelp, leaving Izaiah Brockington on an island with two potential scorers to his side, resulting in a wide-open 3-pointer from an excellent shooter.
Immediately after Braun’s 3-pointer cleared the net, Otzelberger pointed down the bench towards Aljaz Kunc. The next sound Enaruna heard at a dead ball was the scorekeeper’s horn to signal a substitution.
I’m not putting these things on display to call Enaruna out as a problem for the team or anything like that because I stand right there with the fans believing he can give this team a much-needed spark offensively. This is just one of the numerous clips from throughout Big 12 play that I could’ve pointed to for this specific discussion.
The thought of Enaruna playing the high post role in the Cyclones’ much-maligned Horns set (otherwise known as the give the ball to George Conditt or Robert Jones at the 3-point line then cut off of it offense) is an intriguing one.
Enaruna is more dynamic with the basketball in his hands, has flashed the ability to be a capable shooter in that area, and is much more likely to attack his match-up off the bounce from that spot than either Conditt or Jones.
There are also some exciting possibilities Iowa State could consider with playing small and either going to four guards with Enaruna running as the five or playing Enaruna and Kunc together and trying to spread the floor out accordingly. That scenario requires Enaruna to be 100 percent locked into the role as Iowa State’s primary rebounder and rim protector.
This leads me to point back to the culture Otzelberger, and his staff, is trying to instill into this program. That culture is paramount over everything else as this program tries to dig itself out of the hole it was in at the end of the Steve Prohm era.
Enaruna will be a crucial piece of digging out of that hole. The sophomore’s skill set and tools are too good for him not to be a cornerstone piece of what this program looks like in the years ahead.
Taking advantage of that skill set will not come at the expense of what Otzelberger is trying to build defensively, though. All five guys on the floor must be locked into doing their jobs effectively every time their number is called.
This means Enaruna has to be doing his job as an on-ball defender, rebounder and potential rim protector when called.
That is the long answer to why Enaruna’s playing time has been as volatile as it has during league play — and I don’t expect it to change until the staff trusts him to be locked into his job from the moment every game tips off.
“When his minutes are higher, those things are standing out for our team,” Otzelberger said. “We’ve seen where they can be really good. Just like everybody, especially on our frontline, the minutes are tied to doing the physical things. That, for him specifically, involves guarding the dribble, getting the rebounds and protecting the rim.”