When Jarrey Foster makes his season debut Tuesday night, it won’t be for a stacked SMU team in front of a packed Moody Coliseum crowd like he’s used to.
These Mustangs are 3-3 after splitting games with Bradley and Wright State in Cancún. They have lapses on defense and dry stretches on offense; they have never needed a jolt more than they do now.
But how much will Foster help?
The senior swingman is coming off a torn ACL that he suffered last January in a win over Wichita State. He is battle tested, starting on the team two years ago that made the NCAA Tournament, but was more of a role player for that squad. Where he’s always had a profound impact is defense.
Foster is a versatile defender that can cover multiple positions. His quick feet make him ample on the perimeter, while his leaping ability and strength allow him to jostle with big men. Last year, he held his own against DeAndre Ayton, who is currently averaging 16.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game for the Phoenix Suns after being selected first in the NBA draft.
Right now, SMU is stocked with length and athleticism but is syphoning points to inferior opponents. The Mustangs have given up at least 75 points in each of their last three games to Lipscomb, Bradley and Wright State.
Their issue on that end is not singular. In SMU’s loss to Southern Miss, spotty perimeter defense allowed the Golden Eagles to rain in 13 3-pointers. Bradley only made five 3s, but brutalized the Mustangs inside for 36 points in the paint.
At the least, Foster will give Tim Jankovich a solid defender to throw at the opponent’s best perimeter scorer. While he can help inside, his 6-6 frame is more suited to cover ball-handlers on the wing than back-to-the-basket bruisers.
Foster’s tools will be useful. Jankovich can roll out a lineup with Jimmy Whitt, Nat Dixon, Isiaha Mike and Foster, along with Ethan Chargois. Four of those defenders possess the combination of quickness and strength to defend multiple positions, so SMU will be able to switch on screens and make it tough for its opponent to generate favorable matchups.
On paper, Foster’s return will boost SMU’s defense. But right now, the defense is more of an overall team issue than a unit that is one player short. To get to where it needs to be, SMU needs an injection of fervency on that end; a mandate that it won’t give up loose balls and won’t allow shooters to drift open. SMU will have to help and recover against post brutes, and stick to perimeter snipers. Foster’s physical gifts and experience will help with that, but the team needs to buy in as a whole to curtail its issues.
On offense, SMU gives heavy minutes to two offensive players who rarely shoot in Dixon and Mike, so an assertive mindet from Foster would go a long way. Right now, the offense is far too reliant on Jahmal McMurray and Chargois’ streaky shooting. When those two are having an off night, SMU doesn’t have other options to turn to. Because of this, if Foster can add a halfcourt, off the dribble dimension to his game, he can be of major assistance.
But that’s not a given. While he’s been at SMU, Foster has always had a star to feed off of. Whether it was Shake Milton, Nic Moore or Semi Ojeleye, there was always someone more qualified to do the heavy lifting on that end. Foster’s impact came more from canning jumpshots off of a pass or getting out and running in transition for a dunk, than creating his own shot off of an isolation or pick and roll.
However, those are skills he can work on while rehabbing his knee. Foster has been working on his handle while sitting out, and coming back from a lower body injury gives players the chance to work on their shot mechanics.
The other big factor in his return is whether his athleticism will still be there. Foster will likely be on a minutes restriction for now, and he’ll have to feel his way back into the games. Don’t expect full blown Jarrey Foster from day one. Foster’s game was predicated around high-flying dunks and blocks, as well as out-running opponents in transition. His repaired knee will have to support all that activity, and he’ll have to return the same fearless mindset to return to that level.
In addition, he’ll be joining a team that needs him badly, and needs an evolved version of what he was before the injury. Foster will help SMU on both ends, but this team is likely more than just one player away, even if that player is a future NBA Draft pick.