Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The One Game Rise Of NDSU's Marshall Bjorklund

In a conference as widespread as The Summit League, it's not exactly easy to gauge the various freshmen classes. For one, very few teams recruit in the same general area. And even if they do, these are mid-major teams that are more often than not looking for diamonds in the rough. With that said, both South Dakota State and North Dakota State made splashes with their 2010 recruiting classes that, at the very least, registered with hardcore Summit enthusiasts. SDSU's big "get" was the 6-foot-8 Jordan Dykstra, a state championship winner out of Iowa who had originally been an Iowa State commit. NDSU got a 6-foot-8 big of its own in Marshall Bjorkland, a post player who was one of five finalists for Mr. Basketball in Minnesota. Both players have had very fine first years thus far, and each has been a regular starter and contributor to his team. In fact, it wouldn't be blasphemy to say they will become dominant forwards in this league as they mature.

While it took Dykstra a bit longer to start producing for SDSU, Bjorklund burst on the scene in his very first game with a double-double at Oregon. It was a tremendous 18 point, 10 rebound performance that excited the NDSU fanbase, but after that seminal game, the big freshman failed to deliver as dominating a game in the non-conference season. In the early part of league play, Bjorklund was never a featured contributor but managed to chip in a few points and rebounds here and there. Then the Oakland game happened.

Against an Oakland frontline that features seniors Keith Benson and Will Hudson, Bjorklund exploded for 21 points and eight rebounds, five of which came on the offensive glass. He took a season high 14 shot attempts, all twos, a number that alone shows NDSU's game plan was to get the ball to Bjorklund in the paint. To box score scanners, that would be a fairly impressive feat. While there are some caveats to his performance, discussed shortly, it's impossible to take away from the night the Minnesota native had against Oakland. While OU won the game in the end, the Bjorklund tactic worked rather well for NDSU. And yet, in the team's next two games against SUU and UMKC, Bjorklund managed just four shot attempts. He got back on track against Centenary, but then he hasn't been in double digits in any of his last four outings. So what gives? Why was this freshman, as highly-touted as he may be, able to have a career night against Benson and Hudson? To see, let's look at his possessions.

This first clip features all of Bjorklund's touches in the first-half.

From the very start of the game, NDSU's game plan was to get Bjorklund touches in the paint. Oakland guarded the freshman straight up with Keith Benson, and on his first three possessions, this worked wonderfully for the Golden Grizzlies. Bjorklund had decent position but was never able to capitalize thanks to Benson's long arms. Finally, though, on his fourth touch (0:36) he gets Benson's to jump preemptively and draws the foul. Even if Bjorklund was bothered by Benson, the strategy worked in my mind by getting Benson an early foul. Still, Benson continues to hold his ground as the video goes on and even gets the best of Bjorklund at the 0:53 point when the referees whistle for a jump ball. That was a particularly good play for Oakland as Bjorklund was clearly doing his best to draw contact. In two of his next possessions, the freshman plays strong but fails to finish at the rim. Then, at the 1:28 mark, he draws a second foul on Benson. So even though Bjorklund went just 2-of-6 on his shot attempts in this half, he held his own and got the best possible outcome by drawing two fouls on Benson.

Now we turn to the second half where Bjorklund exploded for 15 points.

Within two minutes into the second half, Keith Benson is called for his third foul after Michael Tveidt drew a charge. At this point, Kito remains in the game. On the plus side, he was still able to make an impact on the offensive end, and his help-defense continued to be solid. However, he was not as effective in one-on-ones against Bjorklund, who took advantage of Benson's foul trouble. After a failed lay-up, Bjorklund goes strong toward the bucket at the 0:18 mark, which ignites a streak of inside buckets, largely on the block against Benson. One could infer that his confidence level grew because he started to put the ball in the basket, and as a result he finished the game with a number of strong moves to score. It was a smart move on NDSU's part as Benson wasn't attacking Bjorklund at full-steam so as to avoid picking up his fifth foul. And even when Will Hudson switched over to guard Bjorklund (1:05), the freshman still got the best of Oakland.

While his post moves are raw - at times, all that herky-jerky movement makes it look like he's just searching for a bailout - Bjorklund demonstrated a lot of potential in this match-up. I was most impressed with his motor and the fact that he had the mettle to mix it up in the paint against OU's formidable frontline. Occasional Grizzlies Gameplan contributor Ryan Pravato, who also writes for the NBA site Stacheketball and has a far better scouting eye than me, had favorable thoughts on Marshall's footwork but offers some other thoughts on his game as well:
He uses his pivot foot excellently in a couple of occasions and has been taught well in post play. I like how when he first catches the ball he pass fakes right away; he's always trying to keep the defense on their toes in a sense. In the second half, we have to remember that Benson is playing hesitantly because of foul trouble and is less willing to bite on the pump fakes. Marshall several times does a great job of initiating contact with his defender. It makes it tough for the defender because it throws them off balance, and he is acting like his own personal shield in that way too.
However, he gets into trouble by playing smaller than his 6-foot-8 frame suggests. After a rebound he sometimes brings the ball down around his midsection instead of keeping it high and maybe having a window of opportunity to put it back up before the defender can react. And he bends down a little excessively while he's making his moves. That's good, on the one hand, because it keeps the ball safer and he can use his strength, yet, it can put him in a bubble where he's playing like he's a 6-foot-3 guy in the post. Overall, his quick gyrations in the paint are part inexperience and part his knowledge of good footwork, and his patience will come along eventually for him. He knows how to play the post for the most part and has a strong upside in The Summit League.
On an individual level, Bjorklund showed that he had the hustle and physical wherewithal to play tough against Oakland's experienced frontline. He struggled early, but he ultimately helped himself by playing to draw contact on the block. Consequently, Keith Benson got into some foul trouble, and Bjorklund did his best to take advantage of that on the offensive end of the floor where he ended up having a career night. For his part, Benson still had a couple of clutch plays toward the end of the game that allowed Oakland to retain the lead (and he was fouled by Bjorklund on both big plays), which is precisely why a foul-hindered Benson is better than no Benson. On Thursday night, I will be watching closely to see what kind of game plan NDSU uses this time around. Bjorklund has all but disappeared from the Bison offensive strategy in recent weeks despite the fact that he has shown he can do some work in the post.

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