The Illinois transfer could be one of the Horizon League’s new stars
Te’Jon Lucas is transferring to Milwaukee with a profile that isn’t particularly common for a Horizon League player. He was a borderline four-star recruit who was comfortably in Illinois’ rotation before leaving the team because he wanted to have a bigger role. In many ways, his story is very similar to former four-star Marquette recruit and 2019 First Team All-Horizon League performer Sandy Cohen III of Green Bay. Is Lucas capable of having the type of impact at Milwaukee that Cohen did for the Panthers’ arch-rival?
Right off the bat, there are a number of similarities to their pre-Horizon League careers that warrant a comparison. Both players came into college highly ranked, committed to high-profile Power Conference schools where they were spot starters before transferring back home for their junior and senior seasons. 6-foot-6 wing Cohen played in the Big East at Marquette after his high school career in Seymour, WI while the 6-foot-2 point guard Lucas played for Illinois before returning to his hometown.
Obviously this isn’t meant to be a direct comparison of their play styles, nor is it a suggestion that pure point guard Lucas will lead Milwaukee in blocks or rebounds. Instead, it’s a comparison of what both players did before coming to the Horizon League and whether Lucas could be the All-League go-to guy for Milwaukee that Cohen was for Green Bay.
Lucas and Cohen did share some statistical similarities at their previous schools, though the way they accumulated those statistics was quite different. Cohen was a more reliable three-point shooter and rebounder while Lucas used the athleticism that drew Big Ten interest to attack the basket for his points and displayed better ball handling and passing skills.
Here’s a look at Cohen’s stats at the end of his time at Marquette:
And here’s what Lucas did at Illinois:
All things being equal, Lucas’ performance at Illinois was arguably better than Cohen’s at Marquette. He was about as productive scoring the ball despite doing it in a different way. Additionally, he led Illinois in assists both seasons there and finished second in steals as a sophomore.
With that said, there are several differences that need to be considered when comparing Lucas to Cohen pre-Horizon League. During his sophomore year, Cohen was a part of a 20-win team that finished 8-10 in Big East play, comfortably out of the conference’s basement. Illinois went 14-18 with a 4-14 Big 10 record during Lucas’ sophomore year, finishing a game out of last place in the conference. The statistical similarities may need some adjustment to account for Cohen being a part of a better team.
A point in Lucas’ favor is that he was competing with multiple players that offered stiffer competition for his role than what Cohen encountered. Illinois landed several highly-touted ball handlers heading into Lucas’ final year with the team. Four-stars Trent Frasier, Mark Smith and Da’Monta Williams plus Wright State graduate transfer Mark Alstork joined the Illini during Lucas’ final season there and created an immensely crowded backcourt. While Buzz Williams did use 3-guard lineups, Cohen’s only competition for his role as a true wing was freshman Haanif Cheetham. Despite seemingly facing more competition at his position, Lucas made 34 starts in 60 games compared to Cohen’s 22 starts in 66 games.
Another factor that seems likely to give Lucas an advantage over Cohen in his transition to the Horizon League is that he will be joining Milwaukee at the start of the season after taking a full year off to learn the team’s system. Cohen announced his transfer from Marquette in November of 2016 and chose Green Bay in December. Because he left Marquette after just three games, he was able to obtain a waiver from the NCAA for an additional year of eligibility and opted to play the second half of the 2018 season. He played in just 22 games as a junior because of his decision not to redshirt. Significant adjustments had to be made to playing time and player roles when Cohen became eligible, while those adjustments will be worked out for Lucas in preparation for this season.
Scheme could end up being a key factor in whether Te’Jon Lucas is able to have the impact that Sandy Cohen had at Green Bay. The Phoenix were among the fastest teams in the nation. Aside from the roughly 14 minutes per night that 6-foot-8 Manny Patterson played, the team’s whole rotation consisted of players 6-foot-6 and under — roughly the same size as Cohen. Between the pace lending itself to more raw counting stats and the team’s lack of height enabling Cohen to get rebounds and blocks he probably couldn’t on a roster with true post players, Green Bay’s scheme allowed Sandy Cohen to absolutely stuff the stat sheet. He finished the year leading the team in points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals. Despite being Milwaukee’s primary ball handler and having a talented shooter in Darius Roy next to him to convert assists, Lucas is a longshot to lead the Panthers in every meaningful category.
Still, Milwaukee fans should feel very encouraged about Lucas’ arrival given what Cohen was able to achieve. Cohen didn’t stand out in any particular area at Marquette, but turned himself from a Big East Jack of All Trades to a Horizon League King of All Trades. It wouldn’t be at all surprising for Lucas to see a similar but less balanced jump; with his athleticism, passing and ball handling skills standing out more than other abilities. Lucas should lead the team in assists and steals, and could lead the team in scoring unless allowing Darius Roy to shift focus from distributing to scoring boosts his team-leading 15.8 points per game from 2018. As a 6-foot-2 athlete, Lucas could also prove very helpful in improving Milwaukee’s perimeter defense, which has been a serious problem during Pat Baldwin’s tenure.
The final — and perhaps most important — question to consider when comparing Sandy Cohen III and Te’Jon Lucas is this: even if Lucas does have a Sandy Cohen-like impact for Milwaukee, will it matter? During his first season with the Phoenix, Cohen was only able to help Green Bay to a 7-11 record in Horizon League play and a 7-seed in the league tournament. While Lucas will have the entire non-conference schedule to warm up, Milwaukee is coming off of a 4-14 Horizon League campaign and adding a star point guard does little to resolve the questions in the post. Unless Harrison Henderson, Amir Allen or Will Sessoms steps up and becomes a significant factor, even a First Team All-Horizon League Te’Jon Lucas may not be enough to lift Milwaukee’s ceiling above the bottom half of the league.