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What Might Have Been: Arnett Moultrie's Best Basketball Won't Be Played in El Paso

Arnett Moultrie's career at UTEP can best be summed up in one word:  Potential. In fact, here's what ex-Miner coach Tony Barbee said about Moultrie when he signed his letter of intent in November 2007.

"Arnett just turned 17 this month, so he is a really young player," Raleigh Egypt head coach Jimmy Adams said. "He is already 6-11, so physically he's not as mature as he's going to be in the next two or three years. I think you're going to really see him blossom. UTEP fans will enjoy watching him develop. He's starting to realize some things about his size and ability to play above the rim. He has really improved just in the few months we've had him [at Raleigh Egypt High School]. I think he'll continue to improve as a senior, and his best basketball is ahead of him at the college level (emphasis added."

From the very beginning, Miner fans were told about Arnett's 6'11 frame and unlimited upside. He's "long" enough to make Jay Bilas faint.  We were told about his frame as well as his guard like ball handling skills.  There's no doubt that his unique combination of size and ball handling justified the amount of talk about his upside.   His measurables alone might be enough to help him land in the second round of the NBA Draft.  The question is, can Arnett actually play basketball?  Will the potential ever be realized in the form of a complete basketball player?

The 2008 Season.  Glimpses:  No More, No Less

During his freshman campaign, Miner fans were delighted by Arnett's hustle on defense and ability to play opportunistic basketball.  He led UTEP in rebounds (8.2 rpg) and blocks (0.9 bpg). One of the biggest problems Arnett faced, throughout his career in El Paso, was finding his role in Tony Barbee's dribble/drive offense.  Given his size and leaping ability, it seemed obvious that he should play inside.  However, his lack of strength at that point, and above average ball handling for his size, often forced Tony Barbee to play him on the wing.  He was too good an athlete not to start, but wasn't a true guard or a true center.  The problem Arnett playing outside was that he's never been a great outside shooter.  Arnett shot just 28% from the three point line and below 54% from the free throw line in 2008.

When he played inside, he was far more effective on offense.  He'd use his athleticism to grab offensive rebounds that would turn into high percentage shots.  Despite his struggles from the outside, these opportunities allowed him to shoot over 50% from the field overall. 

On defense, he got by on raw athleticism and size.  On offense, he struggled to find his role.  UTEP's 1-2 punch of Stephon Jackson (24.5 ppg) and Randy Culpepper (16.5 ppg) limited Moultrie's attempts and ability to develop on the wing.  What he did do, was hustle, run the court, and make the most of second chance opportunities. His potential was promising enough to land him a tryout for the 2009 Team USA U19 squad. 

Competing with Team USA in the FIBA Championships, we again were reminded of his potential.  In the Gold Medal game against Greece, Moultrie led the team with 9 rebounds and scored 10 points.

The 2009 Season:  The Outside Looking In

Fresh off of a solid showing with Team USA, Moultrie returned to El Paso amidst high expectations.  So, why didn't his numbers take off in year two?  Easy.  Derrick Caracter became eligible for Game 6 against New Mexico State.  Before Caracter arrived, Moultrie was averaging 14 points per game and 7 boards.  He was shooting a scorching 56% from the field.  He only attempted 6 three-pointers in those games.  His 2009 campaign started with a bang.  Then, DC came into the picture.

Derrick Caracter was a true center.  UTEP could use him in the post in a way that Tony Barbee had never been able to use a big man before.  Despite his weight, Caracter possessed above average footwork on offense and Tony Barbee took advantage of it.  With Randy Culpepper embarking on a C-USA MVP season, UTEP developed a 1-2 punch that had many picking them to knock off Gordon Hayward and Butler in the NCAA Tournament.

The offense never ran through Arnett.  He, again, was relegated to an occasional open jump shot, fast break, and second chance opportunities.  When called upon, he showed the ability to step up and become a primary scorer (see UTEP's throttling of league favorite Tulsa in the C-USA Tournament where Moultrie shot 8/10 with 18 points).  The problem was that the emergence of Derrick Caracter gave him very few chances to be truly active on offense.  He was seemingly always stuck on the wing with no prospect at getting a shot through the dribble drive weave.  When he got the ball, he never really showed the ability to create his own shot off the dribble.  To me, it seemed, Arnett was always a 4 or 5 playing the 3.

There were stretches of games where Moultrie, statistically, seemed to vanish from the team.  In late February and early March, Arnett had a 5 game stretch, starting with the road win at USM and ending with the home win against UCF,  where he averaged about 5 points a game and under 2 rebounds in about 26 minutes of play.  The thing is, UTEP won all those games and then some.   As UTEP peaked late in the season, Arnett took a back seat on offense and let Culpepper & Caracter earn all the accolades.

Consequently, Moultrie's numbers didn't improve in his second season.  He averaged 9.8 points per game, up from 8.8, but his rebounds went down from 8.2 to 6.7.  His field goal percentage dropped from 50% to 47.5% with a similar number of attempts.  Many Miner fans viewed his sophomore campaign as a failure.  A sophomore slump.  I didn't.  I thought he was an incredible asset.

There's no way UTEP would have won the 2010 C-USA regular season title without him.  In order for the team to be as efficient as possible, he had to accept a small role on offense.  He never, publicly, complained.  He never showed ego at the games.  He showed up, worked hard on defense, and took shots when they came to him.  He didn't try to take games over, out of frustration, but rather he accepted his role as the teams third best scoring option and consequently UTEP won a lot of ball games. He's a true team player.

The Prospect(or)

Miner fans have never seen Arnett Moultrie be the star of the team.  He's never been the team's focal point on offense.  Actually, he's never been the teams second scoring option.  What we've seen, again, is potential.  We see a guy that's as athletic as any 6'11 player in college basketball who can score when he has to and be aggressive on defense.  Can he play small forward in the NBA?  Maybe.  He has good quickness for his size but he's not quick enough to play NBA guards on defense.  Can he play in the post?  Yes, I think he can as along as he makes power forward his primary position and sticks to it.  He can't shoot three pointers but he shouldn't have to. He has a nice shot from 15-18 feet.  

In order for him to succeed, he has to figure out if he wants to commit to being a post player or wing.  He's proven that he can't be both.  If he wants to play outside, he needs to improve his perimeter defense and shooting.  If he plays inside, he has to add muscle to his frame and develop some post moves.  His athleticism won't carry him at the next level.  At UTEP, Arnett was very rarely given the ball in the post.  That just wasn't his game, so he'll have to work to develop a low post scoring skill set.   I'm anxious to hear where NBA scouts project him to play.  I'm curious to see if he can finally turn all that potential into an all around basketball player.  I still believe, as Tony Barbee did in 2007, that his best basketball is ahead of him.

The Wake

UTEP fans undoubtedly expected the Miners to compete with Memphis for the C-USA title next season.  Memphis is bringing in the nation's #1 recruiting class but have lost last year's star Elliot Williams to the NBA Draft (Roburt Sallie may be next).  With Derrick Caracter also declaring, UTEP's front court has taken some major hits. Even so, with Tim Floyd bringing in some surprising recruits, and with Claude Britten and Jeremy Williams coming back, the Miners should still be formidable in the post.  UTEP also brings in 6'11 center John Bohannon from Lancaster High.  It's a shame.  Next year, Arnett finally would have been a central figure in the teams offense.  Randy and him could have formed UTEP's 1-2 punch.  Now, we'll have to wait and see how the new guys come look in the fall.  One things for sure, the Miners are a weaker team now than they were a week ago.