2017 Iowa Basketball Season in Review: Cordell Pemsl

By Matthew Lundeen on April 20, 2017 at 8:13 am
Cordell Pemsl posting up against Nebraska.

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports


Along with Jordan Bohannon, Cordell Pemsl was the other huge surprise of the 2017 season.

Cordell Pemsl

Bio: Freshman F, 6'8", 249 lbs. (Dubuque, Iowa)
2017 Season: 34 Games Played, 14 Starts, 19.3 MPG, 8.9 PPG, 5.0 RPG

Season in Review

Top 5 Games by Opponent Adjusted Game Score Per Minute
  • 1) vs. Savannah State 1.11 -- 18 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists in 18 minutes 
  • 2) vs. Stetson 1.00 -- 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 22 minutes
  • 3) at Notre Dame 0.94 -- 18 points, 2 rebounds, and 3 assists in 23 minutes
  • 4) at Michigan State 0.83 -- 10 points and 7 rebounds in 17 minutes
  • 5) at Rutgers 0.815 -- 15 points and 7 rebounds in 19 minutes
Bottom 5 Games by Opponent Adjusted Game Score Per Minute
  • 1) vs. UTRGV -0.34 -- 1 point, 1 rebound, 1 turnover, and 1 foul in 6 minutes
  • 2) at Northwestern -0.07 -- 2 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 turnovers in 13 minutes
  • 3) vs. Seton Hall -0.04 -- 2 points, 5 rebounds, 2 turnovers, and 1 foul in 6 minutes
  • 4) vs. Purdue 0.19 -- 4 points, 8 rebounds, 1 turnover, and 3 fouls in 20 minutes
  • 5) at Nebraska 0.215 -- 10 points, 6 rebounds, 4 turnovers, and 2 fouls in 34 minutes

Continuing with the "surprising" theme I've been using lately (because I'm real creative that way), I think it's pretty safe to say that Cordell Pemsl was the other big surprise this season. Pemsl -- a former three star recruit from Dubuque, who had committed to Iowa as a sophomore in high school, and had multiple knee injuries during that time -- was a bit of an unknown heading into the season. We knew that he was a post player, but we had been told that he had a very versatile game for a big man. But while the 6'8" part of him seemed to fit the versatile profile, the 250 lbs part didn't. So how good could a vertically undersized post player, who weighs that much, and has a history of knee injuries possibly be? Especially as a freshman? 

Well, as it turns out, pretty damn good. 

While Tyler Cook was all the rage entering into November, Cordell Pemsl turned heads in the opener against Kennesaw State, scoring 10 points and grabbing six rebounds in 16 minutes, while showing off a truly advanced back-to-the-basket game. Pemsl didn't stop there, either. In the next game against Savannah State, he had his best game of the season by adjusted game score per minute, putting up 18 points, hauling in nine rebounds, and dishing out three assists in 18 minutes on the court. Not only did he continue to show an old man game so refined that you normally only see it when you play against that 45-year old man at the local YMCA, but the three assists showed off Pemsl's natural feel for the game, and his willingness to get others involved. 

He cooled off over the next couple of games, but once Tyler Cook went down to an injury, Cordell entered the starting lineup and stepped up in a big way for the Iowa offense. In the seven games without Cook, Pemsl scored double figures in five of those games. During that time, Pemsl really proved that he belonged when he went toe-to-toe, exchanging baskets and trash talk with Notre Dame's Bonzie Colson. 

He also put up a career-high in 21 points in the very next game against Stetson. And then he scored 11 points in the upset of Iowa State, continuing to show a knack for posting guys up immediately off the break.

Once Cook returned, Pemsl stuck in the starting lineup and the results were mixed. In the exquisite pick and roll game at home against Purdue, Cook and Pemsl could be seen making beautiful passes to each other. 

Other times, it looked like the two tended to crowd each other out on offense, as they both looked to occupy the middle of the floor. During this time, Pemsl started to slump, as his conversion rate on two-pointers dropped from 70% in non-conference play to 46% and his turnover rate had also jumped through his first eight Big Ten games. Iowa also went through a three-game losing streak, and Fran eventually decided to pull him out of the starting lineup and use he and Cook more interchangeably. 

Pemsl seemed to adapt to the change well, and even with reduced minutes he regained quite a bit of his productivity. While he still had the occasional turnover too often and he struggled to stay out of foul trouble, his two-pointers started falling at a higher clip (he finished Big Ten play shooting 55% on them, after starting off at 46% in those first eight games) and he continued to show that he was a willing and able passer. 

From the Ohio State game on, Pemsl scored 10+ points in five of his last 13 games, including scoring nine points twice during that stretch. He also logged the first double-double of his career in the Big Ten Tournament loss to Indiana. He wasn't so great in the NIT, but that shouldn't overshadow an outstanding freshman campaign. With Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook already putting up huge seasons, Pemsl's was the cherry on top of the freshman sundae. 

Key Numbers

#84 -- Cordell Pemsl's national ranking among qualified players (per Kenpom) in two-point field goal percentage. He made 62% of his two-point attempts on the season, which was third-best in the Big Ten behind only two of Michigan's bigs, Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson. And while that number dropped to a still respectable 55% in Big Ten play -- that was hampered by the fact that he was shooting just 46% over his first eight Big Ten games -- he actually finished the season making 60% over his final 13 games.

61.7% --  As a result of his efficiency inside the arc (mostly at the rim, where he took 73% of his shots this past season), Pemsl led the team with a 61.7% eFG%.

5.7 -- The number of fouls per 40 minutes that Pemsl drew this season, which ranked 154th in the country, according to Kenpom. Pemsl, like Cook and Ahmad Wagner, was outstanding at initiating contact this season. When you compare the number of free throws he attempted to the number of field goals he attempted, his free throw rate was actually second on the team, behind only Wagner. Pemsl was only held back by the fact that he made just 58% of his free ones this season. That said, he actually shot 66% from the stripe in Big Ten play, so he definitely got better as the season went on.

5.1 -- On the other end of the court, unfortunately, Pemsl struggled to defend without getting whistled for a foul in his own right. And those 5.1 fouls called per 40 minutes certainly kept him from seeing more playing time on certain nights. It wasn't the worst mark on the team (Wagner finished at 5.2 and Kriener was at 6.6), but it's still something for him to improve upon next season.

13.8% -- Pemsl was also the best rebounder on Iowa's roster this season, with the caveat that we stick to people who played more than 10 minutes per game. Ryan Kriener's 13.9% slightly edges Pemsl's 13.8% total rebound percentage, but Pemsl played a little more than double Kriener's minutes, so his feat seems a little more impressive. 

0.144 -- Advanced stats really love Cordell Pemsl, and win shares are no different. Pemsl finished fourth on the team in win shares with 2.4 this season, but when you adjust for his playing time (using win shares per 40 minutes) he finished third on the team behind only Peter Jok and Nicholas Baer in the amount of value that he provided for Iowa this season. 

0.9 -- And the amount of value that Pemsl provided wasn't just on offense, either. 1.4 of his total win shares did come on the offensive end, but 0.9 came on the defensive side of the ball. While Pemsl wasn't a perfect defender, when you look at players who played more than 10 minutes per game, he was Iowa's #1 defensive rebounder, #2 shot-blocker, and he finished #4 on the team in steals. 

Next Year

Similar to Cook, Pemsl's playing time is pretty safe heading into next season. The only real unknowns are if he will start or if his playing time will move much at all, thanks to the plethora of big men that the Hawkeyes have on next year's roster. 

Personally, my way too early prediction is that Pemsl will come off the bench next season, as I think Fran may insert Luka Garza into the starting lineup in hopes that he becomes a lane-clogger and rim-protector. Similar to the way Nicholas Baer was handled this year, Fran may simply just love having a guy like Pemsl on the bench who can come into the game and make a real impact. It's no slight to Pemsl. Rather, Iowa just looks to be that deep that they can afford the luxury of starting him on the bench. 

That being said, there are certainly arguments to start Cordell Pemsl. After all, basically any statistic that you look at, Pemsl outperformed Tyler Cook this season, and Cook had one of the better freshman campaigns that Iowa has had in recent memory. Cook's per game stats look a little better because he played more minutes per game, but Pemsl was one of the top three players on this year's team when you look at per possession and per 40 minute stats. That's not to start a fight over who is better and whatnot. It's just to make the case that Pemsl could start and it would be totally justifiable, or he could come off the bench and be Iowa's next Sixth Man of the Year. 

As for what we need to see next year, it basically boils down to cutting down on fouls and turnovers, and getting better at the free throw line. Pemsl's turnover rate wasn't atrocious, but it was still worse than average and it got worse in conference play. Turnovers tend to be something that decrease with experience, so I'm sure we will see at least a little improvement in that next season. Fouling is also something that tends to go down with experience, although it is something that big men can struggle with for a few years. Hopefully it will get better next year, though. The same goes for free throws. Pemsl doesn't look overly uncomfortable at the free throw line, and the fact that he was able to sink two-thirds of his free throws in conference play was a good sign that he should get better there over the next few years. 

Additionally, Pemsl could also stand to develop a jump shot. It's not a must-have, since his game around the rim is so good, but it would certainly improve his offensive versatility. If he's playing at the five spot, it's not a huge deal, but if he is on the court as a four with someone like Garza it could be an issue if they both want to settle around the basket. That said, Garza and a number of Iowa's bigs have capable jump shots or they at least have the ability to catch the ball away from the paint and attack off the dribble. Again, it's not a necessity for Pemsl, but it would be nice.

Still, Pemsl already has an outstanding skillset for a big man, and one that sometimes takes a few years of college coaching to develop. Pairing terrific footwork with an uncanny ability to finish at the rim is just not something you see everyday from first-year players. I mean, look at this:

And the wonderful thing about Pemsl, is that he knows what he is good at and he sticks to it. He knows he doesn't have a good jump shot, so doesn't even mess around with that. When Iowa gets out on the break, time and time again, the first thing he does is run to the basket and look to pin his man on the block.

And furthermore, Pemsl is different than many freshmen in the fact that he doesn't force the issue. If he doesn't think he has anything on the block, he is more than comfortable setting his teammates up for good looks.

Pemsl has a game that is way ahead of his age, and that's a credit to Fran McCaffery for seeing something in Pemsl and sticking with him through the injuries. Fran has a history of getting the most out of three star recruits, but he hit the jackpot with Bohannon and Pemsl. Add the freak of nature that is Tyler Cook, and Iowa has quite the core of young players to build around. I've already said this multiple times by now, but the future of Iowa basketball looks bright. And Cordell Pemsl is one of the reasons why. 

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