Heading into the season, one of Harvard’s biggest strengths — one of the main reasons the Crimson was expected to dominate the Ivy League and perhaps break into the Top 25 — was its frontcourt depth. Between Kyle Casey, Steve Moundou-Missi, Kenyatta Smith, Zena Edosomwan and Jonah Travis, Harvard’s forward rotation resembled that of a solid power-conference team.
Barely, if ever, mentioned in that discussion was sophomore Evan Cummins. The Western Massachusetts native played sparingly as a rookie, seeing a total of 16 minutes in 2012-13, and with Casey and Edosomwan adding to an already deep forward rotation, it didn’t seem likely that Cummins would make an impact this season. But in a competitive game at Northeastern on Wednesday night, with Smith hurt, Edosomwan thus far ineffective and Casey and Moundou-Missi in foul trouble, Cummins played 21 minutes against one of the region’s best mid-major frontcourts.
He made the most of them, scoring 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting, grabbing six rebounds and swatting two shots. Harvard outscored Northeastern by 12 points in Cummins’ 21 minutes, more than the final 72-64 margin of victory.
“I’ve known Evan since high school, and I think he’s an incredibly skilled player,” Casey said. “His energy, his help-side defense, his ability to block shots, and the way he’s attacking the rim now is really good for us … What Evan can do for us just brings another dimension for our team.”
Wednesday’s performance didn’t come entirely out of nowhere — the sophomore played well in Saturday night’s blowout of TCU, with 10 points and five rebounds in 15 minutes. Most impressive was his six blocks against the Horned Frogs in such limited playing time; most came with the game well in hand, but six blocks in 15 minutes is difficult under any circumstances, and he’d stuffed three shots in his 16 minutes as a freshman.
Cummins “only” had two blocks in 20 minutes on Wednesday, but they were both impressive. In the first half, he leapt at the rim to redirect a Zach Stahl floater from high in the air. And in the final minute, the forward punctuated Harvard’s victory by stuffing a Zach Eatherton attempt beyond the baseline and past the cheerleaders.
Even when not blocking shots, Cummins was an asset for the Crimson on defense. The Huskies altered a couple shot attempts in the second half when he was waiting in the lane, and with Cummins on the court, Northeastern scored just 31 points on 36 possessions — compared to 33 points on 27 possessions without him.
“He played well for us in Alaska. It’s nice as a coach when you see kids make the breakthrough — you can see the confidence growing,” coach Tommy Amaker said. “He’s bouncy, he’s active, blocking shots, and I think he has a really good feel for the things we want to do on the offensive end.”
Cummins isn’t likely to be a focal point of Harvard’s offense, tasked with generating his own shot with frequent post-ups or face-up isolations, but he was productive on Wednesday off of teammates’ passes and his own offensive rebounds. He was also effective in the pick-and-roll with Siyani Chambers or Wesley Saunders handling the ball; with three minutes left and the shot clock winding down, a Cummins screen helped Chambers leave two defenders in his dust for a back-breaking layup.
“Man, he just knows the game. He’s a really skilled big man, and we’ve gotten a lot of chemistry playing together in practice,” said Saunders. “He’s looking to set picks for me, and I think we worked well together tonight.”
Player comparisons based off of 50 minutes’ worth of data are less than meaningless, but it’s still fun that Cummins’ five most comparable players entering Wednesday’s game, per Ken Pomeroy, included former Celtics draft pick Fab Melo. There’s a player closer to home that might make for a better comp, however. Another Harvard forward who hardly played as a freshman, but broke out in a part-time role as a sophomore with a crazy block rate? Kenyatta Smith. So if Smith’s injury keeps him out for even more of this season, Harvard just might have found his replacement.