Vermont basketball bid farewell to its top two stars. Now, Dylan Penn — a transfer with an unorthodox offensive game — arrives in Burlington.
Vermont basketball has been the class of the America East for the last several seasons. Head coach John Becker holds an .841 winning percentage in conference play over 11 years, winning the league’s regular-season title seven times during that stretch.
At least of late, Vermont’s run of dominance has always featured a star at the forefront. The program is responsible for the last six America East Player of the Year awards, with three players winning two apiece. Ryan Davis, the latest two-time winner, recently graduated, and so did fellow first team all-conference selection Ben Shungu.
The Catamounts will feature several experienced pieces this season, including Finn Sullivan and Robin Duncan. Aaron Deloney was also an elite per-minute scorer as the America East’s Sixth Man of the Year winner last season. Yet, Vermont basketball finds itself in somewhat uncharted territory without a proven star returning to Burlington.
The key word there, however, is “returning.” Instead, the star power will come from a new face. Bellarmine transfer Dylan Penn appears poised to fill the go-to role for the Catamounts following back-to-back All-ASUN campaigns.
The 6-3 guard joins Vermont with a proven track record of being an elite offensive weapon. Penn most recently averaged 16.6 points and 5.0 assists per game while shooting 53.5 percent on 2-pointers and guiding Bellarmine to an excellent season. He was exceptional in the ASUN Tournament, too, netting 58 points across three games en route to winning the tournament’s MVP award. Despite bringing home the ASUN Tournament title, the Knights were ineligible for the NCAA Tournament due to transition rules.
With his sights set on playing on college sports’ biggest stage this season, Penn chose Vermont over Missouri, VCU, Purdue and many others. With the Catamounts, not only could he reach that goal of the Big Dance, but Penn also has the potential to be the program’s seventh consecutive Player of the Year.
Penn is a relentless, aggressive finisher
Dylan Penn is not the typical 6-3 guard. While many backcourt stars thrive because of their shooting, Synergy rated Penn as a “below average” jump shooter last season after he hit just 24.2 percent of his 62 3-point attempts. That did not stop him from finishing third in the ASUN in scoring, though.
Penn is as aggressive as any guard in the country when it comes to attacking the basket. Nearly 80 percent of his half-court shooting possessions last season were deemed runners, post-ups, or around the basket. Diving deeper into his play types, Penn attempted 68 shots out of isolation sets last season — 66 of them came after drives.
His overall isolation efficiency was also excellent. He graded in the 85th percentile of derived isolation offense, creating scores on nearly half of his 112 isolation possessions that ended in shot attempts. He took care of the ball well in the situations, committing turnovers only 8.5 percent of the time.
Penn rarely settles in the half-court, and his relentless attacking leads to quality offense. He is difficult to stop when he gets downhill, as evidenced by his shooting 53.9 percent on 2-point attempts over the past two years.
“[Penn] has an awkward, in-between game. It’s so fun to watch. He’s got a really good handle, he’s really quick, and he’s really smart. He has a finishing package that might be the best I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t seem to miss inside the paint, which goes all the way out to the free throw line.”—Vermont basketball head coach John Becker
Unorthodox? Yes. Effective? Wildly.
A major factor in Penn’s success as a scorer is his creativity around the basket. He is not simply a straight-line driver; instead, he is extremely patient in the paint and exhibits tremendous footwork. As a result, Bellarmine posted him often last season. Penn was effective in such situations, generating steady scores in the 61st percentile for derived efficiency, per Synergy.
Penn’s ability to create out of the post is also important, particularly at Vermont.
“We try to get two guys on the ball and then play against a scrambling defense,” said Becker. “Penn will be able to do that, and we will play off his pass and keep the ball ahead of the defense. We’ll space him with shooters and cutters and keep constant movement around his post-ups.” Bellarmine teammates shot 50 percent off Penn’s passes out of post-up double teams last season.
Penn boasts a deft touch in the paint, particularly evident with his barrage of floaters and push shots in the lane. He can use either hand effectively and graded in the 86th percentile on runners after hitting 51 on the year. Synergy also rated him “very good” on around-the-basket shots that were not derived from post-ups. Suffice it to say, he plays through contact extremely well.
Efficiency is a staple of Vermont basketball
The midrange game in college basketball has gradually disappeared in the modern era. Analytics favor layups or 3-pointers, and Becker is no different in prioritizing those looks. “I’m big on shot quality and taking great, open shots,” he says.
Vermont’s statistical profile backs up his words; the team attempted nearly 80 percent of its shots at the rim or from three last season. Meanwhile, Penn attempted 232 2-point shots away from the rim last season, per Hoop-Math. Vermont, as a team, only attempted 302.
When it comes to adding a player that doesn’t quite fit the mold, Becker admits, “Penn’s work inside is something that I will have to swallow my whistle on. He’s got the ability to make tough, contested shots. I want him to be aggressive and taking those shots — because he can make them.”
In short, Vermont is not going to take Penn away from his strength. He is the type of scorer who can be a difficult matchup. Analytically-inclined defenses want to force teams into the intermediate area, and that is where Penn makes his mark. He turns the inefficient area for most teams into a zone of efficiency for his team. On 2-point shots away from the rim, Penn hit a remarkable 48.5 percent last year, and he also creates opportunities for others once inside the paint.
Like Bellarmine, Vermont ranked in the bottom half of the country in tempo last season. Penn is very quick, but he graded out better in the half-court offense than in transition last season, as compared to his peers. His patient offensive game should fit well within the Catamounts’ tempo, and as a result, his efficiency should continue.
Vermont’s spacing around Penn
Dylan Penn is an outstanding basketball player. His unorthodox style, though, requires a certain roster construction around him to unlock a team’s full potential. Most notably, off-ball spacers and movers will be extremely important for Vermont his season. Providing spacing will be critical if Penn is to have room to operate, and his ability to hit cutters can create easy buckets.
Penn dished out 5.0 assists per game last season, and Becker called him “an incredible passer.” His creation is an excellent asset, and Vermont will use his playmaking abilities in various ways alongside returning guard Finn Sullivan. The two veterans will likely fill the primary starting backcourt slots.
The Catamounts are fresh off a season in which they ranked 34th nationally in 3-point percentage. However, they graduated their top two snipers in Shungu (41.7 percent) and Davis (45.5 percent). In the wake of those losses, the weight of Vermont’s floor-spacing around Penn rests mainly on four returners:
After dealing with injuries last season, Kam Gibson will hopefully return to his prior form. He could be more accurate — and may see a higher volume — this season. Perhaps a dark horse to watch as a floor-spacer is incoming freshman TJ Hurley. Becker noted that Hurley “is the type of guy who every time he shoots, you think it’s going in.”
Vermont basketball has finished in the top 100 for adjusted offensive efficiency in five of the last six years, and providing strong spacing around Penn could lead to another successful year. Penn will make defenses pay for single-covering him inside the paint. It will be up to his teammates to make opponents pay for double-teaming him.
What about Penn’s shooting contributions?
Of course, Penn improving as a shooter would also help. Vermont has ranked in the top 85 nationally for 3-point attempt rate in three straight seasons. The arc will likely remain a priority, even with Penn leading the offense. Penn is only a 23.6 percent 3-point shooter over his career, but he will be encouraged to shoot more at Vermont. That emphasis is not so much about squeezing him to fit in with Vermont basketball; rather, it’s about keeping the defense honest.
“Penn doesn’t have to make a bunch [of 3-pointers], but he has to make enough to make them guard him out there,” Becker explained. “If he does, he becomes even more unguardable.”
Penn is already an elite finisher with a quick first step. It would be a huge development if opponents have to start going over screens against him rather than sagging off.
It’s worth noting that his free-throw percentage took a nice leap last year, as shown below. Could 3-point shooting follow?
The Catamounts also need Penn on defense
Ben Shungu’s graduation did not just leave big shoes to fill offensively this offseason — he was also a three-time All-AEC defender and won a conference DPOY award. He will not be easily replaced; Vermont basketball does have high hopes of remaining solid defensively, though. The program has posted the league’s best adjusted defensive efficiency in six straight seasons.
The Catamounts should continue to control the defensive glass and prevent easy looks inside, even with a younger frontcourt. Perry Smith Jr. is an intriguing freshman, while Matt Varetto and Ileri Ayo-Faleye are underrated additions. The backcourt brings back Robin Duncan, Finn Sullivan, Kam Gibson, and Aaron Deloney.
Penn is the new face in the backcourt rotation, but Becker has been impressed with his early work:
“[Penn] really competes on that end and moves his feet quite well. He’s just a stubborn, tough kid when it comes to defense. He takes it personally. A lot like Robin [Duncan], those Indiana kids are tough. He knows how to play, basketball matters to him, and he’s a two-way player. I think he will be really good defensively, and he’ll pick up our system quickly with his IQ.”
Though he is likely to reprise his bench role this season, Duncan is Vermont basketball’s vocal leader. He and Penn are already close, having both grown up in Evansville, Indiana. They should gel quickly while helping the Catamounts to succeed on both ends of the floor.
“He’s really freaking good.”
Dylan Penn has already accomplished much in his college basketball career. He was twice named an All-ASUN performer at Bellarmine, and he won the conference tournament’s MVP award this past season. As a result of transitioning rules, though, the Knights were ineligible to play in the NCAA Tournament. Penn decided to use his final year of eligibility at Vermont in hopes of playing on the sport’s biggest stage.
The Catamounts have won six consecutive America East titles, reaching the NCAA Tournament in three of their last five tries. They lack a returning star the likes of Davis or Shungu, but Penn appears poised to take up the mantle.
“One thing that jumps out is that Dylan seems hyper-focused and determined to make the Tournament,” Becker said. “He’s been all business since the second he got here, which is awesome. I love having those really talented players who have a huge goal.”
Vermont has a new challenger in the America East this season with the addition of Bryant, but the UVM program still appears poised to contend for the league crown. Penn — and his unorthodox offensive style — is a major reason for that.
There are a lot of ways to describe Dylan Penn. His new coach perhaps put it best, though:
“He wants to win. That is very evident. Whether he has to pass, score, or defend, he will do that. He is a two-way player playing to win and not for stats … he’s really freaking good.”