LAS VEGAS -- Welcome to "Summer Springs Eternal," Part 2.
Below are the remaining summations of my conversations last week with college basketball coaches during a pair of grassroots tournaments being held at Las Vegas high schools. With the July evaluation period for recruiting now concluded, these coaches can turn their sights to the coming season. As you can tell, during the summertime these guys see nothing but green shoots and blue skies, no matter how dismal their forecast. Part 1,
The Cavs return their second-leading scorer, 6-foot-6 junior Joe Harris, and their starting point guard, 5-11 senior Jontel Evans. But aside from 6-8 junior forward Akil Mitchell, those are the only players on the roster with extensive playing experience. So Virginia's success next season will depend on whether it gets contributions from its five freshmen. The most likely to provide that are Justin Anderson, a 6-5 super athlete who played for the same high school that produced Kevin Durant, and Mike Tobey, a 6-11 center from New York whose biggest challenge will be, as Bennett put it, handling "the physical side" of ACC hoops. Their progress will be helped during the 10 practices Bennett will conduct in advance of Virginia's trip to Europe later this month. "Our freshmen will be great one day and not so good the next. That's pretty typical," he said. "The key will be whether a few of them will be ready to contribute. We have a lot to replace."
Incidentally, one of the reasons this roster is so depleted is that two players who were in prime position to step forward, 6-4 sophomore guard K.T. Harrell and 6-9 freshman forward James Johnson, decided to transfer last December because they weren't playing enough. (They landed at Auburn and San Diego State, respectively.) Then again, this spring Bennett welcomed Anthony Gill, a 6-8 forward who transferred in from South Carolina and will sit out this season. "He's really good," Bennett promised. That's a prime example of the current revolving door culture in college basketball.
Ditto for the sophomore backcourt duo of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, which logged a combined 58 starts during their freshman seasons. Few said Bell was the team's "unsung guy. Just rock solid all year." And he said that Pangos' gym rattitude is the best he has had since Derek Raivio. "Pangos is in the gym every night until 10 or 11," Few said. "Now he's starting to drag guys with him."
Sacre's departure opens the door for 6-9 redshirt junior Sam Dower to move into the starting lineup, and Few told me he's impressed with his 7-1 freshman from Poland, Przemek Karnowski. That bodes well for Gonzaga's chances to reclaim the West Coast Conference title it failed to win or share for the first time in 11 years. Moreover, 6-7 senior forward Elias Harris impressed the NBA scouts who watched him work out with the collegians at the LeBron James Skills Academy several weeks ago in Las Vegas. Few cracked a smile when I suggested to him that Harris has had an up-and-down career. "The funny thing is, he dunked a bunch of balls early in his career and everybody ran around saying he was an NBA pick. He never believed that," Few said. "He has really developed a lot. Everybody wants him to be an NBA three man. He's more suited to be a four man, but he has improved his perimeter game two hundred percent."
Fisher would never have said it during the season, but he admitted that he was as surprised as anyone that his Aztecs played so well after their storybook run to the Sweet 16 two years ago. "I hate to say it, but to be honest with you, I didn't think we'd win that many games. We just found ways to win the close ones," he said. A major reason for that was the rapid improvement of Jamaal Franklin, the 6-5 wing from Hawthorne, Calif., who started his sophomore year in obscurity and ended it as the Mountain West Player of the Year. The end of that obscurity will be the season's biggest test for Franklin -- and by extension, the Aztecs. "Last year at this time, nobody had heard of Jamaal," Fisher said. "This year, all eyes will be on him. He's going to have to be able to give up the basketball more and help somebody else be better."
Besides the four returning starters, Fisher sounded excited about his six additions -- three freshmen and three transfers. (One of those transfers is the aforementioned James Johnson from Virginia.) The most heralded of the freshmen is Winston Shepard, a 6-8 forward from Texas (by way of Findlay Prep in Las Vegas) who Fisher said "plays all over the floor."
Thus, the pieces are in place for another great season. The only question is how well they will fit together. "With six new players, chemistry can be an issue," he said. "If our chemistry is as good as it was last year, we're going to be awfully good."
Six of the team's top seven players missed 20 games or more last season. So it will do wonders just to get those guys back -- especially Jio Fontan, the 6-foot scoring point guard who tore his ACL during the team's trip to Brazil and did not play a single minute. Fontan and 7-foot junior center DeWayne Dedmon, who missed 12 games last season with injuries, are the only surefire starters right now, but the roster offers lots of pieces for O'Neill to play with.
It also includes four transfers who will be suiting up for USC for the first time: Eric Wise, a 6-6 swingman who averaged 16 points and eight rebounds as a three-year starter for UC Irvine; Renaldo Woolridge, a 6-9 power forward who earned his degree at Tennessee and is thus eligible to play right away; Ari Stewart, a 6-7 forward who sat out last season after transferring from Wake Forest; and J.T. Terrell, a 6-3 guard who also transferred from Wake Forest but spent a year at junior college after Wake dismissed him following a DUI arrest.
Three freshmen have also been added to the mix, but O'Neill said "it would take a lot for them to earn playing time." That speaks volumes about where he believes this program is compared to a year ago. Toward the end of the season, rumors were rampant that USC might give the coach the boot, but O'Neill, who has been for head coach at five colleges and one NBA team (the Toronto Raptors), is not the type to get caught up in such talk. "From being around as long as I have, I don't think you worry about it," he said. As for the season ahead, O'Neill said he expects USC to have much more talent, balance and diversity than it did a year ago. "I think there will be different guys leading us in scoring on different nights," he said. "The only stat that will matter is winning."
Painter said all of his freshmen will have a chance to play, but he seemed particularly excited about A.J. Hammons, a 7-foot, 280-pound center from Carmel, Ind., who played at Oak Hill Academy. Hammonds is a little raw offensively, but Painter loves his defensive abilities -- and that is always the most important element at Purdue. Another freshman, Ronnie Johnson, will also likely see major minutes, if only because he is the sole true point guard on the Boilermakers' roster.
Three non-freshmen -- Byrd, 6-2 junior guard Terone Johnson and 6-3 sophomore guard Anthony Johnson -- will likely be in the starting lineup to open the season. The best case scenario would have Hammonds starting at center, with a bevy of players rotating through the fifth spot, including 6-8 swingman Donnie Hale, who becomes eligible after redshirting last season to get stronger. While Painter bristled at my use of the "R" word (rebuilding), he is looking forward to hashing this thing out, beginning with the team's trip to Italy from Aug. 7-17. "I really can't answer your questions until we go on that trip," he told me. "A lot of your questions are my questions."
As usual, this program is loaded, but Self emphasized the distinction between his most "talented" players and his "best" players. His two most "talented" players have yet to play a college game: Ben McLemore, a 6-5 freshman who missed last season for academic reasons, and Perry Ellis, a 6-8 true freshman from Wichita. "I don't know if McLemore would have started last year or been our leading scorer, but if you ask any kid in our program, they'd say he's the most talented," Self said. "He's a freak who can shoot. He reminds me a lot of Brandon Rush. He just doesn't know how to play yet." As for Ellis, Self said "he's probably the most natural scorer we have."
However, the "best" player on this team will be 6-4 senior guard Elijah Johnson. With Tyshawn Taylor having left for the NBA, Johnson will assume the fulltime scoring and playmaking responsibilities. His counterpart on the interior, 7-foot senior Jeff Withey, will have a steeper challenge adjusting to life without Thomas Robinson on the other block. "This year it will be harder for Jeff because he'll get double-teamed, which never happened last year," Self said. "He's capable of being a good shooter, but he's not a guy who's a natural scorer. He just doesn't have that feel yet."
Self won't have quite as many players to work with on the perimeter as he does in the frontcourt. But if he's looking to get more guards into the mix, his best option might be Tyler Self, a 6-1 walk-on guard from Lawrence, Kan. I don't know if Tyler can play, but I do know that the last thing his coach wants is an angry phone call from the kid's mother complaining about Tyler's lack of playing time.
Yes, the Hoyas lost three senior starters (Henry Sims, Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson), but Thompson pointed out that he had four freshmen who played extensive minutes last season and should therefore be ready to make a big leap. First and foremost, of course, is Otto Porter, the 6-8 forward who was one of the real surprises in college hoops last season. Porter has had a terrific summer, and after excelling in front of NBA scouts at a variety of showcases, said Thompson, "everyone knows about him. There's a little bit of buzz around him now."
Porter was a big-time recruit -- Georgetown beat out Kansas and Missouri to get him -- but he was not well-known before his freshman year because he did not play one second of grassroots/AAU basketball. Thompson told me that's because he came from a small town (Sikeston, Mo., population 16,288) and his uncle and father decided it was best for him not to play summer ball. "The first time he ever got on a plane was when he took his official visit," Thompson said. That lack of exposure to amateur basketball helped make Porter "the most prepared freshman I've ever coached. His understanding of hard work and how to play at this level was impressive. He excels at every part of the game. He cares more about getting a deflection as getting a dunk."
Another player to watch out for on this team is D'vauntes Smith-Rivera, a 6-2 freshman who played for Oak Hill Academy last season. "He's a point guard who can score. Those guys do well with us," Thompson said. It sounds like Smith-Rivera will be able to challenge 6-2 junior Markel Starks for the starting point guard duties. Or Thompson can play the two of them together. He has yet to figure that out. It's one of the many high-class problems the Hoyas' coach can ponder during the sun-dappled dog days of summer.