One of the jobs any new coach has - indeed perhaps the most critical job - is establishing the character of his program.
Remember when Josh Pastner took over at Georgia Tech?
Brian Gregory didn’t leave much for him to work with and Memphis was basically happy to let Pastner go and skip an astonishing $10.6 million buyout they’d have to pay if he was fired - and it was certainly discussed.
The Atlanta media wasn’t impressed with the hire and at best folks reserved judgment.
The general consensus was that he would be lucky to win an ACC game.
Didn’t quite work out that way.
After just nipping NC A&T on December 28th, Georgia Tech shocked the world with an upset of UNC three days later, winning 75-63. The next game was Pastner’s first trip to Cameron where there would be no miracle: Duke blasted the Yellow Jackets by 53, 110-57.
Still, notice had been served: this was now a dangerous team.
Tech missed .500 in the ACC by one game and went all the way to the NIT Finals, where the Jackets fell to TCU, 88-56.
Not bad for a team that was supposedly lucky to win one game in the ACC.
If establishing his program’s character was his first test, the rookie got an A.
An A would come as no suprise to Pastner of course. This is a guy who finished his undergrad work in 2 ½ years (taking as many as 33 units per semester which is incredible) while being a walk-on at Arizona with the understanding that it was essentially a coaching residency.
Because everyone knew by grade school that this very bright student was destined to coach basketball.
There were some questions coming out of Memphis, some suggestions of immaturity. In particular a very candid interview with Shaq Goodwin made Pastner look horrible. In another case a player openly defied him on the court. He had quite a few transfers as well, notably Austin Nichols, who was kicked off Virginia’s team by Tony Bennett after just one game. Mike DeCourcy praised Pastner’s talent but bluntly questioned his maturity.
Pastner put a lot of those questions to rest, at least for now, in Year One. Let’s see where things go in Year Two.
Pastner loses Quinton Stephens, Josh Heath, Corey Heyward, Jodan Price and Kellen McCormack from his first Tech team.
Stephens had his moments but the 6-9 forward never cracked 200 lbs and there’s a limit when you’re going to see guys like Kennedy Meeks or Marshall Plumlee waiting for you in the paint, leave alone Bonzi Colson.
Heath didn’t scare anybody and Heyward’s career was derailed by a knee injury. McCormack came as a graduate transfer from Western Michigan and had minimal impact. Same for Price, also a grad transfer.
Tech had two very good players though and they’re both back.
Ben Lammers, 6-10 and 234, is a senior now and he has developed into a really good college big man. He averaged 3.38 bpg last year, good for third in the country, and played with a lot of intensity and confidence. He also averaged 14.2 ppg and 9.2 rpg.
Any coach in the conference would be happy to have him.
Same goes for 6-4 guard Josh Okogie. He was not expected to be a major presence for Georgia Tech, but against Tulane, just the fifth game of his Tech career, Okogie scored 38, setting a new Tech record for most points by a freshman.
In the upset vs. UNC, Okogie racked up 26. To put it mildly, he vastly exceeded expectations.
He had one play in particular which was memorable, a loping drive to the basket against Notre Dame as time ran out to win the game. It was a magnificent play.
Tech also brings back 6-3 senior guard Tadrick Jackson, 6-9 junior forward Abdoulaye Gueye, 6-10 sophomore forward Sylvester Ogbonda, and 6-4 sophomore Justin Moore.
Jackson is the most established of the bunch. He averaged 12.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg and 1.8 apg. He was reasonably effective but even last year, on a Tech team with depth issues, he only played 23.8 mpg.
He’s the guy who made the pass to Okogie in the Notre Dame game by the way. He may have trouble sustaining that this season depending on how the freshmen do.
Gueye, a native of Senegal, was working into the rotation last season when a wrist injury ended his season. He’s a bit of an unknown factor still and will have more competition in the front court this year.
Ogbanda only hit double digit minutes three times last season, with two of them coming right after Gueye’s season-ending injury. His minutes declined again, suggesting a lack of confidence from Pastner. He could improve dramatically, but there’s no particular reason to expect it.
Moore averaged 16.8 mpg last season and 4.4 ppg and 2.4 apg. He’ll probably find a role this season as a backup point guard.
Tech’s freshman class is really interesting and could be the most intriguing in the conference. Why?
Well, it’s huge first of all - eight new players. But only four have scholarships. However, the other four are, generally speaking, better than your average walk-ons.
Let’s start with the scholarship players.
Six-foot Jose Alvarado, from New York, is likely to be the point guard from day one and could be a four-year player.
He could cut into Jackson’s minutes.
The skinny on Alvarado is that he’s not wildly athletic but that he’s a tough, gutty kid and a winner. If you want to think of ACC guys who have had that rep, think of Sidney Lowe, Tyus Jones and Steve Blake.
And he has done something that is incredibly rare on any level: a quadruple double
We expect him to start from day one. His role model should be that magnificent bastard Blake.
The former Terrapin regularly smoked more talented players. We couldn’t stand him but it was impossible not to respect him.
Evan Cole originally committed to Wilmington but bailed when Kevin Keatts moved to Raleigh to take the State job.
Since Keatts likes tough, hard-nosed players, we assume Cole will fit the mold. He’s 6-9 and 210. He averaged 20 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks as a high school senior. We expect he’ll surprise to some extent.
Curtis Haywood, a 6-5 guard out of Oklahoma City, finished his high school ball at New Hampshire’s Brewster Academy. He was a middling recruit according to the rankings but so was Okogie. And like Okogie, he has some serious wingspan: Okogie’s is 7-0; Haywood’s is 6-11. That’s a fun backcourt to play with defensively.
He adds some size and depth to Tech’s backcourt.
The fourth guy is really intriguing. Moses Wright is from Raleigh and he is a very late bloomer.
His dad died while he was in middle school and the kid was understandably a little lost for a while He only played one year of varsity ball at Enloe High but he was working hard behind the scenes to improve. He’s a really interesting case and there is a chance he could pull a David Robinson(although probably not on that level) and seemingly come out of nowhere to be a really good player.
He’s certainly easy to pull for. We’d love to see him blow up.
Tech had four more scholarships to offer but Pastner instead convinced some guys to pay their own way when they could potentially get scholarships to schools from lesser leagues.
Evan Jester is 6-6 and made some all-state teams in Georgia. He averaged 19.5 ppg and 8.4 rpg while shooting 59%. He was an all-state player in Georgia and got offers from various schools including Alcorn State.
Jon Brown’s uncle is Kenny Anderson and while he’s not as good as Uncle Kenny was, he’s not bad. This is from his Georgia Tech bio:
“Once scored 51 points with 15 assists and 15 rebounds in a game vs. ISCHS, and has a 20-assist game vs. Archbishop Curley...”
You know, he might not be a great player but that’s a hell of a triple double. At the least he’s worth the minimal gamble of walking on.
Avi Shafer is a weird story and requires a bit of deduction since there’s not a ton of information on him.
He played last year with Haywood at Brewster Academy but grew up in Japan. His mother is apparently Japanese and so we’re assuming he has Japanese citizenship. He played for Japan internationally as well.
He’s only played since he was 16 and Japan isn’t exactly a renowned recruiting ground for college basketball. The only Japanese player we know of currently in college basketball is Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura. Presumably they know each other from working up through Japanese basketball; if not they will soon be incorporated into Japan’s national program (if you remember, the Japanese team in the 2016 Olympic games was beautiful and fun to watch).
Who knows? But he’s listed at 6-8 and 231, so at an absolute minimum, he can be useful in practice and like Wright, he could potentially be a surprise.
Finally, there’s Malachi Rice. He’s a 6-0 point guard out of Indianapolis. His uncle, Kenneth Rice, played for Alabama and his identical twin, Isaiah, is walking on at Vandy.
Anyway, it’s a really intriguing group. Most of them are experienced winners in high school. Shafer’s Brewster team was 33-0. Rice won some championships. Brown won a state championship in Florida. Jester’s team made it to the semifinals in Georgia.
Look, we’re not suggesting these guy are going to start or anything, but they all appear to be high character people who are used to succeeding. That can only help the program’s DNA.
Shembari Phillips is a transfer from Tennessee who won’t play this season. He was a part-time starter for Rick Barnes last season and played reasonably well. When he announced his departure from Tennessee recently, Barnes spoke glowingly of his character, saying that “Shembari is a great young man, and I know this wasn’t an easy decision for him. We always need to do what’s best for our students. And in Shembari’s case, we’re going to do everything we can to help him find the school and program that’s the best fit for him. He’ll have plenty of options because of the kind of person and teammate he is.”
This is going to be a really interesting year for Tech. Pastner managed to put the doubts to rest with a resilient and tough-minded squad which greatly exceeded expectations. He has a couple of starters to work with and some promising youngsters. He has perhaps the most promising group of walk-ons in recent ACC memory for whatever that’s worth (it’s certainly going to be helpful in practice).
Last year we expected a train wreck. This year? We’re not going overboard but he’s clearly building well.
By the way, if you read that DeCourcy article above, you’ll notice that after criticizing Pastner, he offers some free advice: “...[I]f provided with guidance on how to build a staff, particularly an experienced coach who can provide an authoritative voice in practice — perhaps someone a little more likely to elicit fear from the players — it’s possible this can succeed. Of course, ‘possible’ is not usually what one is shooting for in making a coaching hire. With as many variables as there can be in such a circumstance, ‘likely’ is preferred.”
He probably heard this from other people than DeCourcy, but like a lot of young coaches, he hired an experienced head coach to help him establish his program: former Portland coach Eric Reveno.
Reveno, who is 6-8, played at Stanford under Mike Montgomery and also worked extensively with Pete Newell’s Big Man Camp, which may help to explain Lammer’s considerable improvement. You might consider what he could do with Ogbanda, Gueye, Cole and most of all Wright.
Interestingly, he also played in Japan and it’s possible that he got a tip about Shafer’s potential. We’re pretty sure that those two are the only coach and player in the country who can essentially use Japanese as code during a game.
Reveno is also one of the better coaches around when it comes to technology. The guy really knows his stuff.
If Pastner recognized that he was a bit arrogant at Memphis, well, good. He probably was.
No one doubts his intelligence or his precocious rise. As we said, Lute Olson recruited him more for his basketball mind than as a useful walk-on. Everyone knew where the guy was heading.
If he’s tempered the issues that led to instability at Memphis, if he’s willing to discipline himself as much as his players, and if he is ready to harness his considerable intelligence and passion for the game, well, he’s still just 39.
Atlanta and Georgia are annually packed with talented high school players and Pastner is a superb recruiter. There’s no reason why Georgia Tech shouldn’t be a Top 10-15 program.
His future, and that of his program, is as bright as he wants it to be.
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