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ACC Preview #13 - Georgia Tech

Boston Celtics vs LA Clippers
BOSTON, MA - December 29: Boston Celtics assistant coach Damon Stoudamire during the first half of the NBA game against the LA Clippers at the TD Garden on December 29, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

ACC Preview #1 - UNC || ACC Preview #2 - NC State || ACC Preview #3 - Wake Forest ||ACC Preview #4 - Virginia || ACC Preview #5 - Syracuse || ACC Preview #6 - Pitt || ACC Preview #7 - Clemson || ACC Preview #8 - Miami || ACC Preview #9 - Louisville || ACC Preview #10 - Virginia Tech || ACC Preview #11 - Boston College || ACC Preview #12 - Florida State

By the time he was done at Georgia Tech, Josh Pastner didn’t have many people left in his corner.

He seemed like a reach when the Yellow Jackets hired him away from a Memphis program that was so happy to see him go that they actually paid him $1.255 to leave, but it’s not the program it used to be.

There was a general sense of weirdness around his program at Memphis. Pastner got investigated for having the same agent as his AD. At one point he accidentally tweeted out a recruit’s name resulting in a secondary NCAA violation. On another occasion, he told Tennessee that they couldn't recruit transfer Austin Nichols because UT was a future opponent. They pointed out that this was inaccurate because Pastner chose to discontinue the series. Then he told UT that they were simply on a “restricted” list and the transfer remained blocked (Nichols chose Virginia but was quickly dismissed from the program). When he was near the end at Memphis, one of Pastner’s players said he came out on the court while he was working out and complained about his boss.

Pastner also had an enormous transfer rate at Memphis, and this was before the portal.

That sense of weirdness followed him to Atlanta. On the light side there was his voice mail message, which is a Dale Carnegie nightmare of relentless positive thinking and encouragement that’s almost certainly much longer than most of the messages he got in reply, assuming his callers endured it long enough to leave a message in the first place. Then there was the goofy face shield he wore during the Covid era, the only coach we’re aware of to do so.

On the more serious side was an ill-advised friendship with a drug addict named Ron Bell who tried to frame Pastner for allegedly sexually assaulting his girlfriend.

It never happened of course. Pastner is many things but he is certainly not a rapist, would-be or otherwise. No one believed a word of that crap sandwich of a story. Even people who derided Pastner for his relentess optimism even as his program faced a slow collapse didn't buy it. It was ludicrous from start to finish.

Nonetheless, he showed poor judgment and Georgia Tech paid a price, getting a one-year postseason ban, scholarship reductions and four years of probation.

This episode encapsulates the duality of the man: on the one hand, he’s a deeply sincere optimist who carries a prayer book on the road to remind himself of his values, and on the other, he’s a guy who blithely gave a junkie full access to his program. Why not? He’s an optimist! What could possibly go wrong?

Pastner gets full credit for developing players like Josh Okogie, Jose Alvarado and Moses Wright. Alvarado became a spectacular leader, the very embodiment of Pastner’s positive outlook, and he helped the Yellow Jackets win an ACC championship in 2020-21. He’s in the NBA now and remains an inspirational figure.

Yet much like we saw at Memphis, Pastner’s Georgia Tech program deteriorated. His best season was his first and he only had two more winning seasons in Atlanta, and those not by much. Under his leadership, Georgia Tech never finished higher than fifth in the conference and he was just 53-78 in ACC competition. His overall record was 109-114.

At heart he is a decent, highly intelligent man, and he is a tremendous basketball mind who has been seen as a rising star since he was in high school and working with his father’s AAU program. However, it may be that he’s ultimately a better assistant or executive on some level than head man.

He was let go last spring and much like his departure at Memphis, there was a sense of relief around the program.

There was a lot of anticipation about who would take over but not many people saw Damon Stoudamire coming.

Like Pastner, Stoudamire was a product of the late Lute Olson’s brilliant Arizona program. In fact, they nearly overlapped in Tucson: Stoudamire left in 2005 while Pastner arrived in 2006 as one of the most respected walk-ons in college basketball history. He graduated in 2 12 years, which would be phenomenal for anyone but is absolutely incredible for a full-time athlete. He was essentially doing a coaching internship too.

Think about it. He basically had three full-time jobs. Role #1: an elite student who took - and aced - a huge course load every semester. Role #2: a member of the basketball team. Role #3: a coach-in-training. Honestly, only a handful of people could ever have done what Pastner did during his time at Arizona.

Stoudamire seemed like a curious replacement at first, but the more you looked, the more sense it made.

He came to Georgia Tech from the Boston Celtics, where he had been an assistant to Brad Stevens, Ime Udoka and Joe Mazzula. All three have won respect for their basketball acumen.

But Stoudamire, aka Mighty Mouse, had also spent time at Rice as director of player development, was an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies, returned to Arizona as a Sean Miller assistant and did two stints as a Pastner assistant at Memphis as well. Finally, he ran his own program at Pacific before moving to the Celtics.

He did reasonably well at Pacific too, and that’s not an easy job. His best year was 2019-20 when the Tigers finished 23-10. He left for Boston after the Covid season.

His overall record at Pacific was 71-77 but winning at a school like that is not easy. The more important thing to focus on is this: he’s had a chance to learn from Lute Olson, Sean Miller and Brad Stevens.

So unlike a lot of NBA guys who take college jobs like, say, Chris Mullin, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, Penny Hardaway or Juwan Howard, NCAA coaching is nothing new to Stoudamire. He knows his way around. And if there’s something he doesn’t know, well, he’s planning ahead.

We don’t always talk about ACC staffs, you kind of have to here, because Stoudamire has put together a really impressive group.

First there’s Karl Hobbs. Hobbs played for and later coached with UConn’s Jim Calhoun, and that’s a great place to get a basketball education.

After an outstanding run at George Washington, Hobbs has been an assistant again. He comes to Atlanta from Rutgers where he helped to build a very dangerous program with Steve Pikiel.

He’s a huge get for this program.

Pershin Williams comes to Tech from Kennesaw State, which means that he knows something about building. Look at what he helped Amir Abdur-Rahim accomplish there: the Owls went from a one-win season to an NCAA team in just four years.

Nate Babcock...Babcock...Babcock...why does it sound familiar? Well maybe because his father Rob was an NBA general manager, his brother is an NBA scout and his uncles Dave and Pete have both been involved with the NBA for a long time. Much like Chris Collins and Mike Dunleavy, Babcock was a lifer before he knew he was a lifer. He was born for this.

Bonzi Wells had a long NBA career where he was a teammate of Stoudamire’s in Portland. He also brings head coaching experience earned at LeMoyne-Owen College, a D-II school in Memphis. You might think D-II? Big deal! But you can be sure that Wells had his hand on every aspect of the program. It’s like working on your car yourself: you know everything about it.

There’s more but you get the idea: his coaches seem to know their way around a gym.

And partly as a result, there does seem to be a bit of excitement in Hotlanta.

Tech loses Ja’Von Franklin, Devon Smith, Rodney Howard, Tristan Maxwell, Freds Pauls Pagatskis, Cyril Martyntov, Jordan Meka and Jalon Moore. All together now: BIG WHOOP.

The Yellow Jackets do get some very useful players back though: Miles Kelly (14.4 PPG), Kyle Sturdivant (8.6 PPG), Dallan Coleman (9.5 PPG) and Lance Terry (10.1 PPG) return and that’s a good group to start with for Stoudamire.

Kelly, a 6-6 junior, is a good player and probably better than we saw last season. He put in 32.4 mpg for Pastner and averaged 14.4 points, 3.4 boards and 1.3 assists. He could polish his shooting - it was 41 percent overall and 37.9 from behind the line - but he’ll definitely help. He’s exactly the sort of player who might (emphasis on might) benefit from a coaching change.

Sturdivant is a 6-3 senior who played about 24 mpg. His stats were unremarkable - 8.6 ppg, 2.3 boards, 3.3 assists - and his three point shooting was less than ideal at 32.1 percent. But he is a worker and a leader and Pastner named him captain last season. Bonus for Sturdivant: Stoudamire has known him his whole life. He was close with his father, who sadly passed away suddenly when Sturdivant was a freshman at USC. Stoudamire has already coached him from a distance, counseling him by phone when he struggled (sometimes: Stoudamire also revealed that he occasionally “forgot” to call him back so that he would work things out for himself). Look for him to start again at the point.

Coleman, who is also known as Deebo, is a 6-6 junior and he’s a pretty good athlete. He was second in mpg behind Kelly but didn't shoot very well - 37.5 percent overall and 32.6 for threes. He also shot just 68.9 from the line. But he’s the kind of guy who could move into a different role with a new coach. Could be a bigger role, could be smaller. We’ll have to wait and see what Stoudamire sees in him. If he buys in, for instance, he could be a pit bull defensive specialist.

Lance Terry has one more year after transferring in from Gardner-Webb. We watched GT last year and a couple of times thought, wait, who is that guy? He can be really smart, which will appeal to Stoudamire, and can have an impact. That said, there are nine new players on the roster, so it’s hard to see how his role will evolve. On a bad team, you just have to go with what you have. Like Coleman, Terry’s role will evolve and change and he could see less time, depending on how good the newcomers are.

Speaking of newcomers, Tzyhaun Claude is a 6-8/230 lb. rebounding force who transferred in from Western Carolina.

He was pretty consistent in the SoCon and only failed to hit double figures once. But rebounding is why he is at Tech. If he can work the boards, he’s going to play: simple as that. It’s going to be a need.

Kowacie Reeves moves up from Florida, where he started 17 games last season. A 6-6 junior, his offensive efficiency wasn’t impressive, but if he can help on defense, that’s a big plus. And it’s possible that a new coach and a new system will unleash his potential. Stay tuned.

We saw Ebenezer Dowuona at NC State and he didn't play a lot after the emergence of DJ Burns. His role might be limited to defense and rebounding, but he can help this team.

Amaree Abram, who comes over from Ole Miss, is a 6-4 sophomore. He was a four-star recruit in high school, so clearly he has some talent. Stoudamire may be a great coach for him. We’ll see. At a minimum, he adds depth, but we suspect he’s better than that.

Tafara Gapare started at UMass where apparently one year under Frank Martin was enough. Stoudamire is really taken with the 6-9 Kiwi, saying this on Tech’s official Web site: “Tafara is about as talented as they come. He’s one of the most talented players that I’ve seen. Now it’s a matter of turning talent into production. He has the ability, and it’s a matter of us being able to get everything out of him, both from a basketball perspective and as a young man. His ability to shoot the ball, the ability to get rebounds and start the break, pass the ball … you don’t really see guys like him that often. He has a world of potential.”

Those are strong words with a bit of caution. Did you see it? “He has the ability, and it’s a matter of us being able to get everything out of him, both from a basketball perspective and as a young man.“ That explains everything you need to know about the kid other than how he will respond. Apparently he didn't like the way Martin tried to get it out of him, but Martin is notoriously intense and is probably not very pleasant to be around. Perhaps Stoudamire and his staff will figure it out.

Jalen Forrest, son of former Tech star James Forrest, was also listed as a transfer, but we don’t see him on the roster. There he is - he’s going to take a semester of JUCO first and join Tech for the spring semester. Forrest says that “Presbyterian messed up my transcript.” Seems like something they could have straightened out, perhaps over the summer, but whatever. We’ll see him in the new year presumably.

His dad was responsible for one of the most iconic moments in the history of Georgia Tech basketball, right there with Dennis Scott’s step-back three against LSU, a legendary buzzer beater of USC in the NCAA tournament.

We’re not sure we understand Carter Murphy’s situation: he graduated from Air Force, which means he has a service obligation. Yet he’s at Tech as a transfer. Maybe getting a graduate degree is part of Air Force’s plan? We could see that at Tech, which has an aviation engineering program, among other things that the Air Force might want.

Whatever it is, we’re not sure he’ll see much court time, but that remains to be seen, obviously. He’s the second Air Force transfer to the ACC this year, joining former teammate Jake Heidbreder, who is at Clemson.

Stoudamire also picked up three freshmen: Baye Ndongo, Ibrahima Sacko and Nate George.

We’re not sure if he followed Hobbs to Atlanta, but the 6-9 Ndongo, a native of Senegal, committed to Rutgers before changing his mind. He’s only been playing basketball for a few years so he could be a factor or a blip. This is a wait-and-see situation. He has some catching up to do.

Sacko, a 6-6 native of Guinea, looks like a tough guy. We’re just basing that on his Tech photo mind you, but even so: he looks like a guy you really don’t want to irritate.

He spent just a year in high school in Canada but people were well aware of his talent. It’s an interesting story. He’s a guy we’d keep an eye on.

Naithan George, aka Nate, also comes to Tech via Canada. The 6-3 point guard will probably back up Sturdivant this season but could emerge as a good player down the road.

So that’s the talent.

We could be wrong, but our bet is that Stoudamire is a much better coach than Pastner, and not least of all when it comes to people skills. Certainly he appears to have done a great job of laying the foundations - smart hires and some intriguing talent - and while that might take a year or two to fully pay off, there’s also a chance that he could really do well this year.

And in another encouraging note for Georgia Tech fans, Stoudamire has landed one of the biggest talents to come to his school in awhile: 4-star Jaeden Mustaf.

If that name rings a bell, it should. His father, Jerrod Mustaf, played at Maryland and was a first-round draft pick in 1990. Duke recruited him but Mike Krzyzewski and Mustaf’s father had a serious clash of personalities and fortunately he went to Maryland.

We say fortunately because of what happened after he left for the NBA. In Phoenix, Mustaf was accused of having a woman who was carrying his child murdered. He was never tried for the case - his cousin was and was convicted - but many people close to the case think he literally got away with murder. You can hit that link to get the specs and make up your own mind about his guilt or innocence.

We hasten to add that of course the (alleged) sins of the father should not be visited on the son and we sincerely hope that ACC fans, most critically Duke fans, never, ever bring this up to the kid. That would be absolutely disgusting and grossly unfair.

For us, the bottom line is this: right now, Georgia Tech is not an attractive enough job to interest, say, Eric Musselman or Mick Cronin. They had to find a guy who, ideally, was talented and experienced but undervalued. And it looks like they did.

We won’t know much until competition starts and even then it might take some time before we know just how good Stoudamire is. Never forget that people mocked Mike Krzyzewski for the first few years of his Duke career. Everyone mocked Kenny Payne last season (they won’t for long) and they might mock Stoudamire this year.

Our sense though is that Stoudamire knows what he’s doing. He put together a highly promising staff and gathered up a bunch of decent players in short order. Some may be gambles. Some may need to work on skills they haven’t been exposed to. You may have to do that when you’re building. That’s the way of the world.

However, Stoudamire has already won over one of Tech’s biggest commitments in years in young Mustaf. Everything suggests momentum in Atlanta.

He may or may not win much this year, but there’s at least a chance he could pull a Jerome Tang. And if he’s not that good out of the gate, just be patient. He’s going to be excellent soon enough.