With the Yellow Jackets losing nearly 80% of their scoring from last season, including their top four scorers, and only return one player who averaged 5 points a season last year (Quinton Stephens who averaged an even 5.0). Now Georgia Tech looks to three upperclassmen to rise to the challenge and lead the team.
Tadric came into his Yellow Jacket career loaded with expectations. He came in as a four star recruit and Georgia’s Mr. Basketball. So far, he has not lived up to his billing. He has shown flashes of his ability, but poor shot selection and trouble getting into a rhythm have hampered his overall effectiveness. He struggled quite a bit his freshman year, shooting only 27.4% from the field and 17.8% from three. He improved those significantly last year to 38.5% and 27.7%. Not good enough, but certainly a major improvement. This year, Josh Pastner will ask Jackson to pull off a tough task, increase his efficiency while also taking on a larger load. That is something that is rarely done.
There are some reasons to believe it might happen, though. First, there is his obvious talent. Last season especially, he would take over a game for three plays in a row. For one reason or another, he was unable to extend those performances for extended periods of time. He had some of his best games last year against top competition too. His three games that he scored double digits were against Duke, Miami, and UVA. He was also playing well at the end of last season. He didn’t explode in the NIT, but he was a solid role player which was exactly what Tech needed out of him. Hopefully Tadric can keep that momentum going for the next season.
It’s not just his talent that makes me think he could make a big step this year. Jackson never seemed comfortable in Brian Gregory’s offense. First, Gregory’s style of offense really clogged the middle of the floor and made it difficult for inexperienced ball handlers to make plays towards the hoop with the ball without giving away the ball. With Pastner’s quicker and more open style, there should be more room for a more experienced Tadric to drive to the hoop, his strength. Secondly, his three point shooting suffered under Gregory. I don’t know what voodoo doctor Gregory pissed off, but they cursed him with the inability to get three point shooters not named Adam Smith. Tadric came into college with a reputation as a solid, but like many Yellow Jacket players over the last several years, he struggled from deep. If he gets his shot right, that will open up his game and increase his confidence. Finally, he never seemed confident in his position as a role player. He would get passive when he had a chance to be aggressive. He would play way too aggressive after a nice play or two. Now that it appears he will be a primary offensive weapon, we will hopefully see some of that hesitation go away. This is Jackson’s year to make a huge difference to the Yellow Jackets team.
Ben Lammers was not the most heralded player coming into college, but he was a strong contributor last season and figures to be a primary player this year. His most obvious contributions come on the defensive side of the ball where he is a monster guarding the rim. He averaged 1.3 blocks per game in less than 15 minutes per game and affected many more shots than that. With the Yellow Jackets likely featuring smaller lineups this year his ability to scare opponents away from the basket will be of vital importance. The biggest area he might need to pick up slack is in the rebounding department. GT is reeling from losing it’s top three big men, including one of the best rebounders in the country, Charles Mitchell. With the smaller lineup and the lack of proven rebounders, Lammers will need to step it up on the boards.
Offensively, Lammers looked very unpolished in Gregory’s traditional back-to-the-basket post-up game. He shot mid-range jumpers fairly often, but was only mildly successful with it. If he can become consistent, he will help spread the floor out, which has been a major issue the last several years. I am intrigued by how Lammers will fare in Pastner’s system. I don’t expect him to light the world on fire, but I get the feeling that he fits better in an offense that doesn’t expect him to back down somebody every couple of possessions. I am not too worried about his ability to keep up with the Yellow Jacket’s new more uptempo attack. Lammers isn’t going to be leading fast breaks anytime soon, but he has plenty enough athleticism to get up and down the floor quickly. I trust CJP to have the team in shape for this season.
If you have seen any Georgia Tech basketball advertisements, then you know that they expect Stephens to be the star. In his first two and a half seasons, Stephens had the occasional monster game, like his 22 point game against Georgia in 2014 or his 16 point on 6-8 shooting performance against Virginia last season. Those were anomalies though. Unlike Tadric, who would do something promising every few games or so, it seemed like Stephens was floating along. Then something seemed to turn late last season. He started playing aggressively. He wasn’t hesitating on his three pointers, he took the ball to the hoop, he started using his size on defense more effectively, he started competing for rebounds with guys like Mitchell and James White. His contributions didn’t always show up in his scoring totals, but he was playing like a much improved player. And he was rewarded for it. In the first 15 games of the season, he only played more than 20 minutes three times, capping out at 22 minutes. In the final thirteen games, he broke 20 minutes all but one game and had a streak of seven 30-minute games in a row. As he turned his game around, he got a chance to make a difference.
Now, Stephens isn’t being asked to play decent defense and hit the occasional spot-up three pointer. He is being asked to lead this team offensively. It will take some improvement from him, but it is well within his ability to make it happen. The first step is to improve his three point shooting. Like Jackson, he fell under Gregory’s spell and despite being heralded as a three-point specialist he was unable to ever break 33% from deep. Now, he is likely going to have much worse looks at the basket than the spot-up shots he was getting when he wasn’t the focal point of the team. Now, he may have to create his own space and shoot off the dribble, which is much tougher. He may have to improve his shooting just to maintain his efficiency. The second step is to keep being aggressive off the dribble. He started doing this at the end of last season, but he needs to keep it up. When the other team sells out for his three, he has to make them pay by taking it to the hoop and not settling for mid-range jumpers in there either. He has the length and athleticism to finish against all but the best shot blockers. I want to see him for shorter players to foul him as he beats them off the dribble and attacks the rim.
These three are the key to the team this year. If they all keep improving their games and take on the leadership voids that have been left open, they can outperform their modest expectations. If these players stagnate, we might witness the worst Tech team since before Bobby Cremins came on board.