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Basketball: Early Look Ahead to the 2017-18 Roster

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Depth remains a concern, but the stars will be back

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Georgia Tech Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

By any measure, the 2016-17 season was a huge success for Tech. Nearly cracking .500 in ACC play and making a deep postseason run in the NIT were both significant accomplishments for the team and major steps forward in the program’s rebuilding effort. That last part is key, though. With the core of the previous year’s team completely gone and relatively little talent (on paper) left on the roster, Tech had virtually no expectations going into this season, and so even reaching the middle of the pack in the ACC qualified as a major success.

That will not be the case next season. With most key contributors returning from a team that took down three top-15 opponents and reached the NIT championship game, all signs point to Tech building on this year’s success. The next big objective is clear: returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. The core players are in place, but to take that next step, the Jackets will need to build some depth and get more production from their point guards and reserve forwards. It will be a major test for Josh Pastner and his coaching staff as they enter their second season in Atlanta.

Departing Players

Tech will have to replace three starters next season: forward Quinton Stephens and guards Josh Heath and Corey Heyward. Stephens was pressed into a frontcourt role out of necessity, but he emerged as a capable rebounder despite his relatively slim frame; his 7.6 rebounds per game put him in the top 10 in the ACC for that stat. He remained as streaky a shooter as ever (37.5 percent from the field), but when the shots were falling, he was a valuable offensive weapon for the Jackets. Heath, a two-year starter at point guard, did little damage offensively (5.3 points per game) but racked up a career-high 4.4 assists per game, good for seventh in the ACC. Heyward was even less of an offensive threat—he finished his career averaging just 1.4 points per game—but his capable defensive play made him an asset on the perimeter.

Along with the trio of starters, three reserves have wrapped up their careers: guard Jodan Price and forwards Kellen McCormick and Rand Rowland. Of the three, McCormick was the only one to get semi-frequent minutes, playing in 24 games as a reserve forward.

Finally, guard/forward Christian Matthews will transfer after a fairly uneventful freshman season. Matthews committed to Brian Gregory and decided to stay on board after Josh Pastner was hired, but after playing sparingly in his first year in Atlanta, he has chosen to continue his career elsewhere.

Key Returnees

On the bright side, the two returning starters were by many measures Tech’s two most productive players in 2016-17.

In Ben Lammers’ first year as a starter, the junior center merely emerged as both an effective inside scoring threat and one of the best defenders in the ACC. At season’s end, Lammers was fifth in the ACC in field goal percentage (51.6%), fourth in rebounds per game (9.2), and first by a mile in blocks per game (3.4; the next-highest was 2.1). He was an anchor down low for the Jackets on both ends of the floor.

Lammers will share the spotlight next year with guard Josh Okogie, the four-time ACC Rookie of the Week who had a team-leading 16.1 points per game. Okogie was, quite simply, one of the most productive freshmen in the country. He had two of his best games against eventual national champion UNC (26 points) and against then-No. 6 Florida State (35 points, 14 rebounds).

Sixth man Tadric Jackson will also return for his final season in Atlanta. Like Stephens, he’s had streaky tendencies his entire career, but when Jackson is on a roll, the former four-star recruit can take over a game offensively. Jackson scored 20-plus points four times in ACC play, including 20-point games against Syracuse at home and twice against Notre Dame. Backup point guard Justin Moore and reserve forwards Sylvester Ogbonda and Abdoulaye Gueye also return, and all of them could see increased roles next season.

New Additions

Recruiting remains a work in progress—the spring signing period just opened and will continue through May 17—but for now, Tech has inked three signees for 2017. Leading the way is Jose Alvarado, a four-star (per Rivals) point guard from New York who committed to Tech in September and signed two months later. He had offers from Indiana, Syracuse, and several other major-conference schools. Pastner has been pursuing other point guards in recruiting, but for the moment, Alvarado and rising sophomore Justin Moore are the only point guards on the roster.

Tech also formally signed two more players on Thursday: three-star wing Curtis Haywood, an Oklahoma native who played his senior year at the Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, and three-star forward Moses Wright of Raleigh, N.C. It seems unlikely that either will have to step into the lineup right away, but given Tech’s general lack of depth across the board, there should be opportunities for them to earn playing time—particularly Haywood, who brings good outside shooting ability to a team that is sorely lacking in that department.

With scholarships still available, Tech has room to bring in additional recruits or graduate transfers, so expect more additions to the roster as the summer progresses. Tech remains in play for a couple of top 2017 recruits who are still uncommitted.

Outlook: Projected Strengths

It’s never a bad thing when a team brings back its top three scoring threats and one of the nation’s best post defenders—not to mention the coaching staff that helped them develop a year ago. Health permitting, Lammers should once again be a top-notch shot blocker, rebounder, and post scorer in 2017-18, and another year of working with assistant coach Eric Reveno will make him even more polished. Okogie should be an even more dangerous scoring threat in both the midrange game and in attacking the basket. Jackson will likely step into the starting lineup as a senior, and if he develops a more consistent scoring touch, he and Okogie would form an even more deadly combination on the wings.

Losing the versatile Stephens will hurt, but the core of last year’s team is otherwise intact. That’s invaluable in modern-day college basketball, and offense aside, it will help to ensure that Tech maintains the chemistry on the defensive end that enabled the team to be so disruptive all year long.

Outlook: Potential Weaknesses

To say Tech leaned heavily on Lammers a year ago would be an understatement. He averaged over 35 minutes per game, frequently sitting for no more than two or three minutes in a given game unless he got in foul trouble. It was necessary because there was a huge drop-off from Lammers to his backups, Gueye and Ogbonda. Depth up front remains a major concern, and with Stephens gone, Tech will need one of them—or perhaps the incoming freshman Wright—to emerge as a viable starter to avoid having to spread the floor with guards.

Gueye would seem to be the most promising option. While he didn’t show much on the offensive end last season in limited action, he averaged 2.4 blocks per 40 minutes on the floor, and he seemed to be improving up until he suffered a season-ending wrist injury in early February. This is also likely the biggest area that Pastner will be targeting in the graduate transfer market.

Point guard is a potential question mark, if not necessarily a weakness. Among returning players, Moore is the heir apparent after playing 18.8 minutes per game as the backup to Heath. While his assist numbers were reasonable (5.1 assists per 40 minutes), he provided relatively little production on the offensive end, continuing a recent trend among Tech point guards. Of course, Moore was a freshman last year and still has plenty of time to develop his offensive game, but expect Alvarado to push him in camp.