By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
- What a difference a year makes.
Last August, it's doubtful that Georgia Tech men's basketball coach Josh Pastner would have assessed his comfort level as he did Wednesday afternoon.
"It's as clear as I've probably ever have been in my coaching career," he said in the new-look lobby of Zelnak Center, standing in front of a collage of images from his debut season. "I'm going into my ninth year as a head coach, and I'm as clear as I've ever been to this point."
These moments of clarity are far from the view he had last August, when the Jackets found themselves at step one in Pastner's program and he was as much learning which boxes held which items as he moved in as he was learning his players' names in moving the program forward.
It wasn't much easier for the players.
"I think a big roadblock that we hit last year was that everybody was new so it took a long time to grasp things," said guard Josh Okogie, one of those new faces, who'd earn ACC All-Freshman honors. "If we needed help we had to rely on Coach. We couldn't rely on each other because the next guy didn't know as much as the last guy."
One full summer camp, preseason and a remarkable thrill ride also known as the 2016-17 season later, Pastner is at ease and the players are poised, battle-tested and hungry to continue progressing.
"Obviously, last summer we were learning a completely new offense, a completely new defense so that was a little bit more of a learning curve for everybody," said senior center Ben Lammers, second-team All-ACC center and conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2016-17. "This year we have a fair amount of returners coming back, and we can help out the younger guys, so it's a little bit better, but obviously, every summer it's re-teaching everyone the same stuff. We'll have another year on it, which hopefully means we'll be even better. So I'm hoping that with this extra experience we'll be able to improve on what we did last year."
Players' familiarity with Pastner's enthusiastic, high-energy methods also was important this summer.
"He yells, but you don't notice the yelling part as much. Just listen to the word and what he's really trying to tell you," said senior guard Tadric Jackson. "He's trying to get everybody better, and he wants everybody on the same page. If you haven't caught on or picked up on it by now, you're probably never going to pick up on it."
To a man, the returners feel they've not only picked up on Pastner and the staff's teaching techniques but also improved their techniques in various facets of their game.
Okogie got invaluable experience over the summer, playing for the U.S. team at the FIBA U19 World Cup in Cairo, Egypt, where he averaged 4.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 13.4 minutes in seven games for the U.S., which won its group then advanced to the semifinals, before falling to eventual champion Canada -- and finishing with the bronze medal.
"Playing that kind of level right after the season was really good. It was a wonderful learning experience for me," he said. "Kind of seeing where I am in relation to other guys my age and skill, talent range, just learning -- so many different guys, so many different skill levels, coaches, a lot of different people that you meet, I think that was the best part for me."
Learning his body was a big plus and will be important in 2017-18.
"Getting used to my arms and being more familiar with my body and trying to find out things about myself that I didn't know and using the stuff that I'm figuring out to my advantage when I'm playing," he said.
Being more comfortable leading also will be big.
"Last year I was getting my feet wet and didn't really know what to expect so it was kind of hard for me to lead when I didn't even know what was coming my way," Okogie said. "But now I have a whole year under my belt, I can take the young guys and the rest of the team and (tell them), `We're going to be able to do this.'"
For Lammers, working on his game the summer before his senior year required him to take a step back -- several steps back, actually.
"I've been working on trying to go out to the three-point line a little bit more," said the 6-10 center, who is 1-for-2 from behind the arc in his Tech career. "Obviously I'm still working to be more efficient on the inside. I try to make everything a little bit better, but I'd say threes and the inside game are things I've focused on."
Jackson, who also will be a senior, is looking for more consistency and, this summer started a greater commitment to rebounding.
"Definitely getting on the boards on the offensive and defensive sides and getting more rebounds than I did last year as a guard," he said. "Coach Pastner loves guard rebounds so that's one thing I'm trying to focus on."
And in case Jackson ever feels like he's reached his goals, he can count on Pastner to remind him how high he has set the bar for him.
"He's got to be a great player for us. If he's not great for us we might not be as good as we want to be as a team," said Pastner. "He's working, and I love him, and I'm going to ride him and be on him and coach him hard, but he's got to produce at a high level for us every time he steps on the floor. That's every single time he steps on the floor."
Among returners, junior center Sylvester Ogbonda, who Pastner called "our most improved player," and Lammers called "our strongest guy," showed signs of having a breakout year this summer.
The returning core of last year's team was supplemented by four incoming freshmen, forwards Moses Wright and Evan Cole, point guard Jose Alvarado, who with sophomore Justin Moore could make an interesting 1-2 at the point, and wing guard Curtis Haywood, showed good defensive skill but needs to shoot with a little more consistency -- something Pastner assured will come. A pair of junior transfer guards, Shembari Phillips (Tennessee) and Brandon Alston (Lehigh) could contribute, although Phillips will sit out 2017-18 in accordance with NCAA rules.
Okogie recognizes the talent and the role he and other team leaders will have in the development and acclimation process for the kids.
"There's a lot of energy, a lot of talent," he said. "I feel like if I work hard with them, and we work hard together, and we can point their talent and energy in the right direction, we can make something happen. We have a group of core guys who really got a lot of experience playing last year. The freshmen are learning a whole lot faster than we were because they've got the coaches, they've got us. We're pushing them through it while we're playing, so they're learning a lot quicker, and we know what it's going to take, so we know what to demand from our freshmen. Us and the coaching staff, we're all on the same page."
The Jackets believe they're a year older and a year better, but the road to their destination is very much on-going.
"We won a lot of good games last year, we had good success, we overachieved, but we still finished 11th in the ACC," Pastner said, with a laugh, "We'll probably be picked anywhere, between 11th and 13th again. So we're far from being out of the woods."
But, also like last season those inside the program have little use for what those outside the program have to say.
"Coach is going to expect way more than last year," said Jackson. "This is my last year, my last go-round. He always talks about he doesn't want any players to leave here with regrets, what you could've, should've done. It's going to be way more intense than last year, with trying to get to the (NCAA) Tournament and he expects a lot out of us."
Expectations don't scare this team.
"Obviously we go in with pretty high expectations," said Lammers. "I imagine that people will expect a little bit more of us compared to last year. We can't sneak up on anyone this time. So it will be a little bit harder in that way."
"We expect more of ourselves," said Okogie. "Looking back in retrospect, we did way more than we thought we could do, and we can definitely hang our hats on that but guys are still counting us out. We know what we're about and we're going to try to do the impossible again."