By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
- Georgia Tech has been practicing basketball for just two days with newcomers scattered so far and wide as to outnumber returnees 10-6, yet the veteran Yellow Jackets already feel that they can surpass last season, which was, well, surpassing.
Sophomore Josh Okogie and seniors Ben Lammers and Tadric Jackson – Tech’s three leading scorers last season -- have seen enough of their new teammates in workouts and pick-up games to build confidence.
Where the 2016-17 campaign seemed to come almost out of nowhere as a team widely picked to finish next-to-last or last in the ACC won 21 games and rolled all the way to the NIT championship game, the Jackets see reaching higher ground in head coach Josh Pastner’s second season.
“I feel like we’re definitely in a better spot. Last year, we were all kind of new to things and grew together,” said Okogie, a 6-foot-4 guard who earned ACC All-Freshman honors last season upon averaging 16.1 points and 5.4 rebounds.
“I feel like we’ve got a lot of returners with a lot of knowledge we’ll be able to teach the younger guys, and we’ll be able to progress faster ... This year, obviously, we have better players. I feel like we’re gelling a lot more.”
Last season was at times glorious, as the Jackets were 21-16 overall and 8-10 in the ACC with upset wins over ranked squads from eventual national champion North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame, plus Syracuse and Indiana.
The fact that Lammers is back surely will help, as he was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and earned second-team All-ACC honors after averaging 14.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.38 blocked shots per game. That led the ACC and ranked third in the nation.
In Lammers and Okogie, who this summer played for the United States’ Under-19 team in the FIBA World Cup in Cairo, Egypt, Tech has one of the top returning tandems not only in the ACC, but the nation.
Maybe it’s partially because Lammers is a senior now, but the 6-10 center spoke with uncommon faith about Tech’s prospects.
“I think the main goal for me and the team is to make it to the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “That’s obviously one of the main things we’re thinking about.”
It’s been a while since Georgia Tech would “obviously” harbor thoughts of going to March Madness, but you can count Jackson as another believer. He averaged 12.1 points last season, and said his goal is to, “Win the ACC Tournament. That’s my individual expectation ... and try to make it to the dance.”
Pastner’s not one to boast unless maybe he’s talking about players’ effort levels, but he’d rather slow the Jackets’ roll at least until he and his staff spend a few weeks in real practice situations rather than individual workouts.
He has plenty of mixing and matching to do while gauging four new scholarship players in guards Jose Alvarado and Curtis Haywood II and forwards Evan Cole and Moses Wright – all of whom have a shot at playing time.
Tech added a pair of transfers as well. Lehigh graduate guard Brandon Alston is eligible to play this season, and former Tennessee guard Shembari Phillips will be eligible to play two seasons beginning in 2018-19.
“You can’t forget this is still a major rebuild job,” the coach said in trotting out one of his pet phrases. “We’re only in year two, and we’re maybe a little more talented in some areas but a lot less experienced ...
“I’m going to find the five best, and if we have to go small, I’ll go small. What I’ve told our guys is forget the positions; your job is to produce. If you produce, I’ll find a way to put you on the floor.”
If scouting reports from Okogie, Lammers and Jackson are accurate, the improvements of sophomore guard Justin Moore and third-year forward Sylvester Ogbonda may help. The Jackets must replace graduated forward Quinton Stephens (10.4 points, 7.6 rebounds), point guard Josh Heath (5.3 points, 4.36 assists) and guard Corey Heyward, a defensive stalwart.
“Most definitely Sylvester,” Okogie said when asked who’s caught his eye in workouts. “Every time I come in the gym thinking I’m about to be the only guy, he beats me there. He’s been working endless nights, and I think he’s going to be a great addition to our rotation. He’s gotten better with his footwork and positioning.”
Lammers said of the 6-10 Ogbonda, “He’s kind of like fitting a missing piece. He’s one of those big, strong guys, a true [center] because he’s so strong nobody can bully him out of the way, so I definitely think he’ll contribute to our team.”
Of course, Lammers played center almost exclusively (35.4 minutes per game) last season while Ogbonda averaged 1.6 points and 1.0 rebounds while playing in 23 games.
Those numbers aren’t unlike those put up by Lammers as a freshmen, when he averaged 1.2 points and 1.5 rebounds.
If Ogbonda has truly grown his game, and Lammers is serious when he says that he has, “worked to extend my range a little bit so maybe I’ll be able to go out around the 3-point line,” might Pastner transition from last season’s single-post offense to a double-post attack?
“It’ll depend. Ves has improved, and ... if we have to play AD [6-9 forward Abdoulaye Gueye], Ves and Ben together, I would find a way to do that if they’re three of our best players who are producing. Ves has really improved.”
Jackson said Moore is better, too.
He started 18 games last season, with Heath taking more minutes at the point. At times flashy, the 6-4 guard from San Diego occasionally worked himself into Pastner’s doghouse with ill-advised shots or inconsistent defense, yet he’s clearly skilled.
He and the 6-foot Alvarado, who’s already noted for his competitive nature and toughness, figure to share the point guard duties.
“He’s definitely more comfortable shooting the ball,” Jackson said of Moore. “He’s definitely improved from last year.”
Lammers’ assessment of Moore: “He’ll have better command of the court, which will definitely help us out. Josh Heath definitely had it ... he’d do the right pass at the right time.”
The Jackets will be busy for four weeks before playing a Nov. 2 exhibition in McCamish Pavilion against Faulkner, and then opening the season Nov. 10 against UCLA in Shanghai, China.
“I told our guys we still have a long way to go,” Pastner said. “We finished in 11th place in the ACC. That’s double digits, and we lost by 30 [88-56] to TCU [in the NIT championship game] so we’re so far from out of the woods. Our margin for error, maybe it’s gone from zero to two or three percent.”