It’s never too early to throw some June into an otherwise crappy March. With such a ballyhooed (triple word score) recruiting class coming in, and with no other basketball to speak about, now is as good a time as any to start projesticating.
*The obvious disclaimer: This is assuming there are no changes to the way the 2020-21 roster looks currently. All recruits have signed their NLI, so there’s less risk of them not coming, although we’ve seen that before. And as yesterday’s news dropped, most people assume both DJ Funderburk and Devon Daniels will use the NBA Draft process to receive feedback and return next year.. you never know. AJ Taylor may transfer, and there is one other potential candidate for a transfer, but I’ll get to that (hint: his name rhymes with Shmeverly). And obviously we’re assuming the injury/concussion bug doesn’t make it’s way through the team again.
The Current Guys
First, let’s talk about the 2019-20 roster. The most common positions Keatts slotted players at this season were as follows:
PG: Markell Johnson (6’1”, 175, Sr) / Braxton Beverly (6’0”, 180, Jr)
SG: Devon Daniels (6’5”, 205, Redshirt-Jr) / Beverly
SF: CJ Bryce (6’5”, 210, R-Sr) / Daniels / Jericole Hellems (6’7”, 205, So)
PF: DJ Funderburk (6’10”, 225, R-Jr) / Hellems / Bryce / Pat Andree (6’8”, 220, Grad-Sr)
C: Manny Bates (6’11”, 230, R-Fr) / Funderburk / Danny Dixon (6’10”, 230, G-Sr)
Kevin Keatts initially seemed hesitant to play DJ Funderburk and Manny Bates on the floor at the same time. Competing with the size in the ACC forced him to use them more than he was planning, and there were pros and cons with it. Having the extra size was clearly advantageous, and Bates provides much needed rim protection and a backup for when the press breaks. But having Funderburk at center allowed the team to go smaller and faster. The combo of Johnson, Daniels, Bryce, Hellems and Funderburk really helped the team make fast scoring runs.
In looking at the lineups used by Keatts, what stands out to me is he enjoys having different combinations to play with, but was a few pieces away this seasons. It does seem like those pieces are incoming.
The New(est) Guys
Speaking of which, let’s next talk about the new guys. There are five incoming freshmen, all of which are 3 or 4 star recruits. NC State has had recruits with higher star ratings, but has not had a class with this many incoming recruits with such a high cumulative rating. The potential is very high. That being said, they will still be freshmen, and will be learning on the job.
Josh Hall (SF, 6’9”, 190, 4 stars)
Cam Hayes (PG, 6’1”, 160, 4 stars)
Shakeel Moore (PG, 6’1”, 185, 3 stars)
Nick Farrar (PF, 6’7”, 230, 3 stars)
Ebenezer Dowuona (6’10”, 220, 3 stars)
It should reiterated over and over that recruit star ratings are not the end all and be all of potential performance. It is all in how the coach is able to harness the talent at his disposal. Also, some guys are underrated. I think Shakeel Moore and Nick Farrar fit that bill. They are likely to surprise people next year. For his size, Moore has the surprising urge to dunk on people early and often. I think he has great aggressiveness on both ends, and a great handle. We’re going to enjoy watching him play. Especially how active his hands are on defense. Farrar might be the most prototypical power forward Keatts has had. His size and strength inside could help with DJ Funderburk shifts back to play center. Ebenezer Dowuona is of similar height and weigh to DJ, with a great motor and touch around the rim. He will provide more than adequate backup minutes for DJ or Bates when the lineup is going small. He’ll need to work on his rim protection and jump shot, but hey so does DJ to be honest (don’t need a scout to tell him that, just stay in school and take that one for free).
As for Hall, I feel I’m in the minority with having lower expectations of his immediate impact. Although he’s the highest rated recruit in the class, it’s my opinion that Josh Hall is going to look like a freshman during his first campaign in the ACC. He has amazing athletic ability, but his game does not seem refined enough. I’ve watched a fair amount of Moravian Prep games, and Shakeel Moore has a stronger command of the game with a high basketball IQ, but was under. Hall seems to know he can blow passed or jump over most of his opponents at the high school level, but is relying on his athleticism to succeed. His coach seemingly at times didn’t put him in the best position to succeed, putting the ball in his hands with a green light. This caused him to shoot the team out of a winnable game. During other games, when Moore was setting the tempo, Hall was able to play off him and got great looks and do his thing. I think Keatts would rein him in better, and place him in the flow of the offense. Long term he will also need to add size to compete at the next level.
Don’t get me wrong, the guy is going to be very good. He has a great highlight reel. But expectations of him coming in and taking over games from day 1 should be muted, just my opinion. I expect him to show flashes of his skills while he adjusts to the higher competition level, while he un-learns some of the habits he’s learned up to now.. He’s a wait and see for me, but others might disagree.
Cam Hayes, on the other hand, is ready. He has a level of confidence you like to see from a point guard. He doesn’t force shots up unnecessarily, and gives the ball up if he doesn’t have a lane. When watching recruits, it’s easy to get sucked into the hype, so I’m trying to stay measured. But if we’re willing to give into fits of fancy, I dare to say that he has a higher ceiling that Markell Johnson. You never really know what you’re going to get, but from what I’ve seen he seems like an upgrade at the 1 spot. Tall words, I know, maybe I’ll regret those words. If we can potentially get “good Markell” with a higher ceiling on a day to day basis, then count me in. (On a complete side note, Hayes’ teammate is Carson McCorkle, a UVA commit for next year. This guy is totally a Tony Bennett style player. We are going to be annoyed by his efficiency.)
The New(ish) Guys
Next, there’s the group of players already on the roster waiting to get on the court. From what I’ve seen they’ll fit well within the system. Keatts is definitely recruiting a certain type of player. He wants high energy guys, and these guys fit the bill.
AJ Taylor (6’6”, 205, SF, R-So) - JUCO transfer. Athletic with shooting range. Haven’t seen enough to draw a stronger opinion, but he looks like he can provide energy and scoring off the bench, and maybe stretch the floor. Likely a second unit player at best next year given the logjam of guys his size. Also, rumors are swirling that he might transfer out.
Dereon Seabron (6’7”, 180, CG, R-Fr) - Remains an enigma to be honest. He sure had electrifying dunks in high school (one thing is for sure, this whole team can hop), but there doesn’t seem to be a ton of film on his shooting ability. There’s been a lot of talk of him playing point guard, but from what I’ve seen I think he’s likely going to fit in the 2/3 slot depending on the lineup. He could even slide back to the 4 if Keatts wants to go quick. Unless he’s greatly improved his ball control and passing, I don’t see him as a point guard. This also assumes he clears academically.
Thomas Allen (6’1”, 180, SG, R-Jr) - He seems like he’ll fit in well in the hole CJ Bryce is leaving. Where Bryce played more at Small Forward, Allen will be a Shooting Guard, but what they have in common is the ability to score. Needs = ballers, always, and Allen fits that mold of being able to get you a bucket when you need it most. He might also end up being one of the more reliable outside shooters. Although we thought that about Pat Andree, and that ended up, well, you know.
That’s a Lot of Guys
Lastly, how will all these pieces come together. Honestly, this is going to be the biggest jigsaw puzzle Kevin Keatts has had to put together during his tenure.
If you’re counting at home, that’s eight new players that Keatts needs to integrate into a cohesive team for the first time. If you recall, this was the narrative two years ago as well. The talent level is much higher this time around, though making up for the loss of Johnson and Bryce is not insignificant (Andree and Dixon also). For my money, Hayes and Allen are the two most likely candidates to have an immediate impact, with Moore close behind. The pluses should make up for the minuses, and there’s many more options for lineups now.
After looking at all these pieces, I think Keatts is less concerned with assigning traditional positions. He’ll most likely be looking to put out the right combinations for the moment. When he came in to the job, he said his goal was to have a roster full of speed, length, athleticism, and 3 point shooting ability. The long range shooting will remain to be seen, but the others he now has in spades. It took a few years to get here, with several unfortunate departures, but if all the pieces stay put, this roster will be the closest Keatts has had to match his master plan.
Here is the roster as it stands now (again assuming no changes):
Josh Hall (6’9”, 190, Fr)
Cam Hayes (6’1”, 160, Fr)
Shakeel Moore (6’1”, 185, Fr)
Nick Farrar (6’7”, 230, Fr)
Ebenezer Dowuona (6’10”, 220, Fr)
Dereon Seabron (6’7”, R-Fr)
AJ Taylor (6’6”, 205, R-So)
Manny Bates (6’11”, 230, R-So)
Thomas Allen (6’1”, 180, SG, R-Jr)
Jericole Hellems (6’7”, 205, Jr)
DJ Funderburk (6’10”, 225, R-Sr)
Devon Daniels (6’5”, 205, R-Sr)
Braxton Beverly (6’0”, 180, Sr)
My projected starting lineup:
PG: Hayes / Moore / Beverly
SG: Daniels / Allen / Seabron
SF: Hellems / Hall / Taylor
PF: Funderburk / Farrar
C: Bates / Dowuona
The one person that appears to be left out of this transition is Braxton Beverly. He seems like the type of person to stick it out even if he gets buried on the depth chart. Kevin Keatts clearly has a soft spot for him, often playing him on nights when Beverly clearly doesn’t have it that game. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see him stay and be a senior leader, or transfer and make the most of his last year of eligibility. His back injuries may also play into his decision.
As I said, these positions can all slide around as necessary to fit the situation. There are variations to go small, big, and in between. I haven’t been this optimistic about a NC State roster in a long time. And we know that our optimism has always paid off with on-court results, right? Ahem, sorry, this was supposed to stay June-certified.
Overall, I don’t expect Keatts to throw multiple freshmen into the starting lineup. He knows what he has with four of the five likely starters, and just needs to replace Markell Johnson at PG. Hellems’ position will be the most tenuous, with younger guys behind him that could earn his spot as the year goes along. As is often the case with basketball these days, that wing position is a major key.
There is still a lot of youth, so we should all expect growing pains. They still might fart away a winnable game on the road some random Tuesday at Boston College. If they do it will not be the end of the world, as the upside is looking way up.