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NC State basketball progress report: Finding answers to preseason questions

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at N.C. State Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

NC State is a really good basketball team, and Wednesday night was just validation of that. The Wolfpack got through the meat of their non-conference schedule with a 3-1 record, which I think pretty much everyone would’ve taken at the beginning of the season. Speaking of the beginning of the season, I wrote a piece looking at some critical questions that would determine the success of the upcoming season. With two more tune ups before conference play and about 1/3 of the way through the season, this seems like an appropriate time to analyze those questions and how they’re playing out…

How will the new pieces mesh?

Starting out the season with five cupcake games wasn’t necessarily appealing to fans or the media, but it was probably the best thing for this team. With almost an entirely new roster it was important for these guys to have time to learn how to play with each other and start to figure out roles. It paid off as State had arguably their best overall showing in the first quality game at Wisconsin, one that they probably should’ve won in a tough place to play. They then beat three straight power five teams rather handily. Kevin Keatts said in his media availability on Monday that he thinks guys are starting to figure out and accept their roles, and it’s been evident.

Markell and Dorn are the leaders of the team. Guys like Bryce, Daniels, and Hellems are on the court for their defensive versatility and ability to create offense. Braxton is the basically the backup point guard, but when he’s in with Markell he is there to shoot until the ball can’t be shot anymore. The post players roles are a little different but both important; Funderburk can score at all three levels while Walker is in there to rebound and defend. It looks Blake Harris and Eric Lockett will see the least amount of minutes, but each contributes while they are on the floor. Team chemistry hasn’t been an issue, and I feel it’s something that won’t ever really be an issue under someone like Keatts. The fact of the matter is there are 10 guys on this roster who are legit, but obviously only 5 can be on the court at once. The acceptance of roles is so important. Look at Blake Harris for example. He’s realized that he is put in the game for short spurts simply to get in the opposing point guards shorts, and he’s done a damn good job doing so. Harris plays some of the best on ball defense I’ve seen and constantly bothered a really good guard in Jared Harper for Auburn. That’s the kind of stuff to look for.

Is there enough in the middle?

Thanks to the mysterious departure of Ian Steere after only one game, the Pack is left with two post players. You could even argue it’s only 1.5 as Funderburk is definitely more of a stretch-4 wing type player. Both options are solid, but depth is not as this is going to be a question that probably doesn’t get answered all season and will be different from game to game. Wyatt Walker is what he is: a hard working big man who plays below the rim. He’s shown some savvy footwork and moves in the post, but he will be relied on for defense and rebounding. Funderburk’s biggest issue so far has been staying out of foul trouble. He has picked up two fouls in the first half in every game against power five competition, including Penn State where he picked up his 4th foul before the U-16 media timeout in the second half. Even with such foul trouble, he still finished with 16 and 12 points against Vanderbilt and Penn State, respectively. Funderburk has been wildly efficient shooting 67% from the field, including 60% from three and 74% from the line so if he could find a way to stay on the floor he could be a huge asset. As far as rebounding goes, NC State won’t have anybody set individual records but they have surprisingly been a very good rebounding team so far ranking 10th in the country in rebounding margin per game (one spot ahead of mighty Zion and Duke). Tell me it’s due to playing a bunch of 200 and 300 level RPI teams and I’ll tell you that they actually outrebounded Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, and Penn State. They did lose the rebounding battle to Auburn by 7, but that shouldn’t be too surprising with all that length they have. We’ll see how all of this holds up in the ACC, but so far having only two big men suit up hasn’t been an issue.

Where does outside shooting come from?

Overall, NC State has exceeded my expectations as far as 3PT shooting, with a team percentage of 41.1% which is good for 10th in the country. I think you might see that number come down a little bit but it’s still a really good sign. Everyone knew Braxton Beverly was a heck of a shooter. Even with a lengthy slump, Beverly is still shooting a very good 40.9% from deep thanks to catching hot fire the last couple of games. Markell Johnson has been deadly at 50%. What surprised me the most was the fact that the number isn’t inflated due to a low number of attempts; he’s taken 48 threes which is only four fewer than Braxton.

Other than those two it has been a true by committee approach to outside shooting. Both Torin Dorn (45.8%) and CJ Bryce (39.1%) have shot well above their career averages to go with guys like Blake Harris and Jericole Hellems both shooting above a 40 percent clip. The one disappointment so far has been Devon Daniels with an ugly 27.0%, a guy originally thought of as someone who would provide quality shooting. He’s been pretty frustrating to watch at times, but don’t give up on him just yet. He’s contributed in other ways as a rebounder and very good defender. His scoring showed up the other night with 15 points in the second half and NC State certainly wouldn’t have won without him. It feels like a similar situation to Al Freeman last year: a transfer who seemed to force the issue way too much the first couple of months after hearing in the offseason all about how he was going to come in and be a big scorer for State. Hopefully the light fully comes on for him, because he’s a talent player who can do a lot of things.

Who becomes “the guy”?

Markell Johnson. Pretty simple. I mean the guy has been awesome. It’s amazing to think about where he was as a freshman: a freak athlete who was constantly out of control, couldn’t shoot to save his life, and was in Dennis Smith Jr’s shadow. Now, he has developed a solid all-around game under Keatts and looks like an all-conference type of player. His assists are down from last season but that’s due to him shouldering a larger scoring load, averaging 13.6 ppg good for second on the team behind Torin Dorn. What’s best about it is that he’s scoring more and shooting more but doing so even more efficiently than last year, which you don’t see too often. He currently owns a shooting percentage line of 60.9/63.6/50.0 (FG/FT/3PT), and while you’d like to see that FT% rise some, the other two numbers are outstanding. I used to close my eyes when Markell would take a jump shot. Now I’m actually confident it’s going.

The most impressive thing about him this season though so far is his ability to simply take over a game, much to the pleasure of Kevin Keatts. The coach has forever been pleading to him through the media, and probably to his face as well, to be more aggressive with the ball in his hands. Against Vanderbilt, clinging to a 60-58 lead with 6:40 remaining, Markell scored 12 straight points to stretch it out to a comfortable 11-point lead. On Wednesday night, Auburn tied things up at 47 in the second half. Johnson proceeded to rattle off 3-pointers on the next three possessions to pump up the lead to 8, which the Pack never gave up. And that last three he took in transition was ballsy, one only taken by someone with a ton of confidence. He’s really starting to come in to his own. There are a lot of good players on this roster, but none of them are as important as Markell Johnson.

What can we expect from the Keatts wardrobe?

You all saw the red suit with wolf head Gucci loafers. I mean SHEESH. With a nice little raise last week, expect more of the same.