It has been a strange year for the Clemson men’s basketball program. In many respects, the Tigers were mighty close to the NCAA Tournament, losing a plethora of tight contests in a variety of ways. Though the margins were often small, on many nights, it seemed the team was far away from making the couple of plays required to go from losing in the first round of the NIT to a more suitable end-of-season destination.
The future of the program is under the microscope now, with a highly publicized sit-down between Brad Brownell and Dan Radakovich marking the end of the year. A staff change followed, as long-time Brownell associate Mike Winiecki is no longer with the program. Leaving with him are three productive seniors, one of whom is likely to be selected during the NBA Draft in June.With the full implementation of a revamped facility, 2017-18 is setting up to be an important year for the program as is currently constituted.
Of course, the most obvious gaping hole to fill is the presence of Jaron Blossomgame. He was one of the most prolific players in school history, ranking among the top five Tigers all-time in scoring and eighth in career rebounding. Early in his career, the effort plays he made on the offensive glass and on the defensive end kept him on the floor. While those kinds of plays became rarer as his skill set rounded out, Blossomgame’s ability to score in a variety of ways more than made up for it—even as his perimeter shooting took a dive last season.
There isn’t a tailor-made player on the roster to take over Blossomgame’s role. Perhaps the best candidate could be David Skara, a transfer from Valparaiso whose build favors Blossomgame and whose skill set intrigues the staff. From a prospect standpoint, the guy most capable of an immediate impact appears to be Aamir Simms, whose size at 6’8” could make him a candidate to replace some of what Blossomgame provided at the four for the Tigers. Malik William is another freshman that will likely need to fill out before he can contribute at the power forward spot.
It will be imperative for Donte Grantham to bounce back after a rough junior campaign. The rising senior scored in single digits for the final ten games of the season and only hit double figures five times over 20 conference contests. He can become a serious weapon with a more consistent jump shot and a more aggressive approach to accentuate the strengths of his game, but there was clearly a confidence issue that permeated throughout the ACC portion of the schedule. Simply put, this cannot continue if the Tigers are to be successful next season.
Grantham could play more regularly at the four in smaller lineups featuring three guards, which is a possibility given the nature of Clemson’s roster next season. The only guard the Tigers will lose is Avry Holmes, a reliable and consistent steady hand and a career 41 percent shooter from 3-point range. His importance often went beyond the box score in terms of his on-ball defense and leadership. Aside from Holmes, the rest of Clemson’s backcourt will return—aside from Ty Hudson, whose transfer out of the program means very little to the bottom line given the depth that remains.
The leader is point guard Shelton Mitchell. The former Vanderbilt Commodore is the leading returner in points (10.8) and assists (5.6) from last season. He slashed .459/.453/.798 in an impressive shooting campaign that, if duplicated, could lead to his point totals skyrocketing in his increased role next season. The main knock on Mitchell a season ago was his balky knee. That injury limited his capabilities—particularly on defense—and has forced him to undergo arthroscopic surgery during this offseason.
Alongside Mitchell will be Marcquise Reed, who filled the sixth man role admirably for the Tigers last season. He averaged exactly 10 points per game and shot just better than 90 percent from the foul line and just better than 40 percent from 3-point range. Reed is an opportunistic defender that is susceptible to the drive and to back-door cuts, but he is also the lone returning Clemson player with more steals (46) than turnovers (40). His free spirit on offense makes him a go-to player in clutch situations.
Speaking of clutch situations, part of the reason for Clemson’s struggles down the stretch at times this season was related to an imperfect roster construction for end-game possessions. When your best player needs either screens or wing isolation to get open and tends to act deliberately after the catch, it forces coaches to rely on primary ball-handlers to take big shots. Blossomgame was rarely featured at the end of games last season, with those responsibilities often reserved for Mitchell or Reed—two more capable ball-handlers with the confidence to take and ability to make contested shots. Expect that hierarchy to continue late in games.
Some of that duty could fall to Gabe DeVoe, as well. Clemson’s highest-volume 3-point shooter shot below 33 percent from beyond the arc a season ago. That was an improvement over his first two years in the program, but he will likely need to shoot more like Mitchell or Reed from downtown if the Tigers are to be successful in 2017-18. DeVoe sees the floor well from the wing but can also be careless with the ball. He and Reed could be murderous defenders in wing passing lanes, but taking too many chances could also put a heavy burden on help defenders. On the flip side, going to a zone could have the adverse effect of limiting steal opportunities for both of them.
At the center spot, Elijah Thomas is the heir apparent to Sidy Djitte. In fact, some of the transition happened during the season. Thomas started nine games, including every one of the Tigers’ eight contests in March. Djitte brought a ton to the table and was the most efficient offensive rebounder in the country last season. Thomas isn’t going to be that type of player, but he has the ability to provide more consistent scoring and versatility in the paint. Behind him is Legend Robertin, who should see a few more minutes per game. Brownell has excelled at optimizing his backup post players by limiting and controlling exposure. Expect Robertin to get that treatment.
Unknown is how Scott Spencer will fit into the mix. The rising sophomore wing never saw the floor after mid-December and could factor into the mix as a reserve. A.J. Oliver sat on the sidelines during the second semester and could use an offseason in the weight room, but he is a skilled scorer with length that could also see some time. Clyde Trapp is an athletic specimen that may find it tough to surpass older players on the wing until his game rounds out a little better.
The other major unknown at this juncture is how Brownell will fill out his staff. Winiecki was instrumental in developing the post players for Brownell, so it will be interesting to see if Brownell goes to find someone in his mold or if he goes younger with someone who has more of a recruiting background. That decision could be the difference between a similar finish and a breakthrough next season.
Because of how many close games Clemson lost last season, it was arguably the best team in the country (in terms of quality of play) that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers could conceivably be worse per possession and win more games with better clutch play. Replacing Blossomgame will be nearly impossible for one player, but the entire offensive apparatus should be fine given the presence of scoring guards and an increased role for Thomas. Obviously, defense remains a priority, and some issues will still exist there because of the personnel that exists. The leadership of the team—an uncertain element that may be the most important of all offseason priorities—will need to buy into Brownell’s philosophy on that end of the floor.
If that happens, there’s no guarantee that the Tigers won’t be as good or better next season, even without one of the best players in school history.