Shep Garner [Greg Bartram – USA Today]
Back in the 2010-2011 season, Penn State was forced to vacate its basketball facilities to accommodate preparation for a Jon Bon Jovi concert, and then a career fair – they had to practice at a rec sports facility commonly used by the volleyball team. This was part of the stretch run for a senior-laden team led by Talor Battle, which snuck into the NCAA Tournament after winning a few games in the Big Ten Tournament (the infamous 36-33 victory over Wisconsin during that tournament might have been the win to get them in). After the season was over, long-time head coach Ed DeChellis stepped down from the job to coach at… Navy.
Perhaps nothing better encapsulates the Sisyphean nature of Penn State basketball than those few months, a program routinely plays in near-empty arenas despite having the athletic department to accommodate a gargantuan football program. I mentioned this in the Nebraska preview, but Penn State’s unique challenges might be the most difficult in the Big Ten (beyond Northwestern’s, of course).
Pat Chambers took over for DeChellis and it seems like the boilerplate compliments given to Chambers teams are that they play hard and give a ton of effort. Typically, those types of comments are reserved for teams with decided talent disadvantages and the record has borne that out for Chambers in Happy Valley as the Nittany Lions have gone a combined 23-67 in Big Ten play since he took over. Needless to say, there was no momentum after that surprise tournament bid back in the spring of 2011 and the program has predictably struggled.
It will probably be more of the same for Penn State this year. They lost senior Brandon Taylor, a high-volume iso scoring forward who usually played the four, and adjusting to his absence will be a challenge. Chambers’s familiarity with the Philadelphia recruiting scene paid off in a big way, as he was able to sign a trio of players from Roman Catholic High School, two of whom were Top 100 prospects nationally. Even if the talent level has risen some, Penn State’s best players will be young and escaping from the bottom half of the Big Ten will be difficult.
[More on the Nittany Lions after the JUMP]
Penn State was better defensively than offensively and it’s not a mystery why: the highest individual offensive rating for anyone on the team was Shep Garner’s 105.3 – which was pretty decent for how much offense he created – but that there were virtually no low-usage, high-efficiency options crippled the Penn State offense. There wasn’t a sharpshooter on the perimeter or a big man who could reliably finish his rare chances.
Brandon Taylor was an interesting player in the mold of a Nigel Hayes, Shavon Shields, or Malcolm Hill, though less of a distributor than those players. He was an important cog in the Nittany Lion offense, often taking very tough shots when they stalled on that end. Even though he wasn’t a particularly efficient player, he was pretty valuable (and one of the more under-the-radar solid players in the Big Ten) and his contributions will be missed.
The role players were sort of indistinct from one another. Donovon Jack – who graduated, along with Taylor – was perhaps the most effective, but he didn’t see much playing time. By contrast, sophomore wing Payton Banks, who had iffy shooting splits (43 / 33 / 74 (2P% / 3P% / FT%)), was a key rotation piece, as was Josh Reaves, a guard who only hit three of his 39 three-point attempts on the season. Isaiah Washington, another rotation guard, actually had an offensive rating of 75 – which is ridiculously low.
Four Factor Z-Scores from games against Big Ten opponents
Penn State actually finished 12th in the Big Ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency in conference play; while the defense was better against non-conference opponents, it fell off in Big Ten play – the biggest reason for that was Penn State’s inability to avoid fouling and sending opponents to the free throw line. They were a pretty tall team but couldn’t translate that to success on the glass. Most of all, their poor shooting was an anchor on their offense – without any efficient options, they ranked 12th in both 3-point and 2-point % in Big Ten play.
Shep Garner is welcoming a couple of fellow Roman Catholic alums to Happy Valley – headlined by Tony Carr, the top high school prospect in Pennsylvania. Carr isn’t a one-and-done type talent and there’s probably a wide range of potential outcomes for him this season, but he’s the best recruit to pick Penn State in at least a decade. He has good size for the point guard position and is best attacking the basket and distributing the ball, though he does have a decent outside shot as well. Perhaps his defense could be better, but in terms of point guard skills, Carr is about as good as you’ll get from a player at the high school level.
Carr will start, as will fellow 4* Lamar Stevens (in all probability), a physical combo forward type. While he might have somewhat of an adjustment moving to the college level, he’s a high-level rebounder and defender, and can work effectively from the mid-range and in, especially with a nice back-to-the-basket game. He snuck just inside the 247 Composite Top 100 and might be best as a four, though he could play the three as well. Stevens might have more potential than Carr, and if he develops well offensively, could possibly be an NBA prospect as a small forward in time.
Finishing out the trio of Roman Catholic products is Nazeer Bostick, a guard with a strong individual defensive game who might be limited offensively – somewhat of a common theme with much of Penn State’s roster. Joe Hampton, a power forward, was a part of the class – which ranked fourth(!) in the Big Ten behind traditional basketball schools MSU, IU, and UMD – but Hampton has already left the program. In any case, Carr and Stephens boost Penn State’s talent level and have definitely provided some excitement in the program.
STARTER (POINT GUARD) – Shep Garner (Jr, 6’2, 187): Took over half his shots from three (37%) but was ineffective at the rim and from mid-range, good distributor without many turnovers, was Penn State’s second-best player last season.
STARTER (POINT GUARD) – Tony Carr (Fr, 6’3, 198): Highly-touted recruit will likely play heavy minutes alongside Garner despite having the profile of a “true” point guard, a big question will be if his floor-spacing will be an asset or not.
STARTER (WING) – Payton Banks (Jr, 6’6, 223): Had non-descript numbers across the board but played 71.4% of available minutes, which was third-highest on the team, extremely poor finisher at the rim.
STARTER (WING) – Lamar Stevens (Fr, 6’7, 218): Carr’s high school teammate is known for his defense and rebounding, might get supplanted in the starting lineup but should still play heavy minutes, offensive game may be a work in progress.
STARTER (POST) – Julian Moore (Jr, 6’10, 235): Fairly decent rim protector was the backup center last season, very solid rebounding rates for his size, shot a surprisingly low percentage (46%) but was reliable from the free throw line.
BENCH (COMBO GUARD) – Josh Reaves (So, 6’4, 210): Definitely a defense-first player, with a steal rate just outside the top 50 nationally and a surprisingly high number of blocks, had the second-highest assist rate on the team, terrible outside shooter.
BENCH (COMBO GUARD) – Terrence Samuel (Jr, 6’3, 208): UConn transfer played half of the available minutes his last season in Storrs, was a great defender but an eFG% of just 39.7 and missed all 17 three-point attempts.
BENCH (GUARD) – Isaiah Washington (So, 6’2, 163): Had a ridiculously low eFG% of 30.2, took more than two thirds of his shots from three-point range but only hit 20%, shot 32% inside the arc, playing time inexplicably increased as season progressed.
BENCH (WING) – Deividas Zemgulis (So, 6’6, 220): Best attribute is his offensive rebounding, took over half his attempts from three-point range but only made 25% of them.
BENCH (TRADITIONAL FOUR) – Mike Watkins (R-Fr, 6’9, 246): Took a redshirt last season but there’s been a surprising amount of buzz about him, could possibly become a starter or play the five, very physical player.
A few years ago, I came up with a system that would compare the statistical profiles of Big Ten players to their historical counterparts by taking the sum of the differences between a given player’s profile and each of the thousand player-seasons from 2008-present in twenty different statistical categories.
The first column of numbers after the player name is Min %, then ORtg, then Poss %
# value is the Z-Score of the player’s statistic (or statistics averaged over multiple seasons) relative to the entire sample
Shep Garner improved markedly as a sophomore for Penn State last season – and now that Brandon Taylor’s gone, he should be considered the cornerstone of the program moving forward. While he wasn’t that efficient, in large part due to poor two-point shooting, he was Penn State’s best offensive option behind Taylor and his statistical profile produces some interesting and encouraging results for the future.
Of the players listed in the second chart – Travis Trice, Jordan Taylor, Andre Hollins, and Bronson Koenig – Garner had the lowest offensive rating but otherwise stacked up decently. He was relatively solid at getting to the free throw line, was a decent three-point shooter, and had a good assist to turnover ratio, though not quite as good as Trice or Taylor, who were two of the best point guards in the Big Ten by the end of their careers (Taylor had an inexplicable slide as a senior but was an advanced stat fave-rave before that). It will be interesting to see where his career goes from here.
This is probably the most promising team Pat Chambers has had at Penn State, though that’s not necessarily saying a whole lot. They’re projected by Kenpom to finish last in the league (non-Rutgers division) and even though there’s talent, it’s mostly young. There aren’t any seniors on the team and while the probable best player – Garner – is a junior, the Nittany Lions probably will have at least two freshmen starting between Carr, Stevens, and Watkins. There’s a decided Philly vibe to the roster and those three are a nucleus that would be exciting for most teams – for Penn State, it’s unbelievable.
Inertia is a powerful thing and it’s unlikely that Penn State will come close to the bubble this season. There are still too many players on the roster who contribute little offensively, and spacing (which has been an issue under Chambers) will be poor again. While Carr and Stevens are good prospects, neither are surefire NBA guys and most freshmen who are forced into major playing time will have significant growing pains, regardless of how talented they are.
It’s hard to get a read on Chambers’s job security, though his recruiting success should keep him around for at least a little bit longer. If either of the freshmen have star potential – a possibility – things could take off quickly. Still, there’s too much working against them and even though Penn State will doubtlessly “play hard,” another year in the bottom half of the league is all but guaranteed.