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Basketball Preview Part 2: Size and savvy defines this year’s Crimson Tide

Feb 6, 2018; Starkville, MS, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide guard Herbert Jones (10) handles the ball as he is defended by Mississippi State Bulldogs guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) during the second half at Humphrey Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 6, 2018; Starkville, MS, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide guard Herbert Jones (10) handles the ball as he is defended by Mississippi State Bulldogs guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) during the second half at Humphrey Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

By Chris DePew Staff
Nov. 2, 2018

Entering year four of the Avery Johnson era, Alabama has firmly established an identity, even if it isn’t the frantic fast-breaking style Johnson would prefer in his heart. What the Crimson Tide has is a roster short on pure scorers but blessed with an abundance of tall, lanky athletes with impressive wingspans, plenty of game experience and a commitment to tenacious defense. It isn’t that different from the philosophy of previous coach Anthony Grant, but the increase in overall talent from that era and glimpses of scoring potential have Bama back in the NCAA tournament conversation and mostly in the good graces of the fan base.

Senior center Donta Hall is a throwback to a type of player pro scouts would have adored just a generation ago. Playing much bigger than his 6-foot-9 frame, Hall has always been a solid rim protector, averaging two blocks per game last season while doing a much better job of avoiding foul trouble. Where he really blossomed as a junior was on offense, averaging 10.6 points per game while feasting on lobs and putback baskets. Hall isn’t going to get many baskets outside the paint and he never seems to get as many rebounds as one might expect (6.6 per game in 2017-18), but he has shown solid improvement every year in Tuscaloosa and is primed to create havoc against teams unused to facing a traditional post player.

Hall might struggle to find a place in the NBA, but sophomore Herbert Jones is already lighting up mock draft boards despite averaging a modest 4.2 points and 3.5 rebounds in his first season of college ball. Any offensive improvement Jones makes will just be an added bonus paired with his pro-ready defensive skills. Last season he compiled 22 blocks, 44 steals and a school-record 23 charges taken. Still listed as a guard on the official roster, the 6-7 Jones could be in line to be deployed as a ball-handling “stretch-4” forward with Braxton Key having left for Virginia. In addition to showing a consistent shooting touch, Jones needs to cut down on turnovers and avoid hitting the wall with another late-season slump.

Basketball is Back!
Thursday: Where does Alabama really stand entering a transition year?
TODAY: Tide looks to thrive with old-school roster built from inside out
Monday: A closer look at the schedule and what’s in store for the SEC
Tuesday: Preview and postgame wrapup from the season opener vs. Southern

Elsewhere in the frontcourt, an unfortunate season-ending injury turned into a bit of good fortune for this year’s team when it learned senior Riley Norris would come back for another season. Norris, like Jones, thrives on doing the dirty work of rebounding and setting screens, although he isn’t the same caliber of defender. A streaky 3-point shooter, Norris is a solid early option off the bench and usually winds up starting a handful of games ahead of more-touted players. Galin Smith passed up Daniel Giddens as the No 2 center late last season but neither was better than a spot contributor when foul trouble reared its head elsewhere. Alex Reese was a modest threat from the perimeter, less of one inside and was largely a defensive liability as a freshman. Javian Davis-Fleming is the latest recruit from the Tide’s metro Jackson, Miss., pipeline and will have a chance to earn minutes if he can be sufficiently physical inside.

The fortunes of the backcourt, and very possibly the whole season, are riding on a return to form by junior Dazon Ingram. Unchallenged as the starting point guard as a freshman (both his full season and a 7-game stint in 2015 that was cut short by injury), Ingram was asked to play off the ball more last year to accommodate Collin Sexton and never looked comfortable with the position or the chemistry on the floor. Even when he ran the point with Sexton resting or switching roles, Ingram was in a funk much of the year and disappeared altogether for long stretches. His overall shooting percentage dipped 10 points, highlighted by a brutal 19-for-67 showing behind the arc, and his assist totals went down while his turnovers stayed basically flat. Ingram’s strength is driving to the rim to score or get fouled and pulling in an above-average number of rebounds for a guard. Ingram doesn’t have to be the top scorer to lead the team, but he does have to be comfortable and confident in his role. If he gets pushed out of the top point guard slot by freshman Kira Lewis, there may not be another spot waiting in the starting five this time.

The Crimson Tide doesn’t have many true scorers, but it does have a pair that it is counting on to be backcourt mainstays. Junior Tevin Mack gained a reputation as an offensive force in practice last season while he was sitting out as a transfer redshirt. Mack got kicked off the team midway through his sophomore year at Texas, but was averaging 14.8 points and shooting better than 39 percent from 3-point range in 15 games that season. Whatever issues he had in Austin haven’t shown up in Tuscaloosa, and even if he just matches his on-court form from 2016-17, that automatically makes him Bama’s best scoring threat. Notably though, he did not start this week’s exhibition win against Montevallo.

John Petty arrived last autumn with five-star freshman hype exceeded only by Sexton’s but got a brutal introduction to the SEC when his 3-point shot mostly stopped falling. His 10.2 points per game average really doesn’t capture the hot and cold nature of his season, where he had seven games with 16 or more points (including a memorable 27-point outburst in a home upset of Auburn) and 13 other games with five points or less. More than three-fourths of his shot attempts came from behind the arc, and if the first jumper didn’t fall he was too often a non-factor the rest of the game. For the most part he continued to play hard on defense even during the slump and was an underrated passer, although he was also turnover prone. It will be crucial for him to develop a well-rounded offensive game, if only to give him other options on nights when the deep ball isn’t falling.

Lewis, a borderline five-star point guard recruit, is by far the most promising member of the freshman class but don’t look for him to have a Sexton-sized impact. Said to be the second-youngest player in college basketball (he won’t turn 18 until early April), Lewis chose to graduate early and forego his senior year of high school eligibility. Listed at 6-3 with a slender build, he did not get to campus until the start of fall semester and it is unclear how his body will hold up in college ball generally and the loaded SEC in particular. In his last season at Hazel Green, he averaged 28.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 3.9 steals per game for the Class 6A state semifinalists. Whether or not he can crack the starting five this season, he clearly is expected to be a force in the near future.

Elsewhere, Avery Johnson Jr. returns for a final season under his dad. His statistics predictably took a step back as last year’s influx of new talent made playing time harder to come by, but he still has a role as a plugger that can occasionally surprise with secondary scoring. While Jones and Norris can work in the backcourt if needed, freshman Diante Wood from Sacred Heart in Anniston is the only other pure guard on scholarship, and he is out until at least January after ankle surgery last month. That could mean senior walk-on Lawson Schaffer gets more than occasional mop up duty at the very end of blowouts.

Follow Chris DePew on Twitter @TideFansChris

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