There’s a new excitement surrounding the basketball team in Tuscaloosa. A new head coach has drawn prominent praise well beyond the borders of Alabama. There’s talk of a new attitude and a new style of play that will get the Crimson Tide back to the NCAA tournament on a regular basis. Some promising newcomers are days away from their official debut and an even better recruiting haul may be just around the corner.
That paragraph is a fair summary of Bama basketball at the start of the Nate Oats era. But it could have also been written about Avery Johnson in 2015, or Anthony Grant in 2009. Instead those two coaches combined for a lost decade, a 10-year run where the Tide reached the NCAA field just twice, won only a single March Madness game and produced just three NBA players, including one who only got a 10-day contract.
Lots of different things went wrong over that span, but a constant theme across a lost decade was a lack of player development. Too many guys left Tuscaloosa after four years playing at roughly the same level they did as freshmen – or worse, left early only to blossom at another school.
Oats was hired in large part to change that pattern, and he’ll need to show off his development skills right out of the gate. Despite an extensive roster overhaul, many of the new faces won’t be able to ride to the rescue this season. Top 100 high school recruit Juwan Gary and junior college All-American James Rojas both suffered season-ending injuries this fall, decimating an already-thin frontcourt. Villanova transfer Jahvon Quinerly lost an appeal with the NCAA to avoid sitting out a season. Suddenly the five holdovers from last year represent half the scholarship players available to the Crimson Tide.
Whatever near-term hopes Bama fans are clinging to are tilted heavily towards the backcourt, beginning with sophomore Kira Lewis. A member of the SEC All-Freshman team, Lewis averaged 13.5 points and 2.9 assists per game despite occasional slumps that were easily explained by him being a 17-year-old who skipped his senior year of high school ball. Now with the benefit of not only his first cycle through a college offseason program but also a tour of duty with the US National U-19 gold medalists, he should be better suited to pick up more of the leadership responsibilities no one on Johnson’s last team fully seized. His challenges are developing more confidence in his outside shooting and keeping turnover problems in check even as Oats’ system generates more possessions and more chances for mistakes.
John Petty managed to average 10.2 points per game in each of his first two seasons, but his performance from game to game has been anything but predictable. A pure shooter and five-star prospect during his high school days in Huntsville, Petty has been brilliant some nights in crimson and anonymous in far too many other games. As a freshman, if his first shot of the game didn’t go in, it usually meant the next several attempts would also miss, and soon his effort in other areas would disappear. Last season brought a more mature approach as he continued to play hard (if not always well) even when his shots weren’t falling, but he was still quick to get down on himself and pass up scoring opportunities if he didn’t start off hot. Now a junior, Petty not only has a green light from Oats on offense but a mandate to keep shooting through any rough patches. In a small but promising sign, he did just that in an exhibition win against Georgia Tech, finishing with 15 points after a scoreless first half.
Whatever one thinks of Oats’ motivational tactic of awarding a hard hat to the player who shows the most hustle each game, it’s safe to guess that he ordered it with Herbert Jones’ measurements in mind. A 6-foot-7 combo player and human floor burn out of Hale County, Jones is achingly close to being a breakout star if he can find a way to lift up his shooting to even an adequate level. Already he is one of the SEC’s better defenders, a threat to take a charge on every possession and a vacuum cleaner gobbling up loose balls. But Alabama hasn’t been able to play him as many minutes as it wants because of his offensive liabilities, namely his lack of a jump shot, poor foul shooting and propensity for turnovers.
If any newcomer to the backcourt is going to displace one of those three returning starters, or join them as a fourth guard in a small ball lineup, the trendy pick is freshman Jaden Shackleford. A four-star player from California who committed to Johnson last fall and stuck with the Tide through the coaching change, he arrives in Tuscaloosa with a reputation as a sharpshooter unafraid to launch from anywhere in the front court. Georgia Tech found that out the hard way in exhibition play when he went 6-for-10 from 3-point range. That fearlessness makes him a great fit in Oats system, as does his superior ball handling for a shooting guard and eye for grabbing steals.
Alabama was on track to have a senior night with no seniors until Oats signed James “Beetle” Bolden as a graduate transfer from West Virginia. Another uninhibited shooter, the diminutive Bolden was averaging 12.2 points and 2.5 assists per game last season with the Mountaineers despite battling through injuries that ultimately ended his season in late January. Those health concerns have plagued him through fall practice as well, and it may be that his body just isn’t made to hold up to the rigors of major college basketball. But if he can get well and stay that way, he provides yet another threat for opposing coaches to fret about.
The final newcomer in the backcourt figures to be more of a long-term project. Jaylen Forbes was considered another great shooter as one of the top prospects out of Mississippi last year but struggled from the field in both exhibition games. He has shown signs that he can hold his own on defense and is unafraid of mixing it up to grab rebounds, and with such a thin roster he should get plenty of opportunities in non-conference play to prove he belongs in the rotation.
Bama’s frontcourt has more questions than answers, but it also has a returning junior who could be a perfect fit for Oats’ system. Alex Reese was a forgotten man on the bench through many stretches of last season, but showed intriguing promise as a “stretch four” capable of unclogging defenses with his deep shooting range. He can drive casual observers crazy because his 6-foot-9 frame suggests he should be a better rebounder and rim protector, but that’s never come naturally to him. If he can develop into an adequate presence in the paint, he may get some time at the post with Jones stepping into a forward’s role or Oats deciding to surround Reese with four true guards.
A better hope for being a defensive stopper is junior center Galin Smith, but he presents a different set of liabilities. A slow-footed back-to-the-basket center, Smith can stop an offensive possession cold when the ball goes into him as he tends to overthink his next move and allow defenses to position themselves for the stop. Effort isn’t an issue, but if he didn’t have the athletic ability to keep up in Johnson’s modestly-paced offense, it is hard to see him thriving at the go-go pace Oats demands.
If anyone can relate to the plight of Gary and Rojas, it is probably redshirt freshman Javian Davis. Sidelined all of last year after a preseason knee sprain, Davis could shoot up the depth chart quickly if he can fill the paint and grab rebounds anywhere near the rate he did in high school, where he averaged double figures on the glass his last two seasons at Canton (Miss.). With 15 rebounds in two exhibition wins, the early returns are encouraging. Freshman Raymond Hawkins switched his commitment from Buffalo to Alabama when Oats came south, but he is the rawest of the Tide’s prospects and could struggle to find minutes unless frontcourt injuries create a crisis situation.
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