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Tom Crean’s Georgia team still feels like it’s a year away

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The rebuild at Georgia... continues, this time without a future top-five pick.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Georgia vs Mississippi Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

As Tom Crean enters his third year at Georgia, his impact thus far has been felt much more on the recruiting trail than on the basketball court.

Crean’s first year was rough, and not in a way that was completely explained by the roster situation: Georgia lost Yante Maten off the 2017-18 team, but most of the roster was back, and yet the record was 11-21 with an awful 2-16 SEC record, with Crean saying out loud in the middle of the season in so many words that he needed to run some players off — a practice he’d become so notorious for in his previous job at Indiana that Big Ten fans had actually coined the term “Creaning” to describe it. His second team, with the benefit of the nation’s #11 recruiting class (per 247 Sports) and one of the top players in the freshman class in Anthony Edwards, was a bit better, but only a bit: 16-16, with a 5-13 SEC record and another 13th-place finish.

With Edwards now departed for the NBA, we still seem to be in the transition phase between Mark Fox’s approach of developing overlooked guys into Crean’s preferred approach of winning with recruiting. Crean’s history at both Marquette and Indiana suggests that he knows what he’s doing, but the results on the court haven’t been there at Georgia — yet. But then perhaps the problem with the lone year of Anthony Edwards was one of expectations; while Edwards was more or less as advertised, the rest of the team just wasn’t ready to make the jump. They still might not be ready to, but it’s possible that the long-term effect will be felt as the rest of the 2019 class develops.

Who’s Gone?

Losses

Player MPG PPG RPG APG BPG SPG Notes
Player MPG PPG RPG APG BPG SPG Notes
Anthony Edwards 33 19.1 5.2 2.8 0.6 1.3 NBA Draft
Rayshaun Hammonds 28 12.9 7.4 1.5 0.4 0.8 NBA Draft
Jordan Harris 20 7.1 4 1 0.4 1.1 graduated
Tyree Crump 20.1 6.9 2.2 1.1 0 0.6 graduated
Amanze Ngumezi 15.4 6.1 2.4 0.4 0.9 0.1 dismissed from team
Donnell Gresham Jr. 19.8 5 4 1.5 0 1 graduated
Mike Peake 9 2.3 2 0 0.3 0.1 transfer/Austin Peay
Rodney Howard 7.3 1.3 1.5 0.1 0.6 0.1 transfer/Georgia Tech

There isn’t a whole lot else to say about Edwards, who came in as a freshman and was immediately Georgia’s best player and had a role to match his hype. While he was on the floor, Edwards used 29% of Georgia’s possessions and took a staggering 32% of the team’s shots; the latter number was tied for the SEC lead. His shooting percentages, particularly from long-range, were not great, but they were passable for a high-usage player.

Georgia never expected to have Edwards beyond a year; the problem is who else is gone. Georgia returns just under 33 percent of its possession-minutes from 2019-20 and while Edwards alone accounts for a big chunk of the loss, so, too, did Rayshaun Hammonds. Hammonds, the team’s second-leading scorer, joined Edwards in entering the NBA Draft. Three seniors are gone as well and all three played key roles; Donnell Gresham Jr. started 20 games in his lone season in Athens. Jordan Harris and Tyree Crump were two four-star recruits brought in by Mark Fox whom Crean did not seem to have much use for; still, they started 27 games between them. Throw in Amanze Ngumezi — who started seven games before being dismissed from the team midseason — and Rodney Howard, a 6’11” freshman who transferred to Georgia Tech after starting two games for the Bulldogs last season, and Georgia loses players who started 118 games last season (out of a possible 160.)

Who’s Back?

Returnees

Player Year Height Weight MPG PPG RPG APG BPG SPG
Player Year Height Weight MPG PPG RPG APG BPG SPG
Sahvir Wheeler Soph. 5'10" 180 27.3 9 2.5 4.5 0 0.8
Toumani Camara Soph. 6'8" 220 24 6.6 4.3 0.7 0.6 0.6
Tye Fagan Jr. 6'3" 195 11.6 4.1 1.7 0.5 0.3 0.4
Christian Brown Soph. 6'6" 215 9.6 3.4 1.6 0.2 0.2 0.5
Jaykwon Walton Soph. 6'7" 205 5.4 2.1 0.4 0.3 0 0

Still, four players remain from the heralded 2019 class, and all four were rated as four-star recruits by the 247 Sports composite.

The most impactful of the bunch as a freshman was Sahvir Wheeler. The 5’10”, 180-pound point guard from Houston — a onetime Texas A&M commit who switched to Georgia after Billy Kennedy was fired -= took over starting duties at the point around midseason and ended it fourth in the SEC with 4.5 assists per game, and figures to be the favorite to start at the point again in spite of the addition of a couple of newcomers (more on that in a minute.) He was also just good enough of a shooter to keep defenders honest. But like a lot of freshmen playing the point in the SEC, Wheeler struggled with turnovers and needs to keep his game under control.

Toumani Camara was the other freshman who played significant minutes and showed good potential as a rebounder and scorer down low, though the rest of his game needs some work; the 6’8” Belgian shot 5-of-29 from three, and his 62.5 percent free throw shooting suggests that’s not a small-sample-size thing. Like a lot of players of this type, Camara either needs to get better or stop taking those shots. The other three returnees — junior Tye Fagan and sophomores Christian Brown and Jaykwon Walton — didn’t play much. Brown and Walton, though, were both top 100 recruits, suggesting they should be capable of better than this, and Fagan was at least efficient in limited action (particularly shooting 63 percent inside the arc.)

Who’s New?

Newcomers

Player Year Height Weight 247 Composite Notes
Player Year Height Weight 247 Composite Notes
K.D. Johnson Fr. 6'1" 190 88
Josh Taylor Fr. 6'9" 215 141
Mikal Starks Jr. 6'0" 185 9 (JC) transfer/Eastern Florida State
Tyron McMillan Soph. 6'9" 220 11 (JC) transfer/Kilgore JC
Jonathan Ned Jr. 6'8" 215 15 (JC) transfer/Eastern Florida State
P.J. Horne Sr. 6'6" 230 208 transfer/Virginia Tech
Justin Kier Sr. 6'4" 190 NR transfer/George Mason
Andrew Garcia Sr. 6'6" 225 NR transfer/Stony Brook

After signing the 11th-ranked recruiting class in 2019, Crean brings in the 32nd-ranked class in 2020. But perhaps the more salient fact here is that only two of the eight newcomers on the roster are freshmen. Also among the newcomers are three JUCOs and three graduate transfers.

There are two ways to read this. In some cases, bringing in a bunch of veteran help can be a sign that the team is ready to compete and will get more mileage out of experienced players; in other cases, it’s simply an attempt to paper over holes on the roster to bridge the gap between waves of incoming talent. Your guess is as good as mine as to which describes Tom Crean’s team this season.

The highest-rated recruit in the class is freshman K.D. Johnson, but Johnson also plays the same position as Sahvir Wheeler — probably the obvious choice to start at point guard. So, too, does Mikal Starks, who wasn’t much of a scorer at the JUCO level. One of the graduate transfers, Justin Kier, seems to address a rather glaring need (shooting.) And there are three players in the class 6’8” or taller, but there don’t seem to be any obvious, immediate-impact players here.

Depth Chart

Depth Chart

Position Starter Backup Backup 2
Position Starter Backup Backup 2
PG Wheeler Johnson Starks
SG Kier Fagan
SF Garcia Brown
PF Horne Walton Ned
C Camara McMillan Taylor

In spite of the additions of Johnson and Starks, I feel pretty confident that Sahvir Wheeler will start at point guard. And while Toumani Camara isn’t a “true” center, I’ve got him listed as a center here because that’s the closest thing Georgia has to one on the roster.

That leaves three starting spots basically up for grabs, and the question here is whether Tom Crean wants to go with a full youth movement with the two remaining sophomores and K.D. Johnson, or if he wants to try to ride the graduate transfers to buy time for the youngsters to develop. My guess is that, at least at the start of the season, he’ll probably go with the latter approach — remember, Christian Brown and Jaykwon Walton weren’t playing big minutes for Georgia last year — but we might start to see the youngsters work their way into the lineup later in the season. The risk here is that none of the three graduate transfers are obviously good players — Garcia and Kier are coming from, respectively, Stony Brook and George Mason, and P.J. Horne was a role player at Virginia Tech.

The three JUCOs in the class and the other freshman (Josh Taylor) are probably mostly depth at this point. McMillan and Ned have size but both were, roughly, 10 and 6 guys at the JUCO level, and Starks averaged barely 5 points per game.

Outlook

As Tom Crean enters his third year at Georgia, there is a pretty clear parallel between his program and Bruce Pearl’s Auburn team in his first couple of years there. Pearl brought in the #16 recruiting class in 2015 and #12 in 2016, but the immediate results were pretty modest; but then, those players were the key behind a 26-8 record in 2017-18 and a Final Four run in 2019.

Now, I will preface this by saying that I don’t think Tom Crean is as good of a coach as Bruce Pearl, but the Georgia program entering 2020-21 is in a similar spot to where Auburn was in 2016-17. You can’t suck forever if you’re recruiting well and you have an accomplished head coach and players are sticking with the program — granted, Georgia did lose a couple of freshmen from last year’s team, but neither of them projected to play major minutes even if they had stuck around (and at least one, per Jeff Goodman, applied for a run-off waiver to play immediately at Austin Peay.)

Under these circumstances, a breakthrough feels inevitable at some point — I just don’t think it will be in 2021. Right now, there’s basically one proven player on the roster and a bunch of guys whose roles on the team still need to be figured out — and perhaps a few experienced players who will bridge the gap between this season and next. That doesn’t seem like a team that’s ready to challenge for the top half of the conference or an NCAA Tournament bid.

I do think Georgia can be better than this, and 13th place probably represents the floor for this team much more than it represents the ceiling. The ceiling for this team is probably something approaching .500 in the SEC and an NIT bid. But I don’t feel comfortable predicting that with so many question marks on the roster. That’s not an indictment of Tom Crean, so much as it’s an indication that building a program takes time.