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Looking ahead to 2017-18 Clemson Basketball Season

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NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Duke vs Clemson Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson’s basketball season has come to a salty conclusion. A year that started with lofty expectations ended with an apathetic sigh. STS writer Calvin Craft gave his thoughts on the season, what went awry, and how the ensuing Brad Brownell situation was handled. It’s a must read and is linked at the bottom of this article. We’ll touch on some of that here, but mostly focus on what’s next.

Clemson finished the regular season 16-14 (6-12) - two or three wins below expectations. They went just 4-12 against eventual NCAA tournament teams and missed the NCAA tournament for the sixth straight season. Still, because so many of those losses came against good competition and in very close contests, there was a feeling that AD Dan Radakovich would be unlikely to make a change at head coach.

That feeling shifted when they blew a 20-point lead to Oakland at home in the opening round of the NIT. Following that loss, rumors swirled that Clemson was in contact with former Virginia Commonwealth University Head Coach Will Wade. Wade filled the coaching vacancy at LSU instead and AD Dan Radakovich denied ever contacting him, standing by Coach Brownell.

Oddly, the reaction at VCU was mixed, with some not being as upset about him leaving as you may have expected. One VCU media member said:

“While I think he's clearly a basketball mastermind from everyone I've talked to, he has a long way to go in terms of building strong relationships. I think people liked him as an assistant for the most part, but when he got in a position of power, things seemed to change.”

Clemson’s failure to make a splashy hire certainly may feel disappointing, but it’s quite possible Clemson dodged a bullet. Clemson’s brand revolves around family and community, and if those are Wade’s weaknesses as a coach, he may have been a poor fit, even as a Clemson alumnus.

Looking forward, Clemson will wade into next season facing some headwinds. Playing in the ACC is certainly a selling point, but the conference is almost too good. While it’s nice to have great opponents that garner media attention, when you can’t beat them, it does you no good. The eventual move to a 20 game conference schedule which comes in a few years with the ACC network will exasperate those challenges.

Additionally, South Carolina’s unlikely Final Four run will make recruiting in-state even harder than it’s been with UNC and other nearby powers plucking the state’s top talent.

Fortunately, both the ACC and South Carolina should take pretty significant steps back next season.

Clemson just made a significant investment to gut and rebuild Littlejohn Coliseum and even more recently announced they would replace the women’s diving team with women’s softball, which is generally a bigger drag on the income statement and requires an initial stadium investment. Given that willingness to spend, penny-pinching on getting the right basketball coach seems silly.

In what has to be the make or break season for Coach Brad Brownell, he’ll have to replace three key starters: SG Avry Holmes, C Sidy Djitte, and PF Jaron Blossomgame.

Starting SG Avry Holmes was one of the most underrated players on the team and in the ACC. His success as a transfer from San Francisco opened the door other transfers on which the hopes of the program now hang. He led the Tigers with 69 three-point shots made and shot a team-high .815 from the free throw line.

Departing starting C, Sidy Djitte, never became a star in the ACC, but improved each season. He developed a useful 15-20ft jumper to keep defenses honest and dropped his fouls committed per 40 minutes from 8.2 (2014-15) to 7.5 (2015-16) to 5.1 (2016-17). He led the entire nation offensive rebounding percentage (17.6) and was the only Tiger ranked in the top 300 nationally in defensive rebounding percentage.

The most notable loss, of course, is PF Jaron Blossomgame. Blossomgame scored 17.7ppg while hauling in 6.3rpg. He shot .499 from the field and .255 from three. The 3P% was dramatically down from his junior year when he shot (a flukey) .446. This pulled his FG% down and his points per game with it. His rebounds also dropped by a marginal amount. Despite this, he was still the best player on the team and one of the best in the ACC. He projects as a second round NBA draft pick and leaves the Tigers with a major void to fill.

So, with those three significant losses, were will the Tigers turn to make up for lost production?

Although Holmes was an excellent player, the Tigers have decent depth at the guard positions. Shelton Mitchell and Ty Hudson return at PG while Marcquise Reed and Gabe DeVoe return at SG. He will surely be missed, but the Tigers have the personnel to adjust.

Replacing Djitte, Elijah Thomas will start at center. He’s a skilled big man and with another offseason of work, can be a very solid offensive ACC player. He’ll certainly be scoring upgrade from Djitte. Neither player is much of a shot blocker, but Djitte was an elite offensive rebounder and the team’s leading rebounder overall. His presence will be missed on the glass. The biggest concern though is depth where you go from having two centers you can count on plus Legend Robertin in a pinch to having to rely on significant minutes from Legend Robertin. The health and continued development of these two will be critical for this team!

Blossomgame is obviously the hardest to replace, but also the most interesting. David Skara sat last season per transfer rules after playing two years for Valparaiso, but is now ready to play for the Tigers. Hopefully, he is hardened after playing Oakland for two years in the Horizon League! He was a reserve for Valpo, logging most of his minutes at SF. If he is to replace Blossomgame, he’d play a stretch four. He is a solid shooter and versatile defender, however he was not a major contributor on the glass at Valpo. Of course, he was playing SF and not PF, but it remains to be seen if he can rebound at PF in the ACC. Hopefully that’s been a point of focus during his redshirt year if the plan is to use Skara at PF rather than to displace Donte Grantham at SF.

The other option at PF is incoming freshman Aamir Simms. The 6’8” foward received offers from Miami, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Georgetown, and VCU among others. He is a 24/7-Composite three-star, but a four-star recruit according to both Scout and ESPN. He was a high school teammate of current Tiger Scott Spencer at Blue Ridge High School. Brownell believes Simms can contribute on the glass and therefore appears likely get early playing time.

That leads us into the other interesting position I’d like to discuss - small forward.

The Tigers will have a senior and fourth year starter in Donte Grantham. The former four-star recruit started as a freshman, and, despite struggling, gained a lot of experience while flashing his upside. As a sophomore he was a bit better averaging 10.2 ppg and shooting a more respectable percentage. The hope was that he’d continue that improvement and begin attacking the basket more aggressively as he added muscle (and confidence).

As we’d hoped, took 31 fewer three-pointers on the year, however he didn’t make the efficiency gains we would have expected. His three-point percentage fell from .354 to .325 and he didn’t create more two-point shots for himself as he actually took five fewer two-point shots resulting in a decline in scoring from 10.2ppg to 7.3ppg. Obviously, a big chunk of this can be explained by the addition of other (better) scoring options around him (Elijah Thomas, Shelton Mitchell, and Marcquise Reed), as well as a decline in minutes, but his offensive efficiency rating also dropped from 106 to 101.

Now entering his senior season, it’s hard to predict he will take a major step forward. This is a position where the Tigers did not get adequate production for an aspiring NCAA tournament team. Whenever they benched Grantham, they were forced to play small and expose their already weak rebounding. Donte Grantham reaching his potential was one thing we incorrectly when projecting this past season’s outcome. If he can blossom a year late, it would be a tremendous boost! He could even shift to PF at times. If not, Scott Spencer, who evidently was not ready to play this season and sat most of the year, will become critical.

Incoming Freshman

The aforementioned Aamir Simms will have to play a major role at forward for the Tigers, but other than him, I don’t expect incoming true freshmen to make a major impact on this year’s team.

A.J. Oliver is a 6’4” three-star shooting guard from local Daniel High School. he’s the son of Audra Smith, Clemson’s women’s basketball coach, but is a legitimate recruit in his own right ranking 160th according to 24/7. He is an early enrollee and by virtue of that has an opportunity to contribute, particularly if/when Clemson is forced to use small lineups with Grantham at PF.

Clyde Trapp is a 6’5” three-star in-state shooting guard who had offers from South Carolina, Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Kansas State. He ranked 303rd nationally according to 24/7. Coach Craft’s contacts say he is long, athletic, a good shooter and has a high upside.

Malik William is a three-star PF. He’s a good shooter but will need to add weight to rebound in the ACC. He could be a stretch forward down the line. He has good enough skill to earn offers from UConn and West Virginia, but he may take a bit more development time.

Way Too Early Projected Depth Chart

C - Elijah Thomas / Legend Robertin

PF - David Skara / Aamir Simms / Donte Grantham

SF - Donte Grantham / Scott Spencer / Clyde Trapp Jr.

SG - Marcquise Reed / Gabe DeVoe / A.J. Oliver

PG - Shelton Mitchell / Ty Hudson

Bottom Line

  • The Tigers won’t have much depth at C. They will need development from Legend Robertin as he’ll be heavily relied upon for depth behind Elijah Thomas. They certainly need both Centers to stay healthy.
  • A new face has to to step up to give the Tigers ACC-level production at PF. Valpo transfer David Skara or Aamir Simms are the best bets. One has to come through!
  • Brownell badly needs Donte Grantham to reach his potential. If he can’t step up in his senior year, Scott Spencer who sat most of his freshman year, will need to make big strides and contribute in a major way
  • Clemson finished 44th in KenPom rankings. 42nd, just above them was MTSU who secured an NCAA tournament victory. Just below them at 46th was Maryland, so they aren’t far from breaking through, but they need more than improved luck. Clearing up some major deficiencies is a must.
  • The offense should remain above average despite losing their leading scorer in Jaron Blossomgame and best shooter in Avry Holmes. The issues that should worry Clemson fans are defense and rebounding, which were team weaknesses and may not show much improvement.
  • Although losing three starters is hard to spin positively, I’ll try. This is a make or break year for Brad Brownell. Missing seven straight NCAA tournaments is unacceptable to an athletic department that expects it’s fans to care about basketball. With so many losses and such a clear goal, the impending extension/termination decision becomes easier. Make the tournament when nobody expects it after so much production leaves or begin a new era of Clemson basketball. If they make the tournament, with all the players that are leaving, it’ll be clear that Brownell wasn’t just lucky, but figured it out and finally has the program headed in the right direction.
  • Either way, we’ll be here next season to support the Tigers and bring you the most objective Clemson-focused analysis on the web. We appreciate you reading our basketball articles throughout this tough season. This wraps up our basketball coverage for the 2016-17 season! If you haven’t already read Coach Craft’s season review, click here.