The 2017-18 basketball season was unexpectedly a banner one for the Clemson Tigers, as they tied the school record for wins in a season (25) and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for just the fourth time in school history (note: 1990 was vacated). But what does the immediate future hold for the program on the heels of one of its best seasons ever? Let’s examine the team’s prospects for next season.
***NOTE: This article was written in the belief that Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed both will return to Clemson for their senior seasons. If one or the other leaves school, it would alter this projection. If both leave school, it would alter this projection drastically.
Losses: Donte Grantham (graduation), Gabe DeVoe (graduation), Mark Donnal (graduation), Scott Spencer (transfer)
Donte Grantham’s injury was a gut-punch Clemson couldn’t see coming, and the team’s refusal to fade away in the wake of the loss of its senior leader and most well-rounded player should be as encouraging a reason as any to be confident in the future of this program. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we’ll always wonder and never know how far this team could have gone with the revitalized senior-year version of Grantham playing the entire season.
But a silver lining to Grantham’s injury, at least with regard to next season, was that it opened up significant minutes to disperse between other players that could benefit from the extra experience. Most notably, those players were freshman Aamir Simms - a likely centerpiece player of the future - and junior transfer David Skara, who should again have a large role next season as a defensive stopper and glue guy. Even freshmen Clyde Trapp Jr., A.J. Oliver, and Malik William were able to log some valuable minutes they otherwise may not have.
All this to say, while Grantham’s injury was a devastating ending to his college career, because the team played nearly half the season without him and still found success, we don’t need to analyze his departure in the same way we would have had he finished the season. We will note, however, that his leadership qualities were present throughout the season, and others will need to lead mentally/emotionally to a higher degree in his absence.
Gabe DeVoe, on the other hand, became a new player in Grantham’s stead. While he was playing well already as a senior, his game skyrocketed to a whole new level after his companion fell to injury. His career culminated in a career-high 31-point effort in a Sweet 16 loss to Kansas that followed back-to-back 22-point games in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament - an incredible three-game stretch that won’t soon be forgotten. Nor will we forget his 22-of-34 stretch from three-point range in Clemson’s four-game winning streak shortly after Grantham went down. While he was still streaky at times, DeVoe’s shooting mastery was an integral part of the Tigers’ continued surge without Grantham, making filling the void left by DeVoe the team’s most challenging task entering 2018-19.
While Grantham and DeVoe are certainly the more impactful names, people may not truly appreciate what Mark Donnal contributed to the fabric of this team. The graduate transfer from Michigan performed dutifully as a backup center and three-point sniper, but also brought with him a postseason pedigree and a selfless, team-first attitude that helped him mesh with Clemson’s established group of players seamlessly on and off the court. He was a great addition to this year’s team.
Scott Spencer played sparingly in his sophomore season, and it wasn’t a surprise to see him transfer to find playing time elsewhere as younger players were likely to see more playing time than him in the coming season.
While losing DeVoe will require significant mitigation, Clemson returns perhaps its two most indispensable guards in Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed.
Mitchell was unquestionably the straw that stirred the offensive drink this season for the Tigers and should again provide the calming influence and steady hand that helped engineer one of the best offensive seasons in recent program history. Clemson scored just 58 and 57 points in the two games Mitchell missed with a concussion, and no bigger sample size was needed to illustrate his importance to the chemistry of this team. The Tigers scored less than 60 just three other times this season - twice against Virginia, and once against Syracuse. Mitchell provides Clemson with a high-level ball-handler and distributor who is also a threat to score from all levels, and he most importantly gives the Tigers a lead guard that is absolute ice at the free-throw line - where he shot an unflappable 85% this year.
Reed is perhaps the best scorer Clemson has had during Brownell’s tenure, and he led the team with 15.8 points per game this season. That number figures to only increase in his final season, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Reed compete for first-team All-ACC honors. His versatility and lack of hesitation makes him a nightmare for defenders, as he can drive past you to attack the rim or hit a pull-up jumper, or simply spot up from three-point range. He also showed a knack for scoring in the clutch and also shot 85% from the charity stripe. Reed also gives the Tigers a sneaky good perimeter defender and an adequate rebounder from the shooting guard spot.
So with perhaps as good a pair of guards as any team in the ACC, the biggest question for Clemson is who will fill that third perimeter spot that DeVoe leaves behind. It’s likely that no single person can provide the shooting prowess, defensive physicality, and “for-his-size” rebounding quality that DeVoe possessed in a single package, so Clemson will likely have to use a variety of players to fill the void and divide up minutes based on how the team performs with those various players.
AJ Oliver showed flashes of shooting promise late in the season and could perhaps help out in that department. Trapp probably gives Clemson a better defender at that spot, but the tentative plan seems to be to groom him as Mitchell’s heir apparent at point guard.
Clemson has two incoming guards that could certainly factor into the equation. John Newman is a combo guard who has the potential to be helpful on both ends of the court, but DeVoe’s hardest trait to replicate - his three-point shooting - is Newman’s biggest weakness. Hunter Tyson provides a tall frame and shooting touch, but would likely lag a bit behind in other areas.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see David Skara spend some time at the 3 if no bona fide replacement emerges, which wouldn’t be the worst thing ever but would limit the Tigers a bit offensively. I think Oliver stepping up and seizing the majority of the minutes at the third guard spot would be ideal because it would be keep other players from having to play extended minutes out of position. He also is likely the best combination of shooting, defense, and experience that Clemson has at its disposal for the role.
It’s not out of the question for the Tigers to pursue a graduate transfer wing if the right one emerges. I think the staff would prefer to build post depth with a their first slot, but they could choose to bring in two transfers with the recent news of Scott Spencer’s decision to transfer.
Elijah Thomas announced his intent to return to Clemson without testing the NBA Draft waters, and that gives Clemson its best returning post player since Trevor Booker’s senior season. Thomas again showed his natural talent on the offensive end this season, but his growth as a defensive player was tremendous and played an enormous role in Clemson’s improvement this season. His commitment to getting in shape and transforming his body led to significant improvement athletically and allowed him to improve as both a rebounder and shot-blocker. His propensity for foul trouble is well-documented, but he only fouled out of one game all season and played at least 27 minutes in each of Clemson’s three NCAA Tournament games. If he can continue to improve in that area, he should be poised for a monster senior season.
As mentioned earlier, there was no bigger beneficiary from Donte Grantham’s untimely injury than Aamir Simms. The talented freshman was already easing his way into quality minutes beforehand, but he was thrust into a much bigger (and even starting) role after Grantham went down. Simms was up to challenge and posted 6.0 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in the season’s final 15 game and showed the ability to get the job done on both ends of the court. Simms may be a bit undersized at the 4 (6’7”), but he makes up for it with a strong frame and above-average athleticism - not to mention an aggressive mentality. He and Thomas give the Tigers an exciting frontcourt to pair with their talented guard duo.
Skara will see a lot of time on the court and may essentially platoon with Simms at the 4 spot like we saw this past season, while also chipping in some time at the 3. Skara provides Clemson with a very versatile defender, and I would additionally expect him to be more comfortable at the offensive end in his senior season.
The biggest question for Clemson’s frontcourt will be depth. Outside of Skara, there will be little returning experience on the bench. Malik William showed some flashes this season and could be in line for more significant playing time. He could play at the 5 in a pinch but would be more suited for the 4 spot, and hopefully he can be molded into a quality player there.
Outside of that, the Tigers bring in 6’11” center Trey Jemison, whom they may need to use as at least a foul-eater and someone to spell Thomas. Jemison is a bit of a project, but he can provide an extra big body, if nothing else.
Center is the spot Clemson would appear most likely to go the grad transfer route, similarly to their picking up of Mark Donnal a year ago. They could probably get away with bringing in a bigger forward, but a true 5-man would be a welcome addition.
With Mitchell, Reed, and Thomas all returning for a final season in Tigertown, Clemson’s prospects for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament seem very favorable. This is a core group that has multiple years of experience and now knows what is takes to produce a successful season. Simms, Skara, Oliver, etc., are nice complimentary pieces that understand their roles and bring different things to the table. Brad Brownell seems to have the buy-in from this particular group of players, and that can only help build a positive culture for next season and beyond.
While it’s hard to expect Clemson to replicate the success of this season — 11 non-conference and 11 ACC wins are no easy tasks — it should be the expectation for the Tigers to return to the NCAA Tournament. A seed similar to this season (5) is not out of the question, but making the field as a 6 or 7 would certainly be deemed a success. For this program, back-to-back NCAA appearances regardless of seed would be a positive step, but returning a relatively intact roster from a Sweet 16 trip should have Clemson shooting for higher goals in 2018-19 than just sneaking into the field. Twenty regular-season wins and an NCAA Tournament berth should be a reasonable expectation at the moment, with the possibility for more if things break in the Tigers favor.