NOTE: for the purpose of this article, I have come up with an impact grade given to each freshman discussed. The scale is 1-10 with 10 being the best score. I take into account factors such as minutes played, point production, efficiency ratings, rebounding, etc. It is not an exact science but I hope it helps with understanding.
Clemson basketball is a tough job. The program has one of the worst pedigrees in the league, with only one regular season title and no tournament titles in its history. The team has never won in Chapel Hill. The state of South Carolina produces very little high end division 1 talent and has blue bloods Duke and North Carolina just across the border who have plucked several major impact freshmen from the state (especially UNC). The program has produced exactly one ACC player of the year. The program has actually had its arena condemned prior to putting any real money in it.
Fans continue to be dividing up into camps regarding Brad Brownell and his program at Clemson. Some preach continued patience, pointing at a very good 2017-18 run and the fact that Clemson finally has competitive facilities in basketball. Others have grown tired of his style and results which have been inconsistent overall and particularly poor in regards to NCAA tournament bids over his tenure. In an otherwise peak time in Clemson athletics, with even the formerly moribund women’s basketball program rising from the ashes, it seems the second biggest revenue sport on campus just isn’t keeping up, especially if this senior laden, veteran team falls short of the NCAA tournament just one year removed from the Sweet 16.
As frustrating as many years have been during Brownell’s tenure, he is actually the most successful Clemson coaches in history in terms of ACC winning percentage. While Rick Barnes and Oliver Purnell boasted higher overall winning percentages at Clemson (.607 and .611, respectively), Brownell actually has the best ACC winning percentage at .479 compared to .438 and .464 for Barnes and Purnell. Of course, the ACC has changed and although it is still a very powerful league, Brownell does not have to face every blue blood twice every year (including a trip to UNC every year). The difficulty of being a Clemson basketball fan is setting correct expectations and being realistic about what can actually be accomplished on a yearly basis. Those “magic in a bottle” runs like we saw with Barnes and Purnell have given us a taste of basketball success and the fun those runs can provide.
I decided to look at what I consider to be the biggest issue plaguing the Brownell program: recruiting. This seems like a simple answer, but many comments I’ve seen bemoan the offensive approach, game management, and situational play under Brownell’s command. I tend to feel that Brownell’s true strengths are in half court basketball, especially defensively, and in overall player development.
The issue has been and continues to be the inability to sign a truly impact freshman or two. I decided to put together a comparison of his freshmen and their productions from year one with some notable basketball signees from Rick Barnes’s first year through Oliver Purnell’s final class. Both Barnes and Purnell were able to string together multiple NCAA tournament bids, with each of those runs coming after an NIT bid year, and produced an excitement level for basketball on campus that has been very difficult for Brownell to replicate. Those strings of success were built on some impact freshmen players who put 3 and 4 years of consistent production the team could build around. While Brownell has had some guys emerge over time into high level players, such as Donte Grantham, Gabe DeVoe, Jaron Blossomgame, and K.J. McDaniels, the process has taken 2-4 years and by the time those guys emerge, their eligibility is up or they go pro, such as McDaniels did. Then it is back to square 1, it seems.
Rick Barnes had perhaps the best four year run in the history of Clemson basketball. After taking his initial team to the NIT, even though it was regarded in the preseason as perhaps the worst team in ACC history, he put together 3 straight NCAA tournament teams and a Sweet Sixteen appearance. He had the first team to beat UNC in a game in the state of North Carolina. He owned the Eddie Fogler USC teams which won back to back SEC titles. He took the Tigers to its highest ranking during a season ever, #2, and notched the best out of conference win in program history with a win over defending national champion and eventual national runner up Kentucky on a neutral floor. That run was built on impact freshmen in back-to-back classes, none of whom were top 100 recruits, which showed an impressive talent evaluation by Barnes and his staff. Iker Iturbe and Greg Buckner were in his first class. The next class included Terrell McIntyre and Harold Jamison.
ITURBE: 6.5 ppg; 3.8 rpg; 2 apg; IMPACT RTG 6
BUCKNER: 12 ppg; 5.9 rpg; 2.1 apg (ACC ROOKIE OF THE YEAR); IMPACT RTG 10
McINTYRE: 12.7 ppg; 2.8 rpg; 3.1 apg; IMPACT RTG 9
JAMISON: 7.6 ppg; 5.9 rpg; 1 apg; IMPACT RTG 7
Oliver Purnell came to Clemson at one of the lowest points in an already bad history. Larry Shyatt managed to win just 25% of his ACC games, worst in program history, and Littlejohn Coliseum was literally condemned before a rushed renovation was done. Purnell put his mark on the program on the back of a strong recruiting class which featured a top 100 recruit in Sam Perry and major contributors Cliff Hammonds and James Mays. That group took a 10-18 squad to 15-15 with an NIT bid. That would start a yearly improvement of wins and NIT results before a string of 3 straight NCAA tournaments and an ACC tournament championship game appearance. Purnell actually did this on the back of two full cycles of recruits which was all the more impressive considering Clemson’s history. Here is a look at a few of his freshmen.
HAMMONDS: 10.6ppg; 3.6 rpg; 2.8 apg; IMPACT RTG 9
PERRY: 4 ppg; 2.7 rpg; 1 apg; IMPACT RTG 4
MAYS: 4.3 ppg; 3.4 rpg; 0.4 apg; IMPACT RTG 4
T. BOOKER: 10.4 ppg; 6.4 rpg; 1.1 apg; IMPACT RTG 9
RIVERS: 7.1 ppg; 4.8 rpg; 1.8 apg; IMPACT RTG 7
OGLESBY: 10.5 ppg; 1.8 rpg; 1.2 apg; IMPACT RTG 7
STITT (RIP): 8.8 ppg; 1.6 rpg; 3 apg; IMPACT RTG 7
D BOOKER: 4.5 ppg; 2.9 rpg; 0.3 apg; IMPACT RTG 3
M JENNINGS: 3.3 ppg; 2.7 rpg; 0.5 apg; IMPACT RTG 3
So, from the numbers above (especially impact ratings), the key to the sustained runs of the past were having at least two freshman put up a 7 or higher rating OR having a level 9-10 guy (usually both). The end of the Purnell era featured his highest rated class of Devin Booker, Milton Jennings, and Noel Johnson (all top 100 recruits), but none of these scored above a 3 impact rating. The dip in winning experienced after the graduation of Stitt, the last freshman to score an impact rating at 7 or better, was predictable as a result, and Purnell got out while the getting was good.
Now, here is a look at all the freshmen years of the Brad Brownell era. I did not include the current class because the season is not done, but safe to say none of them are on track to rate better than a 2 for impact as it stands now.
|10 out of 21|
As you can see, the highest impact rating for a freshman under Brownell was Donte Grantham’s 7. None of his freshmen have averaged double figures scoring and 10 out of the 21 transferred out of the program. Only 5 have scored 5 or higher in impact, which would mean an above average season. Even with Brownell’s success in developing non top 100 players like Blossomgame and McDaniels into fringe NBA players, many guys are leaving before real signs of development are seen. He has only signed two RSCI top 100 recruits: Bernard Sullivan and Donte Grantham.
Brownell began to adjust his recruiting somewhat towards the transfer market which has helped bring in a higher level of player than he has been able to sign out of high school. This is something other teams have had success with, most notably Nevada, but ultimately Brownell has to land a lynch-pin impact freshman to build around. Obviously a guy like Zion Williamson would have made a huge impact but as a one and done. The challenge is finding that Greg Buckner or Trevor Booker under-the-radar guy who is a great college player but unlikely to go pro before three or four years. It remains to be seen if the staff can really identify that type of guy who is the right fit and sign him. This staff missed on some very good players such as Aaron Nesmith, Trey McGowens, and Ja Morant (though everybody missed on Morant in major D1). Being able to recognize a guy like Morant, the way Barnes and company recognized Terrell McIntyre, is the missing ingredient of this program in my voew. These guys are out there, just look down I-85 at Wofford’s Fletcher Magee and Cameron Jackson. Clemson must start finding and signing them.