The open date for the football team gives me a good chance to start looking ahead to basketball season. The 2020-2021 Clemson Tigers should have a very real shot at the NCAA tournament, provided it can be played as planned (unlike last year). This is, without a doubt, the most talented roster Brad Brownell has had in his time at Clemson based on recruiting rankings. In fact, you’d have to go back to the end of the Oliver Purnell era, which featured a 5-star in Milton Jennings along with 4-star players Devin Booker and Noel Johnson, to match what this roster has.
Coach Brownell has had to punch above his weight class for the majority of his career, but, as long as the injury bug doesn’t bite for the third straight season, he can compete with just about any team in the league with what he has to work with this year.
Clemson struggled in the post last season beyond the play of preseason first team All-ACC Aamir Simms. The Tigers couldn’t rebound or defend the rim nearly to the degree they had with Elijah Thomas. Jonathan Baehre’s ACL injuries were a killer, and the now departed Trey Jemison and Khavon Moore were never able to provide more than spot minutes behind starters Simms and Tevin Mack (who was really playing out of position at the 4).
Brownell signed his best recruit to date in Dorman’s PJ Hall, landing the top player in SC for the first time in his tenure. Hall immediately brings a legit post presence with inside/outside ability to the team, and allows Simms to play his more natural position of the 4. Dorman was easily the best team in South Carolina, and was a legitimate top 10 team nationwide, so Hall got plenty of run against high-level competition both at Dorman and on the AAU circuit. There is no reason he shouldn’t be an impact player right away, which has been a rare thing in the Brownell era, where most players have taken two to three years to emerge as factors. PJ Hall is the type of guy teams like Louisville and UVA have been running out there the last few years, so it is nice to have that type of guy wearing the paw for a change. Hall should immediately be a starter beside Simms in the front court.
Brownell really helped the roster by getting a late re-classified signee in Lynn Kidd. Kidd may not be as physically strong as Trey Jemison, but he is a much better athlete with a higher ceiling. Kidd plays above the rim in a way you’d expect a guy of that height to play, which means he can block shots and finish with dunks. I expect Kidd to play at least as much as Jemision did last year.
The X-factor may be freshman Olivier-Maxence Prosper. I have it on good authority that once Prosper got on campus and was in workouts with the guys, Khavon Moore decided to transfer seeing his minutes likely lost. Prosper is a versatile wing/forward in the mold of Donte Grantham, who was having a monster senior season before tearing his ACL. Prosper could very well start as the 3 and even if he doesn’t is sure to log big minutes at the 3 and the 4. I’ve heard that Prosper is already as good or better than Tevin Mack was as a grad student. We will see if that plays out, but if so, that is exciting news considering the major role Mack had on last year’s team.
Hunter Tyson is the other candidate to potentially start at the 3 but also offer depth at the 4 position. Tyson, along with classmate John Newman, are now seasoned juniors and SHOULD be coming into their own in the way we saw Aamir Simms emerge last season. Tyson has shown flashes of what he can provide but has been inconsistent. At his best, he is a nice stretch 4 type player who can knock down 3’s and occasionally make something happen at the rim. He’s had another year to get stronger and hopefully more confident coming into this season.
Jonathan Baehre was by all accounts going to be a major factor before knee injuries derailed his last two campaigns. His loss was huge in 2019, but thanks to a great signing class on the frontcourt, his work can be counted as icing on the cake if he can provide help. It is hard to know if he will be healthy enough to regain his form, but thankfully the team should be in a position to nurse him along.
Last year it felt like Baehre was rushed into action before being shut down once again. You can never have too much depth inside, especially with COVID-19 factored in, so Baehre should not be forgotten.
Brownell has had more bad luck than good during his time at Clemson. You’d have to think he’s due for a season without somebody missing significant time with injury. He already has had the good fortune of Aamir Simms returning for his senior season, which he didn’t get back when K.J. McDaniels decided to turn pro a year early. PJ Hall finally gives the staff a key guy they recruited very hard for multiple years. That has to feel good after seeing folks like Brice Johnson, Zion Williamson, and Josiah James be all but committed before heading elsewhere late in the process.
The vast majority of the production from 2019-2020 is back for this season, which has almost always been the case for Clemson teams that make the NCAA tournament. I’ve always felt Brownell is a strong X and O coach but his issues with recruiting have held things back. Now that story is finally beginning to change and it is time for us to see some real results.