Last season was expected to be a transitional one for the Clemson basketball team as the Tigers’ talented trio of transfers - Marcquise Reed, Shelton Mitchell, and Elijah Thomas - moved on after their three-year stint as the core of the program. In some ways, the Tigers outperformed expectations. Posting a winning record and finishing ninth in the ACC was a relative success considering what they had lost, not to mention the youth and injuries they had to overcome.
The aforementioned factors certainly led to inconsistency throughout the season — Clemson notched three home wins over top-10 opponents, yet the Tigers were also swept by Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech and had some head-scratching non-conference losses. So while basketball is by nature a game where inconsistency is somewhat expected, most teams don’t post results quite as disparate as Clemson did this past season.
Much of this inconsistency can be attributed to the circumstances in the Tigers’ backcourt. Presumptive starter Clyde Trapp suffered an ACL tear in the offseason that caused him to miss the first 10 games of the season, and point guard transfer Nick Honor was denied a waiver for eligibility by the NCAA. As such, Clemson started two true freshmen — Al-Amir Dawes and Chase Hunter — at the guard spots for its season opener against Virginia Tech. This baptism by fire was indicative of the uphill battle the Tigers faced when it came to backcourt depth in the 2019-2020 season.
Fast forward to this season, and the struggles Clemson endured last year could pay dividends for a group of perimeter players that now seems poised to be one of the ACC’s deeper units.
Dawes, in particular, stands to benefit the most from a freshman season where he was thrust into the starting point guard role and asked to play 30 minutes a game as the Tigers’ lead guard. He had his share of struggles, as any freshman would in that situation, but by the end of the season he was one of the team’s best players and beginning to look like a core piece of Clemson’s future.
Hunter was also highly regarded as a freshman coming in, but his season was derailed by a foot injury just as things were seemingly starting to click for him. He figures to begin the season as one of the first men off the bench and someone who can provide a scoring punch along with excellent on-ball defense on the perimeter. If Hunter can avoid further injury setbacks, he may have one of the higher ceilings on the roster.
We know Brad Brownell values veteran presences in his lineup, so it stands to reason that Trapp will be the starter at the other guard position to open the season. As the only senior guard on the roster, he will presumably be counted on to assume a leadership role for a team that is still relatively young. Trapp took one for the team, so to speak, in coming back from his injury after just six months last season and giving Clemson a much needed backcourt body when Hunter went down with his injury. So while Trapp is a polarizing player to some degree, there’s no questioning his commitment to the success of the program. If he is back to full health, it’s reasonable to think he could be a versatile, glue-guy type guard for the Tigers.
John Newman should round out the starting lineup on the perimeter after making significant strides as a starter in his sophomore season. Much like Dawes, he played his best in some of Clemson’s biggest wins, and the staff will be looking to Newman for better consistency on the offensive end in the hopes that he can be the type of slasher/scorer they can count on for double-figure points in most games. Newman is one of the best athletes on the roster and can contribute in numerous ways at both ends of the court, so his performance and growth as a junior will be key to the Tigers’ fortunes this season.
Clemson’s depth this year is bolstered by a second legitimate point guard option, something this staff is quite unfamiliar with. As previously mentioned, Honor did not receive a waiver to play last season but will give the Tigers a second floor general to keep Dawes from having to play the extended minutes he did as a freshman. In fact, the reported competition in practice between the two suggests that Honor is a player who could log significant minutes at the point, both giving Dawes extended rest or allowing him to slide over and play off the ball. Honor scored 15 points per game as essentially a one-man show in his freshman season at Fordham, but he figures to be more of a creator at Clemson who can get to the basket or knock down a three if needed.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of Clemson’s 2019-2020 season was the emergence of Alex Hemenway. The freshman suffered a high ankle sprain early on that kept him out until late January, but he provided the Tigers with a legitimate three-point specialist off the bench over the last couple months of the season. Though the sample size is limited to about half a season, it seems fair to say that Hemenway appears to be the best pure shooter Clemson has had in at least a decade. He shot 48 percent from three-point range as a freshman on nearly three attempts per game, so while it may be unfair to expect that same percentage with more volume, it seems safe to assume that Hemenway can provide the Tigers’ with a 40-percent three-point shooter at the bare minimum. While his lack of defensive prowess will generally keep Hemenway from logging major minutes, his shooting ability makes him one of Clemson’s more unique offensive weapons and will keep him on the court consistently.
This year’s Clemson backcourt is the deepest and most talented in recent memory, and while it is still a relatively young group, there is enough combined experience under their belts to perform more consistently this season as a unit. Combine this with an intriguing frontcourt roster, and the Tigers seemingly have the ingredients to put together one of the program’s best seasons of Brownell’s tenure. Throw in some better injury luck, and there should be plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this team heading into the 2020-2021 season.