Last season, Clemson finished 16-8 (10-6) and earned a berth to the NCAA tournament as a No. 7 seed. Clemson’s best wins came early in non-conference play as they beat Purdue, Maryland, and Alabama on their way to a 5-0 start. They’d get to 9-1 before losing three of four. They had another great stretch going a perfect 5-0 in February including wins over North Carolina, Syracuse, and Georgia Tech. Unfortunately, they lost steam in March going 1-3 during the season’s most critical month. They lost to Miami in their first game of the ACC Tournament and then fell to No. 10 seed Rutgers in their first game of the NCAA tournament. The poor finish tarnished an otherwise good season.
Clemson now looks to build off their success rather than take a step back, but they have several losses to overcome most notably star player Aamir Simms. Additionally, Jonathan Baehre, who joined Clemson as a transfer from UNC-Asheville is leaving to pursue a professional basketball career in Europe. Cylde Trapp is using his extra year of eligibility (COVID waiver) to transfer to Charlotte. John Newman (Cincinnati), Olivier Maxence-Prosper (Marquette), and Lynn Kidd (Virginia Tech) are also leaving via the transfer portal.
To preview the new-look 2021-22 Clemson Tigers, the basketball staff here at Shakin the Southland got together to answer some of the biggest questions as we come into the season.
The Tigers have six scholarship players returning:
G - Al-Amir Dawes (9.0 ppg)
G - Nick Honor (8.1 ppg)
G - Alex Hemenway (4.7 ppg)
G- Chase Hunter (2.9 ppg)
F - Hunter Tyson (7.5 ppg)
F/C - PJ Hall (3.5 ppg)
Which, if any, of these players seems most poised for a breakout season? Who are you most excited to watch?
Drew: I like several to have a breakout season. Dawes has flashed the potential to be a top level point guard, but hasn’t consistently put it together. I’m not sure what you would consider a breakout season for Hunter, but I could see him turning into a guy that consistently gives you 8-10 points, even though it feels like he’s not scoring. Hall is the obvious choice, if only because he’ll get all the minutes he can handle. He feels like a 12 and 8 guy with occasional scoring outbursts.
Honor’s size puts a ceiling on his upside, but he’ll be steady. Hemenway will continue in his sharpshooter role. His scoring will be up and down. I want Chase Hunter to step up and have a big year, but he’s always injured. If he can stay healthy, I think he can make a jump, but that’s a big if.
I’m most excited to watch Hall. He’s one of the highest rated recruits in the Brownell era. This team better fits his skill set. He won’t be fighting Simms for playing time. He showed off his mid-range game on occasion, but I expect to see his post moves and offensive rebounding shine in 2021.
C_Craft: The two guys I think are most capable of breaking out are PJ Hall and Chase Hunter. They are the two most athletically gifted of their position groups and thus I feel have the highest ceilings. Hall absolutely must break out if this season is going to be successful. Hunter finally figuring it out could be a real X-factor in Clemson shocking a lot of folks (myself included) and making the NCAA tournament and winning a game or two there. Hunter has the twitch and the explosiveness to create for himself if he can figure out how to shoot it at a much higher clip. Personally, I’m a huge Alex Hemenway fan and he’s the guy I really hope breaks out as a knock down shooter in the mold of Virginia Tech’s Hunter Cattoor.
Ryan: Honor and Dawes should start and give Clemson a strong backcourt, but the development of Hunter Tyson and PJ Hall will decide how far this team goes. Tyson, the lone non-transfer senior, is poised for a big year with Simms leaving. He was the best rebounder on the team last year and can score in bunches. He needs to be a more consistent offensive threat for this team. I think he can do it. I’m not sure what to expect from Hall. He was a big recruit but didn’t do much as a freshman. He has a high ceiling, but I’m not sure if he needs more time or is ready for a breakout type season. If he is, this team could exceed expectations.
Unlike Coach Swinney, Coach Brownell has not been bashful about using the transfer portal to supplement the roster. This year, David Collins and Naz Bohannon are joining Clemson via grad transfer. What are your expectations for these two now that they’re Tigers?
Additionally, Josh Beadle, Ben Middlebrooks, and Ian Schieffelin join as true freshman. Is there any expectation for them to contribute this season?
Drew: Collins is the guy I’m excited about. I feel like an Honor/Collins allows Clemson to have a bruising, physical guard on the court at all times. The Tigers need a scorer, and Collins can score. It will be interesting to see how his game looks when he’s able to pick his spots instead of forcing things as the lead guard.
Bohannon is making a huge step up in competition. He’s going to have to figure out how to get his offense against bigger, more physical players. I think he’s a nice piece, and will pay dividends on the backboard, but I’m not sure his offense translates. I hope I’m wrong.
Middlebrooks has a ton of skill but is rail thin. I’m not sure he’ll be physically ready to compete in the ACC as a true freshman, but he’s got a high ceiling if his body catches up with skill.
Schieffelin is the most likely contributor. He’s a built 6-foot-8 225-230lbs, and if nothing else, will provide another body with 5 fouls to run into the post.
If Beadle contributes this year, it probably means that the back court is decimated with injuries. Too much veteran talent to crack the lineup this year, but he’s an athletic piece for down the road. He’s another guy that needs to develop his body.
C_Craft: You have to hope Collins provides the wing scoring that Clemson so desperately needs and has largely lacked since the departure of Marcquise Reed and Gabe DeVoe. Honestly, it is the position that the Brownell era has lacked the most, in my opinion, and put a pretty firm ceiling on what his teams have been able to do. I temper my expectations of transfers until I actually see them in Brad’s system, but Collins is the guy I’m most anxious to see. When you play like Clemson does, you need a guy at the end of shot clocks who can go get you a bucket or at least draw enough attention to free up offensive rebounds or wide open 3’s off kick outs.
Bohannon is a junkyard dog, and I really love those types of players on any team. Clemson really needs a boost in its rebounding ability, particularly on the offensive end, where only Hunter Tyson really does it at an above average level. Bohannon can do that and he is an excellent passer for a post player, though undersized. Brad took him to media days which already tells me he is a fan of what Bohannon brings to the table.
I have zero expectations for freshmen production. This is mostly based on really never getting much of any during the Brownell era. When the highest rated recruits like Simms and Hall are role players with light scoring impacts as freshmen, the chances of more lightly regarded guys like the ones in this incoming class blowing up and being big factors is pretty minimal. You just hope to see some production here and there and signs that they will develop into good players and not just hit the portal like a lot of Brad’s signees have done over the years. Maybe this is the year we get a big surprise, but I doubt it.
Ryan: Collin’s, a 6-foot-4 guard, was USF’s leading scorer (12.5) and was particularly good at getting to the FT line. He drew 5.6 fouls per 40 minutes (Hunter Tyson led Clemson regulars at 4.1 fouls/40 min). Last year, the Tigers struggled mightily to create their own shot and draw fouls. They ranked near the very bottom in the country (337th) in free throw attempts per field goal (a tempo and turnover adjusted metric for fouls drawn). Collins could have a big role in helping Clemson improve there.
The 6-foot-6 Naz Bohannon was the starting power forward and leading scorer for the Youngstown St. Penguins. He also posted an assist rate higher than anyone on Clemson. I imagine he’ll be a contributor. Naz’s physical style will be a bit more limited against the size in the ACC, but I think he’ll still be an important piece for this team.
Freshmen usually have a very modest impact and I’m not sure there are any in this class that I have high expectations for an immediate impact.
Following Clemson’s Sweet 16 run, Coach Brownell received a contract extension that paid an average salary of $2.5 million through 2024. On October 1st of this year, Clemson announced a two-year extension bringing the contract all the way through the 2025-26 basketball season. Did you expect this and what are your thoughts about the move and its implications.
Drew: I don’t mind it. If Brad is the guy, then he needs the type of contract that makes it easy to convince recruits that he’ll be around. Don’t think for a minute that, “Do you want to play for a guy that’s on the hot seat” hasn’t been used against Clemson in recruiting. This ends that problem (Clemson wouldn’t be the first team to fire a coach after giving them this type of extension, if it comes to that).
As you mentioned above, he’s shown a willingness to utilize the transfer portal, and it’s helped Clemson immensely. Recruiting has been a mixed bag. On paper it has improved, but talent retention has hurt, with a few high profile pieces exiting stage right without making much impact.
Ahem...wait...I mean Brad sucks and should be fired. Please don’t throw things at me in public.
C_Craft: You either had to fire him or extend him. Trying to ride the fence with contract situations does very little good. My thoughts on Brownell are as they have always been. I feel he is a strong coach between the lines but has struggled to evaluate talent effectively. A place like Clemson is rarely going to compete for a no-doubt stud like Zion Williamson, so it comes down to finding the right fits for what you do and maximizing those guys. This is where I feel he is inferior to Mike Young at Virginia Tech. Obviously Tony Bennett at Virginia is the gold standard in the ACC in this regard.
The success of the Purnell and the Barnes eras were built on hitting on guys who were perfect for what they were doing. Greg Buckner and Terrell McIntyre for Barnes, and Cliff Hammonds and Trevor Booker for Purnell. All of those guys were largely ignored by the blue bloods but were major studs for multiple years, beginning with instant impact freshmen seasons. Brad’s success stories have been guys who blossomed over time, but usually the program only gets 1 or 2 great years from them and the reset button gets hit again.
Ryan: I generally think Brownell does a good job and the terms are fine, but he had three seasons on his contract (2021/22, 2022/23, and 2023/24) so I’m not sure why the urgency was needed. That said, hopefully we see recruiting pick up and transfers out decrease. I think he is a good in-game coach and is outstanding at finding talent on the transfer market, but I’d like to see more high school recruits become big time multi-year contributors. The only players he’s recruited out of high school who have scored double-digits in multiple seasons for Clemson are: Jaron Blossomgame, Donte Grantham, and Aamir Simms.
The Tigers non-conference schedule is highlighted by a revenge game at Rutgers and a visit from U of SC (who canceled last season due to a team COVID-19 situation). In ACC play, the Tigers drew Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, Boston College, and annual rivals Florida State and Georgia Tech as the teams they’ll play twice. What games interest you most and how do you assess the schedule overall?
Drew: The U of SC game is always interesting. Frank is either going to get fired after the season or spontaneously combust during the season. I kind of want to see him implode against Clemson.
Rutgers is replacing the heart and soul of their team. I want to see Clemson beat on them.
This team needs to do well against the Notre Dame, Boston College and Georgia Tech tier of the ACC and hope to pull a few upsets. Clemson’s going to need to pull off a few road wins in this group, because Virginia, Duke, and Florida State are going to be tough.
Overall, playing in the ACC is going brutal again this year. This team has to win big in the non-conference because they’re going to fall back some in the ACC.
C_Craft: You always circle the U of SC games no matter the sport. On paper this out of conference schedule is lighter than last year’s slate. Brad’s NCAA tournament squads all had good non-conference performances, so if they can get through this one with fewer than three losses, I think the team will have a shot. As for the ACC, it always comes down to sweeping games against the lower tier and being above .500 vs. the middle pack. BC is lower tier and ND should be beatable due to their defensive issues that have persisted over the last few seasons. Of course, Brad usually has some crazy unexpected wins vs. the top tier but then goes .500 or less vs. the middle of the pack to offset it.
Ryan: The Rutgers and U of SC games stand out to me the most, but hosting Duke and UNC in conference play and the annual pair of rivalry games with Georgia Tech are also ones to circle.
Finally, what are you expectations for this year’s squad?
Drew: No idea. In theory, I like a team with a veteran backcourt and multiple shooters. The front court is going to determine the fate of the 2021 Tigers. If Tyson stays healthy and Hall lives up to his advanced billing, this squad has a chance to be a upper middle of the pack ACC team and a 6-8 seed. If Tyson gets hurt or Hall struggles, this thing could get miss the NIT ugly. Let’s just say this is a team with a low floor but decent ceiling and leave it at that until we see them in action.
C_Craft: My expectations are lower than last year’s. I felt like last year’s team could be a top 8 ACC squad and it delivered, albeit with a dud ending. Simms was a proven top flight ACC guy and nobody on this roster has proven they are on that level yet. Hopefully that will happen, but I can’t help but feel the Tigers are a team full of role players with no true alpha and you just can’t win at a high level in this league without at least one of those. I’m guessing the team will be around that media pick of 11th, maybe 9th on the top-end and 13th on the low-end.
Ryan: I think in the course of prepping this article, I’ve convinced myself that this team has an NCAA tournament ceiling. Honor/Dawes at the 1-2 is really strong. Collins could bring the slashing playmaking ability they desperately need. If not, maybe this is the year Chase Hunter stays healthy and makes enough jump shots that teams don’t play way off and he is able to use his playmaking ability. In the post, I love the upside of Tyson Hunter and PJ Hall. Naz Bohannon could be a critical cog off the bench and essentially be the back-up for Tyson Hunter and de facto for Hall (with Tyson Hunter shifting to center and Bohannon backfilling him).
All that said, there are a lot of dominoes that need to go right and not a lot of contingency options if development is slower than hoped or a big injury strikes. If Hunter Tyson remains inconsistent or if Hall isn’t ready to be a starter, this team gets thin very quick. I’m not going to project them to make the tournament, but they have the ingredients to do so and are certainly worth watching!