In Part 1 of this season preview we'll begin our look at the incoming class of freshmen who will in large part define this 2011-12 Texas basketball season, focusing on the four incoming guards. In Part 2 we'll turn to the two freshman forwards, before wrapping things up in Part 3 with a look at how all the pieces on the team fit together.
Setting aside that Texas would have been a national title contender with Tristan Thompson, Jordan Hamilton, and Cory Joseph, without them Texas only barely has enough returning players to fill a starting five. As we near the tip of the 2011-12 season, the Longhorns return just five players from a year ago -- a group that includes zero starters, one player returning from a junior season redshirt, and two walk-ons. J'Covan Brown and Alexis Wangmene both came off the bench last year, Clint Chapman took last year off to work on his body, and walk-ons Dean Melchionni and Andy Dick only saw action in the final two minutes of blowouts.
Needless to say, the incoming freshman class will play a defining role in this season. Although the class took a hit when Canadian forward Kevin Thomas failed to qualify academically, this freshman class still ranks among Barnes' best, buoyed by the late signing of forward Jaylen Bond following his release from his LOI to play for Pittsburgh. The six-member class of 2011 ranked in the Top 5 of most scouting services' national rankings, and in terms of quality depth rivals the outstanding 2006 class that featured Kevin Durant, DJ Augustin, Damion James, and Justin Mason.
In this Part 1 of the 2011-12 Texas Longhorns basketball season preview we'll meet the four guards in the freshman class and talk about what each of these players brings to the hardwood. In Part 2 we'll look at the pair of incoming forwards, and then wrap things up in Part 3 with a look at the team as a whole, analyzing the challenges it will face and how Rick Barnes might successfully develop it into an NCAA tournament team.
The Headliner: Myck Kabongo
You often hear about how TJ Ford put Texas basketball on the map, but he also put us in the Sweet 16 as a freshman, and Final Four as a sophomore. Had he returned in 2004-05, Texas would have been the odds-on favorite to win the national title. Although in DJ Augustin Texas had an elite player at the point guard position, the Longhorns have not had a brilliant true point guard since Ford...
Canadian point guard Myck Kabongo (Findlay Prep / Grass Roots Canada) is the real deal, a pure point with the same capacity and desire to make everyone around him better as the legendary TJ Ford, who if you recall made some pretty average players look awfully good. Kabongo measures at about 6-1, 170 pounds and is not merely fast (necessary) but cat-quick (essential), with plus-plus handles and vision, an already-solid-and-steadily-improving jump shot, and the ability to be a scorer when he needs to be.
Kabongo is... well hell, let's just skip a thousand words and cut to a picture:
Okay, now a thousand words: Just judging from all the film I've watched, I'm not sure Kabongo is quite as fast as the supersonic Ford, but it's close and he looks to be just as devastatingly quick. I'll reserve final judgment on all that when I see him live in a few weeks, but I don't need to wait for a live viewing to tell you that Kabongo is smoother and more polished than Ford was upon his arrival. Probably the only real question with Kabongo is whether like Ford he'll be able to thrive even as he gets banged physically. Ford did it with his quickness and body control, and everything I've seen from Kabongo suggests he'll be at least as successful; if anything, I suspect his having a jump shot that must be respected, as well as superior overall polish, will make him even harder to stay in front of and guard honestly.
As giddy as I am to see how Myck Kabongo compares to TJ Ford, far, far and away the most important thing that matters is the effect of his capabilities on this particular Texas team. This is going to be an absurdly young, inexperienced, and small team, and without a high-elite point guard we'd be staring at a dramatically different season outlook. The truth of the matter is that what Kabongo can do all by himself with the ball in his hands has an enormous impact on what we're potentially capable of, as compared to if this young group had to earn points through systematic offense. Not only that, but Kabongo's ability to completely break down a defense will be tremendously beneficial to the effectiveness of our undersized frontcourt. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine Alexis Wangmene thriving alongside Kabongo similarly to how James Thomas did playing with TJ Ford. With Kabongo we're also much more dangerous playing small but running, which this group may well have to do to avoid getting overwhelmed playing halfcourt defense.
I could go on, and on and on and on... and soon enough I'm sure I will, but for now let's just say that Kabongo is the key to all of the upside in this season. We can't talk about what everyone else might contribute this season without understanding what Kabongo will provide with his play.
A Trio of Guards
We'll discuss J'Covan Brown and his role with this year's team in Part 3, but the focus for now is on the trio of guards joining Kabongo in this year's freshman class. Let's start with the two who will be most important to this year's team -- Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis.
Sheldon McClellan (Bellaire / Houston Swoosh) is in many ways the most interesting and important recruit (non-Kabongo division) in the class. At 6-5, 190 pounds, McClellan is a long, lean wing with athleticism and loads of basketball talent. He's a terrific slasher with the ability to make highlight-reel finishes around the rim, and an outside game you have to respect. He's a pure scorer who can fill it up in a hurry and when he's grooving he makes everyone around him better becuase he can really disrupt a defense, drawing a lot of attention. As small as this team is going to be, we'll need McClellan to put his length to use in hitting the glass, and we'll need him to offer more defensively than our last pure scoring wing. Speaking of whom...
I've only seen about 30 seconds of film on McClellan so I asked a friend in Houston who's plugged in to the area hoops circuit to provide a few thoughts. "He's a little like Jordan Hamilton in that he doesn't always seem mentally plugged in to the game, but when he's going he scores in bunches. I've seen him have a first half where you wondered if he had the flu or something and then come out and completely dominate the game the rest of the way. When he's hot, he's NBA Jam hot. I should say that he's not quite as good a shooter as Hamilton but he's not far behind and McClellan is more athletic, he can guard people when he wants to, and he's a much better finisher around the rim. I'll be curious to see if things click for him as a freshman. He's talented enough that he can be an impact player right away but I wouldn't be surprised if the big step forward comes as a soph."
Without seeing much film on McClelland, let alone live, I'm not yet ready to offer any takes on what he can be for us this year, but what I have seen and what I know about him from talking to people is that he might be the player who defines this team's ultimate upside. Obviously Kabongo is the most important piece of the puzzle, but what McClellan can be for us by February -- as a scorer, as a rebounder, as a competent defender -- may be the difference between our being a bubble team, and a more dangerous one that could get to the second weekend of the tournament.
Julien Lewis (LaMarque / Houston Total Package) is a 6-3, 190-pound versatile guard who doesn't do any one thing great but does lots of things well. Lewis has a strong body and long arms, and though he isn't especially fast or quick, he's very athletic and has some real spring in his legs. His handles are solid but need work before he's going to be able to penetrate effectively at the college level; he's overly-dependent on his left hand and he dribbles the ball too high. When he gets into the paint, he can finish with either hand and he's a danger to score on putbacks if you don't block him out.
Lewis is at this point a much better open court player than in the half court, providing yet another reason this team needs to get out and run. He's a strong slashing wing who isn't afraid of contact, he's got good vision in the open court, and his mid-range jumper is a weapon. Lewis shoots his long-range jumper with good elevation and pretty follow through, but his release is slow and needs to improve. And perhaps most important of all, Lewis has the body and athleticism not only to contribute as a rebounder but also to come in and play defense right away, which this team will desperately need. Though not particularly quick, he's got good feet, long arms, and a strong body that he uses well.
Rounding out the trio of freshmen guards is Sterling Gibbs (Seton Hall Prep / N.Y. Panthers), younger brother of standout Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs, who joins Texas after securing his release from his LOI to play for Maryland. Gibbs actually reminds me a little bit of J'Covan, in that while he's got a scorer's mentality he has real feel for the game -- good vision, understands spacing, posseses anticipation, etc. I don't think Gibbs has as much raw talent/pure basketball ability as J'Covan, but like JCB he's both not a pure point and yet capable of being effective in similar ways to a point guard because of that pure basketball feel that he possesses. There are far more great athletes than great basketball players in the college game, and Gibbs is a real basketball player. I like that, and I especially like it for what he can be as a four-year player for us.
As for this year, Gibbs' role is probably pretty limited, although he'll certainly play and it would be great if he was more freshman-ready than I anticipate he will be. If he can defend, he'll be a regular in the rotation, because he's a guy you can trust with the ball in his hands, he's got a decent jumper from outside, and he's comfortable penetrating and trying to make a play. I suspect that he's going to have trouble creating on his own as a freshman, but that's not the role we need him to play this year, so there's a chance he can be a useful reserve. Still, Gibbs real value will be felt over the full course of his four years here; although he lacks the quickness to be an elite player, with time he should develop into the kind of upperclassman contributor you often see on Final Four contenders.
Next in Part 2 of the season preview: a look at Texas' two freshman forwards.