Shaka Smart may soon be tasked with overcoming his second mass exodus since arriving at Texas following the 2013-14 season.
Mohamed Bamba’s departure was expected — the former five-star prospect has made it clear since his arrival on the Forty Acres that his first season as a Longhorn would also be his last. But what’s taken place between early January and now has been almost entirely unforeseen, and thus, a considerable amount of uncertainty now surrounds the perimeter rotation Smart has constructed throughout the past few seasons.
Let’s start at the top, beginning with what’s already known to be fact:
- January 10: After missing four games with a fractured wrist and struggling with stamina issues upon his return, Texas publicly announced that sophomore guard Andrew Jones has been diagnosed with leukemia and will begin immediate treatment. He didn’t return this season.
- February 23: Junior guard Eric Davis Jr. is named in an ASM Sports scandal for allegedly receiving a $1,500 payment from associate Christian Dawkins. Davis missed the final six games of the season; Texas withheld him from competition as the school conducted its own investigation.
- March 22: Sophomore guard Jacob Young announces his intent to transfer from the program following two seasons in a reserve role.
At this point, Young serves as the only certain departure on the perimeter, but depending on how things play out with everyone else, his transfer may prove to be especially significant after he averaged 13.3 points and 3.2 rebounds in Davis’ absence.
To that end, it’s still unclear if Davis will ever suit up at Texas again.
Since the school elected to withhold Davis from competition more than a month ago, a decision, at least from Texas’ side, is yet to be made public; that is, if a final decision has even been made at all.
Although Davis did struggle with inconsistency as a junior, he was able to provide a much-needed offensive spark at times, scoring in double figures 10 times, including four games with at least 15 points. Furthermore, going forward, Davis’ veteran presence could prove to be a significant one for a backcourt that’s suddenly at the risk of being considerably depleted.
Jones can be lumped into the uncertainty that now surrounds Smart’s crop of guard talent.
Although Jones has said he hopes to be back on the hardwood in time for the 2018-19 season, that decision is largely out of his control. Rather, with the priority being a healthy recovery after the leukemia diagnosis, Jones’ doctors and his body have the say in regards to when, if ever, he plays college basketball again.
At this point, Jones is still undergoing treatment from the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston on an outpatient basis. And it’s worth noting that while Jones has documented his dedication to ultimately get back to playing basketball, the sophomore looked the part of an NBA-bound talent prior to his diagnosis — Jones averaged 15.3 points per game prior to fracturing his wrist against VCU. Expecting him to return as the same caliber of talent, at least immediately, is a bit premature.
Speaking of NBA-caliber talent, Kerwin Roach II testing the NBA waters is a very real possibility a this point.
Considering the current outlook, Roach isn’t likely to be drafted, as he rarely appears on various mock drafts, but his sheer athleticism and defensive upside may spark some intrigue.
Slow-motion look at Kerwin Roach’s shooting mechanics. The 21-year-old junior guard is starting to turn the corner as a prospect. Potential starting to become production. Olympic level athlete who is improving his feel and stroke. pic.twitter.com/haSGixO9bV— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) March 8, 2018
If Roach does take that route, the G-League will quite possibly be his first destination, but it’s one that comes accompanied with a paycheck and a much more significant amount of time to focus on development. Isaiah Taylor faced a similar decision following his junior campaign in 2014-15, and after going undrafted and becoming a G-League standout, he’s now played 59 games for the Atlanta Hawks this season and is fresh off of a career-high 26-point display against the Houston Rockets.
Roach now seems to be faced with a similar circumstance — is returning to Texas as the headliner more valuable than a paid season playing professionally, even if it’s in the G-League?
Obviously, how the Houston native elects to answer that question will have a substantial impact on Texas’ 2018-19 potential. Roach averaged 14.3 points and 4.1 assists per game since returning from a fractured wrist in mid-January.
In a worst case scenario, with Young already headed for greener pastures and Davis’, Jones’, and Roach’s futures at Texas each up in the air, it’s quite possible that the Longhorns only returning perimeter talent — Matt Coleman excluded — will be Jase Febres.
Bearing in mind Febres’ debut season, that could serve as a considerable concern from the ‘Horns next season.
Febres arrived in Austin with the sharpshooter label, but that was seldom evident, save for a few glimpses. Febres’ opened the season with 13 points against Northwestern State, totaled a career-high 18 points against Baylor, and added 12 points against Ole Miss and 12 more against Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament. Throughout his other 27 appearances, though, Febres totaled just 51 points, making for a 1.9 points per game average in those efforts. When it was all said and done, Febres connected on as many threes as Coleman (28), and did so at a more inefficient clip (30.1%) than Roach (36.4%), Davis (34.8%), Young (32.3%), and even Jones (46.3%) if you consider his 10-game contributions.
Is there reason to believe Febres will progress entering his second season on the Forty Acres?
Of course, but ideally, he would be able to do so surrounded by proven veteran presences in Roach, Davis, and potentially Jones, as opposed to being relied upon as a key offensive option.
The name that hasn’t been mentioned in the bunch is Mount St. Mary’s transfer Elijah Long, the brother of former Iowa State standout Naz Long, who is set to make his Longhorns debut next season after watching from the sidelines in 2017-18.
A former mid-major star, Long led Mount St. Mary’s in scoring (15.0), assists (4.4), steals (1.4), minutes (34.4) as a sophomore, as well as averaging 5.2 rebounds per game. As the stat line indicates, Long is a bit of a Swiss army knife, so whether or not Texas loses all three or any combination of Davis, Jones, and Roach, Long projects as a key piece in the Longhorns rotation next season.
Exactly how the roster around him shapes up will largely determine the role Long takes on as a junior, though, as he could either find himself as a pure scorer alongside Coleman, or as a secondary ball handler and scoring threat off the bench. In any case, his presence will be a welcomed one, even if Roach, Davis and Jones are each back in burnt orange next season.
To a much larger extent, which Texas wings are back in Austin next season will dictate just how quickly incoming freshmen forwards Gerald Liddell and Brock Cunningham are required to contribute. Liddell, formerly a five-star prospect now ranked No. 36 nationally, is a lanky, 6’6, 180-pound slasher with a soft mid-range touch, but his perimeter game and frame will likely need a bit more development before he’s ready to contribute throughout the rigors of Big 12 play. Cunningham, a local three-star product out of Austin Westlake, doesn’t own quite as high of a ceiling as Liddell, but his perimeter touch and do-it-all skill set could mean he may join Liddell in seeing minutes sooner than expected as freshmen.
In a perfect world, Texas returns a healthy Jones, as well as Roach, who will likely at least test the NBA waters to receive an evaluation, and Davis will re-join the rotation after being sidelined down the stretch, with Long adding to the offensive firepower, and Febres, Liddell and Cunningham providing further depth and versatility. However, the reality is that Texas could be without any number of Jones, Roach and Davis, if not all three. Although Long should hit the ground running after already practicing with the team for nearly a year, such a scenario would thrust Febres, Liddell and Cunningham into roles they may not immediately be ready for.
By June 11, Smart should have a much clearer picture as to what his 2018-19 perimeter rotation may look like. That’s the day that early NBA Draft entrants — potentially Roach — must elect to return to school, or officially declare for the draft, and by that point, Texas would seemingly have an answer on Davis’ future, as well.
Of course, Jones is the exception of the bunch, as there’s no timeline as to when Texas will learn whether or not he’ll re-join the team next season.
As for now, all Smart and the ‘Horns can do is wait and hope the roster landscape ultimate looks more the part of the best-case scenario — Jones, Roach, and Davis each return — as opposed to the opposite:
Best-case scenario: Roach (SR), Davis (SR), Jones (JR), Long (JR), Febres (SO), Liddell (FR), Cunningham (FR)
Worst-case scenario: Long (JR), Febres (SO), Liddell (FR), Cunningham (FR)