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Returning Underclassmen Must Fill Roles for Penn State Basketball

Pat Chambers' early recruiting hasn't worked out so well at PSU, but the chance has come for Julian Moore, Payton Banks and Isaiah Washington to help turn this program around.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

While the growing transfer market gains more relevancy in college basketball each year, a program's success ultimately is determined by the results of their high school/prep recruiting. There are a few exceptions, but by and large, if you're missing on your high school recruits, you ain't gonna be employed very long.

Pat Chambers' program has yet to take off in State College, mostly because his first few recruiting classes have been unable to make substantial impacts. We've written before about the recruiting limitations Chambers was handed from the start of his tenure. A youthful, inexperienced roster did not offer any open avenues to bring in his own talent. He also had to make the huge leap from recruiting at the America East level to recruiting for the Big Ten in a very short period. It was going to take time for anyone to establish new relationships with a different class of prospects, if you recall the quality of candidates Chambers beat out in 2011.

While it's understandable Chambers couldn't make an instant splash in recruiting (although he was close during the Brandon Austin and Sheldon Jeter days), his early classes have kept the program stuck in neutral. During the first 16 months on the job, Chambers secured verbal commitments from Akosa Maduegbunam (2012), Brandon Taylor (2012), Geno Thorpe (2013), Isaiah Washington (2014), Donovon Jack (2012), Julian Moore (2013), Payton Banks (2013) and Graham Woodward (2013). Three of those players have already transferred out of the program, while Taylor and Jack are now seniors. So what about Moore, Banks, and Washington?

All three arrived at Penn State without much hype. Moore's lone high major offer was Penn State, as he committed to the Lions over the likes of Temple, La Salle and Drexel. Banks hails from California and was passed over by most of the Pac-12. He chose PSU over Pepperdine and Nevada. Washington committed immediately following his sophomore year in high school. It was so early who knows what level his recruitment could have reached, but he was only ranked #360 in 247Sports' composite rankings, the lowest of any Chambers recruit.

While these guys were labelled as projects out of high school, they were offered scholarships by the current staff, because they believed they could play at the Big Ten level. This is a crucial season for their developments and could ultimately determine the path their Penn State careers follow.

Julian Moore has the greatest chance to have the biggest long-term impact. He has shown the most promise before a mid-season bout with the flu last year put a damper on his redshirt freshman campaign. He was only able to play 21.5 percent of the available Big Ten minutes, but as the only player listed over 6'9" on 2017's roster, Penn State will be reliant on Moore developing into a defensive stopper and potential finisher in the middle.

Moore has shown good speed running the floor, but questions remain about his strength in the rigorous paint. If he struggles to make a mark in the frontcourt rotation with Jordan Dickerson, Donovon Jack and Mike Watkins this year, that doesn't bode well for his future. If he has a breakout season and fills an Andrew Jones-like role (113.5 ORtg on 13.8% Poss% in 2009), he will become a vital component to this year's team and beyond.

Payton Banks seems to have the best chance to make the biggest contribution to this year's team. The departed Ross Travis has left behind 25 unclaimed minutes on the wing. Banks will compete with Brandon Taylor, who Chambers vows will play more at the 3 this year, and true freshman Davis Zemgulis to fill the void. While Travis was a tremendous rebounder and good defender, his mystifying struggles on offense killed Penn State at times. Banks won't be able to replicate Travis' rebounding, but he did come to Penn State with a more diverse skill set.

Banks struggled to stay in the rotation last year as a redshirt freshman. He did play 25.3 percent of available Big Ten minutes, but his numbers left a lot to be desired. Maybe with more consistent playing time, Banks can prove his poor shooting was a mirage, but if the 21-year-old sophomore can't morph into a steady contributor, there aren't a lot of options for Pat Chambers until the 2016 class sets foot on campus unless Zemgulis is much further along on the court than his recruiting background would suggest.

As for Isaiah Washington, the Williamsport native is coming off of a medical redshirt after receiving a hardship waiver to restore his freshman eligibility. However, there's a huge opportunity for him to carve a valuable role in the backcourt this season, as Geno Thorpe's transfer has left Shep Garner as the only proven commodity in Penn State's guard rotation.

Josh Reaves is expected to play early and often alongside Garner, but it's too soon to expect 35 minutes a game right out of the gate. The only other guards around are Washington, senior point guard Devin Foster, and the new walk-on Sam Hallie (who actually made the team after tryouts last year, but was unable to dress or travel). If Washington can't make a positive impact off the bench this season, it will be much tougher for him to crack the lineup when Terrence Samuel and Tony Carr join Garner and Reaves next year.

The slower progression of these low 3-star recruits emphasize the importance of recruiting at the Big Ten level for a struggling program like Penn State. They all invested in customary redshirts to acclimate to the physicality of the Big Ten, but the program now needs them in this year's rotation to improve upon last year's win total.

The analytics have studied the Sophomore Leap to illustrate the preponderance of the sophomore season. This data suggests we'll most likely learn the most about Banks and Moore this season. While their respective games aren't exact comparisons, I'd like to see Moore and Banks become the level of player Andrew Jones/David Jackson were for Talor Battle's teams. Jones and Jackson fulfilled critical roles as starters on the NIT championship team as sophomores. Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner aren't Jamelle Cornley and Talor Battle, but if Moore and Banks can develop into similar roles over time, they would be necessary sidekicks for the Roman Catholic thoroughbreds when they arrive in State College.