The Pat Chambers era at Penn State so far has been largely defined by the careers of two players - Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill. Both were superb talents that have been valuable ambassadors for the program. But despite their individual abilities, Chambers could not mold potent offenses around either of his stars. In their one season together, Penn State still ranked only 9th offensively in conference play and barely scored above a 1.0 points-per-possession clip.
With both players currently playing professionally, Penn State must press the reset button. The Lions no longer have the personnel to run heavy doses of ball screens for its best player. The early emphasis this season has been on "sharing the basketball" and "playing inside-out". That last bit's a stark contrast from the 4-out 1-in motion offense Chambers inherited from his Villanova days with Jay Wright.
No one quite knows what we will see from this Nittany Lion team. Expectations are understandably low, considering the team must replace over 55% of their possession-minutes from last season. But does Penn State really want to replicate their 172nd-ranked offense that only scored 0.96 PPP in the Big Ten? For as monumental the loss Newbill is perceived to be, the unit as a whole was simply not good last season. There's only so much worse this team can get from last year's baseline:
|Effective FG%||Offensive |
|Turnover%||Free Throw |
|96.3 (12)||47.4% (11)||18.4% (10)||28.2% (10)||28.8 (12)||43.3% (14)||32.6% (11)|
(These are conference-only numbers with Big Ten ranking in parentheses).
Newbill was a dynamic player off the dribble, but his absence will force Penn State to become a better passing team. There's no one on this roster that can create their own shot quite like #2, so they will need to rely on their passing to generate open looks. Old school purists will welcome the Lions' team-oriented attack rather than the endless volume of ball-screens and isolations they employed last year for Newbill, but so many questions will need answering before this new style can bring better basketball to the Bryce Jordan Center.
Who's Going to Score?
Without Newbill and his 20.7 points per game, Penn State needs to find points somewhere in their rotation. Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner figure to be Penn State's most prominent scorers, as they were Newbill's leading sidekicks last year at 9.1 and 9.2 PPG respectively. However, both struggled with their shot selection and efficiency, and that's not a good omen for players already looking at an increased workload.
Garner is poised to become the face of this program, but what's his ceiling as a scorer? He played second-fiddle for most of his AAU career to Ja'Quan Newton with Team Final. While he will take more shots regardless this year, his shooting percentages will determine the success of his sophomore season. Last year he gradually lost his shooting touch after a hot start and only converted just 38.2% of his 2PA and 28.9% of his 3PA in Big Ten play.
A lot of conversation from Chambers in the preseason has focused on Brandon Taylor reinventing his game. The senior is looking to command more minutes at the three, which theoretically will allow him to play big against smaller wing defenders. Chambers would like to see Taylor become more effective around the basket and earn more trips to the free throw line. Sounds great in theory, but here's the player they're trying to convert to a low-post scorer (source: hoop-math.com):
For three years, Taylor has primarily camped out at the perimeter to open up driving lanes in the paint. He hasn't been a consistent shooter from that range, but there's no doubt that's where he's most comfortable. Over 56% of his career field goal attempts have come from the perimeter compared to just 14.0% of his career shots taken at the rim. He was particularly ineffective from inside the arc last season, or really, anywhere that wasn't the left corner.
Taylor's efficiency as a scorer could likely have the greatest impact on Penn State's overall offense. It's only fair to expect Garner to be somewhat erratic with the increased usage he'll have to carry as a sophomore, but Taylor's experience must bear fruits in 2016. He has to be a higher percentage shooter and if that means more inside shots, then so be it. But if the two cornerstones of this offense shoot the same percentages as last year, it's going to be a long year in Happy Valley.
Can They Finally Shoot 3's?
If fouling has been an achilles' heel for Chambers' defense, three-point shooting has been its counterpart for the offense. Penn State hasn't possessed a true spot-up shooter in the backcourt since Chris Babb transferred to Iowa State. Their lack of perimeter threats to open up the floor has been detrimental to Chambers' offenses for four straight years.
So can this year's team finally add a new dimension? Unfortunately, there's no conclusive evidence to say yes, depending on how much credibility you want to give these tweets:
Penn State beat Seton Hall last night by 3 in a scrimmage. Heard Shep Garner played well for PSU and Isaiah Whitehead for SHU.— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) November 7, 2015
Heard Penn State freshman G Josh Reaves also played well for PSU, which hit 12 3's vs. Seton Hall.— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) November 7, 2015
Twelve 3-pointers?!?! Penn State hasn't made more than eleven in any game under Chambers!
Anyway, Josh Reaves and Devin Foster figure to get the most playing time alongside Garner in the backcourt, but jump-shooting isn't considered a strength for either player. Reaves shot just 27.3% from beyond the arc and 61.4% from the foul line in the Nike EYBL. Meanwhile, Foster only took five three-point attempts last season in his limited playing time compared to 28 two-point attempts.
However, there are unknown candidates like Isaiah Washington, Deividas Zemgulis, and Payton Banks that could earn serious playing time if they can hit the long ball with regularity. All three have been heralded for their 3-point shooting abilities. Banks struggled with his shot last season as a freshman (just 28.2%), but perhaps he could find a better rhythm with more consistent playing time as a sophomore. Meanwhile, Zemgulis and Washington were singled out in Chambers' last media availability for shooting 40% and 46%, respectively, from distance in practice.
Can the Frontcourt Anchor an Inside-Out Attack?
If Pat Chambers' preseason words are to be taken as truth, Jordan Dickerson, Donovon Jack and Julian Moore are going to see a lot more possessions this season when they're on the court. The Lions do possess one of their tallest teams ever, but the returning frontcourt pieces do not inspire confidence. After all, they did combine to average a whopping 7.1 combined points per game last season.
No one will confuse these guys for Al Jefferson, but how much offense can they realistically provide? What's most intriguing to me is Chambers' statement that Julian Moore and Donovon Jack will split time at the four. Both of those bigs have more ball skills than Dickerson and likely Watkins at this stage, and it will be interesting to see how Chambers utilizes them. I wouldn't be surprised to see more high post sets when either is in at the four.
With more post touches in line for all of these bigs, they better have improved their hands and decision-making if this new attack can succeed. Players make great improvements from year-to-year all the time, but this frontcourt was a crippling weakness for Newbill last year. Let's just say BSD is skeptical of this new frontcourt-driven attack until more visual evidence presents itself.
KenPom.com: 99.6 Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, 176th overall
Dan Hanner/SI.com: 101.7 Projected Offensive Efficiency, 196th overall
Neither projection model thinks highly of Penn State's offense coming into this season, and they're not wrong. But I will again point out, these are roughly the same ratings of Penn State last year with D.J. Newbill. No one expects them to be better, but no one projects a significant slide, either. That seems about right.
Truthfully, no one knows what Penn State's offense will look like this season. We do know it will be more balanced and it will feature better passing, by default. But the current personnel does not lead one to believe this team will be scorching the nets any time soon. Expectations are tempered for a reason, so we'll just have to see how some of the Lions' young pieces progress during what many are already considering a throwaway season.