When Devin Foster committed to Penn State on the Sunday of Blue-White weekend 2014, most thought the junior college transfer would be an insurance policy - not for incoming freshman Shep Garner - but for D.J. Newbill, who was expected to start the season at lead guard. That was the prevailing thought up until about 20 minutes before Penn State opened their season against Morgan State, until Garner's name appeared on the lineup sheet.
Young Shep had an eventful debut season in State College, to say the least. He was responsible for one of the most intuitive/batshit insane plays you'll ever see in a basketball game, when he did this against Virginia Tech in the B1G/ACC challenge:
He's also responsible for Penn State's fan sighting of the year:
@EditorEdge @coachjfranklin My cousin shep garner #33 is point guard for Penn St I came to see him play so I think my choice is verry wise— FLAVOR FLAV (@FlavorFlav) January 17, 2015
It's gonna be really tough for Shep to produce this much #viral #content in his sophomore season, but improving on his historic freshman season on the court will be a major factor in the long-term success of Pat Chambers' program.
To put "historic season" in context: it was historic for a Penn State freshman guard (more on that below). Throughout the season, Shep showed immense confidence in his three-point shot. He certainly had the green light from Chambers, and Penn State was a much better team when he repaid his coach's faith. In games that Shep hit two or more triples, the Nittany Lions were 11-5 overall and 4-5 in the B1G. Which, yanno, isn't great, but that puts PSU at 7-11 (2-10 in conference play) when Garner made less than two long-range shots.
Shep's offensive successes often came from the right wing, which gives us a pretty good indication that improving his ability to go left will be important for his progression if he's going to reach the heights of some other freshmen studs at PSU.
Ok, so, Garner's freshman season didn't really register on the B1G landscape. With D'Angelo Russell, Melo Trimble, and James Blackmon Jr deservedly getting most of the plaudits (they even had their own commercial on BTN for cryin' out loud), Shep was relegated to receiving praise from the deepest annals of the college basketball world - Penn State basketball blogs and forums. But the praise he got was well-deserved, because he had a better freshman season than eventual program legends Talor Battle and Tim Frazier:
For me, the telling combination of stats here are %Min, %Poss, TO% and ORtg. For a Penn State freshman guard to log that many minutes, be that involved in the offense and be that offensively efficient while turning the ball over at such a relatively low rate is unprecedented over the last 10 years. Is he on track to match the careers of those he's being compared to? It's probably too early to say, but these returns are certainly promising. Relaying this to next season - if Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins can each have a similar impact, the Nittany Lions will be in business...in 2016-17. Probably.
Obviously the shot selection can be improved, but the big concern here is Shep's long-term position. You hesitate to say that he played point guard in 2015, what with D.J. Newbill doing most of the heavy lifting in scoring and distribution. He certainly defended the point well enough for Chambers to trust him to play 28.8 minutes per game, but the knock on Garner coming out of Roman was whether or not he was a true lead guard.
Not turning the ball over is one thing - to his credit, he did post the second-lowest turnover percentage on a team that was fairly adept at holding onto the rock (111th nationally in TO%) - but his playmaking skills were not always evident. His rather low free throw rate (20.7) is another clear sign that Shep can improve in that department. Perhaps you can recall a few of his bullish drives into the lane with his head down and the ball cradled, only to be released at the last second to take a contested shot among the trees. That's generally a low-percentage play, especially for a 6'1" guard.
Fortunately, playmaking ability is teachable to an extent, and Chambers has shown himself to be capable of developing that skill in his point guards. Granted, he's had Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill as his students. So, y'know, no pressure Pat!
vs. Nebraska (B1G Tournament) - 19 pts, 6-11 FG (5-8 3pt), 2 reb, 2 ast, 3 stl, 2 TOs
Garner saved two of his best performances for the Huskers, going for 9 points, 5 assists and 4 boards in their first meeting, a 13-point Penn State win. It was a much tighter affair in Chicago, and the Lions needed all five of Shep's threes to come out on top 68-65.
Expectations will be high for Shep, and deservedly so. Whether or not he's the long-term point guard remains to be seen, but regardless of the answer he's Penn State's most important returning player. It's clear that Chambers trusts him immensely, and I would expect him to take on a major leadership role in 2016. Wouldn't hurt if he shot 40% from three, either. Penn State hasn't had a player shoot that well since Jeff Brooks shot 40.3% (min 50 attempts). What the heck, let's make that my bold prediction: Shep will shoot >40% from deep.
Final Grade: A-
Shep surpassed expectations for sure, but we can't leave him without room for improvement heading into his sophomore season. The freshman has a bright future in Happy Valley, and an A- reflects that.