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The Jamari Wheeler Question

Can the defensive specialist take the next step and become an asset at both ends of the court?

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

In terms of Penn State Men’s Basketball, this off-season has been going fairly well. Yes, a pair of decommitments and the transfer of Rasir Bolton to Iowa State sting a bit. But the return of Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens have left some fans feeling cautiously optimistic about what the next season might hold for the Nittany Lions. A projected starting lineup of Watkins, Stevens, Brockington, Dread, and Wheeler is as good or better than any Penn State starting five since the 2011 team that made the NCAA tournament (Frazier, Battler, Jackson, Brooks, Jones). With John Harrar and Myreon Jones, along with incoming freshman Seth Lundy available off the bench, the team should be able to take a step forward despite the loss of Reaves and Bolton.

Some minor mental gymnastics will allow you to see Brockington filling the void left by Reaves. He’s a better shooter than Josh was, yet almost certainly a step down in terms of overall impact. Still, a comparison can, has, and will be made between the two. Bolton’s departure on the other hand seems to create a bigger hole. No one in their right mind would suggest that Jamari Wheeler will suddenly become a volume scorer and outstanding free throw shooter. But his role will grow, and he’ll need to account for some of the offensive production lost with Bolton.

Barring the ascendance of Myreon Jones, Kyle McCloskey, or Daniil Kasatkin over the offseason I expect Wheeler will get around 90% of the playing time at the point guard position. That puts him around the usage seen in Tony Carr’s freshman year, Shep Garner’s sophomore year (post-Newbill, pre-Carr), and all of Tim Frazier’s career. The other point guards from the past decade asked to shoulder that much of the load were also responsible for much of the offensive production. That is not the case with Wheeler, and it won’t be expected of him. Prior to last year with Wheeler (7th in team scoring), the last point guard not to finish as the team’s highest or second-highest scorer was Tim Frazier during his sophomore year.

The playing time itself won’t be a huge step forward for Wheeler (he saw 77% usage this past year), and he won’t be asked to even be in the top 3 on the team in scoring, but his responsibilities will change a bit. He’ll need to be more involved in orchestrating the offense, even if that doesn’t necessarily mean scoring at a higher clip.

In the final ten games of last season, when the team started to come together and play their best, Wheeler played a key role and showed glimpses of what he is capable of on the offensive end. His assists per game more than doubled from 1.9 per game in the first 22 to 4.6 per game in the final ten. Wheeler’s points per game and steals per game also increased (albeit along with his turnover rate) as he settled in to a more robust role, developing from a defensive specialist into a more all-around player. In the final game of the season versus Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament, Wheeler put up 13 points on 6-8 shooting with 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals. The numbers are a bit inflated since the game went to overtime, but the numbers show that he can have a more substantial impact on offense than what we’ve seen throughout most of his career.

With the scoring talent around Jamari, I don’t expect him to average double-digits and I would be very surprised if his career-high ever hits 20. But an average of 5-6 points per game while flirting with double-digits more often than posting a 0 would go a long way for a team which appears to be on the cusp of an NCAA berth next March.

Wheeler’s defense is his calling card. It’s the reason he saw the floor his freshman year, and the why the coaching staff can stomach his lack of offensive production. His defense is such that simply improving to the point where he is not a liability to turn the ball over, and not someone who defenses can ignore, would be satisfactory. Will his experience at the collegiate level allow him to slow things down entering his junior season and reduce the number of turnovers he commits? Will he grow into a facilitator that allows the offense to resemble, well, an offense rather than a series of isolated 1-v-1s? Or is he destined to remain a defensive specialist whose role has already peaked?

To me, Wheeler showed enough promise down the stretch to inspire some optimism in his trajectory, but he’ll need to prove it on the court in November and December to make me a believer. I am certain that he’ll deliver more highlights like the ones below, however, and that’s something I can look forward to over the next few months.