With the news that Jamari Wheeler has transferred out of the family and to the desolate wasteland in the state located directly to the west of Pennsylvania, we as fans will have to get used to this feeling.
Were it not for the strange resignation of Pat Chambers and the fall-out of how the Penn State administration handled it, Jamari Wheeler may have chosen to return to Happy Valley next season. Of course, that choice would not have been a possibility had there not been a season that for the most part did not count, the 2020-2021 campaign. Wheeler should have run out of eligibility but because an extra year has been granted due to Covid-19, he is free to transfer to any school, even Ohio State.
Much of the Lions’ team from last season remains in the transfer portal and that makes perfect sense. There was a coaching change and that changes things for the players. It may be a tough pill for fans to swallow, but just as coaches are free to take other jobs, players are now free to leave for greener pastures.
Jamari Wheeler has been a leader on the Penn State basketball team, through good times and bad, for the past few seasons. It is fitting that he was the first player to officially lead the way in terms of finding a new home. Some fans have speculated that Wheeler went to OSU to poke Penn State in the eye. That does not appear to be the case to anyone that has known him for the past four years.
Wheeler is a man that can be taken at face value, his words matter. He has proven many times to be a person of high character. He wrote in the letter announcing his decision, “These fans have showered me with love from the first day I stepped on campus and I will always have nothing but love for y’all. I’m forever grateful for the support. It’s forever WE ARE.”
It is sometimes hard for the most fanatical among us to remember that players do not look at these things the same way as we do from the safety of our couch. It is possible for him to both want to move on to another program and to still maintain love for his former team and its fans. He said as much and his not-so-subtle use of the subject pronoun ‘y’all’ is a reminder to us that he is from Florida, not Ohio, not the great state of Pennsylvania.
Wheeler became interested in playing basketball in the Keystone State when he considered heading to Duquesne, before Jim Ferry moved on to Penn State. When Ferry changed his location, Wheeler changed his destination as well. Now that Ferry and Pat Chambers are no longer in State College, it made less sense for Wheeler to stick around.
He probably will not be the last player from the roster to head to another team. If others leave it is extremely unlikely that it would be a statement of negativity against Penn State or its fans. It is much more likely that the player perceives the new program as a better overall fit. It may come down to factors other than those that pertain to the basketball court.
One thing is for sure, until it is stated otherwise, fans should presume that the players are acting on their own best interest, not as some type of weird slight to Penn State or their fans. The same will be true for the players that will transfer into the program. Curtis Jones, Jr. came to the Lions last year after playing at Indiana and Oklahoma State and found a nice role on a tournament-bound team.
Players will come and players will go. Like coach Shrewsberry said in his first press conference, we want to keep our own players. For now, there are three very critical pieces remaining.
Cupboard Is Not Empty
In the bigger scheme of things we are witnessing the natural flow of events when a program hires a new coach. We know right now that the team will have three very solid guards returning to the team so it will not be hard to replace Wheeler.
Sam Sessoms could have easily played more minutes last year and he will surely be fired up to play a larger role in the offense. He has shown the ability to score at Penn State and earlier in his career at Binghamton. He missed his final 16 shots from 3-point land over the team’s last 9 games after shooting 39% through his first 41 attempts, so his percentages look questionable but there is reason for optimism.
It was probably just a sophomore slump and with the extra eligibility, Sessoms may have two more years in Happy Valley. He has many ways to score and this year he was asked to create offense under very tough circumstances. Without his heroics against the Badgers the game would not have been close. He scored 18 points in just 16 minutes played.
Sessoms scored in double figures through the first 7 games of the season while getting 25 minutes of playing time per game. He only played 20+ minutes 5 times in the final 17 games and scored in double digits just 3 times. There’s little doubt that he can score but his size, or lack of it, does create some liabilities on defense.
Thankfully Penn State also has one of the beefiest guards in the conference in Myles Dread returning. Not only can Dread help on the defensive side of the ball, he can also hit critical shots late in the game. No player in the past two seasons has hit more late-game shots than Dread. He shot a respectable 35% from 3-point land last year and is hitting at roughly that rate for his career. He, too, struggled in the final games, hitting just 4 of his last 20 on the year. His numbers were much better until the late-season slump.
Izaiah Brockington struggled from behind the arc as well after starting at a scorching 9 of 17. He finished 4 for 26 for an overall average of 28%, so his numbers could improve if he can remedy the late-season slump. That’s about the only bad news when it comes to Brockington’s offensive game, which carried the Lions at times last season. He scored in double figures in 17 out of 24 games, most of which came while driving to the hoop or pulling up from mid-range, even while cold from deep range.
It’s hard to know what the roster will look like when the team tips off in six months but fans should not worry. With Sessoms, Dread and Brockington it will have plenty of back-court prowess. Dread’s massive size and ability to play the post could make him the favorite to garner the moniker Earth were the team to go old-school with their nicknames. Brockington put up 272 shots this year compared to Dread (156) or Sessoms (191) so he is in line for Fire. Sessoms is like a cool breeze passing by defenders as he floats through lane for an under-hand shot among players that are nearly a foot taller than he. The team seems to have their Wind.
All three players have old-school qualities to their game. A point guard that will break you down and take you all the way to the hoop if you can’t stop it. A slashing guard that will pull up for a long field goal or take it to the rim. A guard that plays defense like he was put on Earth to do so, taking on any assignment the coach gives him.
There will be plenty of noise during the off-season. I would recommend fixating on the good news rather than listening to the sad songs in a constant loop. Penn State has a very promising young coach and three very good players to begin to mold their roster. So have a good spring and summer, listen to some good music to keep your spirits up, and figure that when the team takes the court, it will have a roster, and coach, that can continue the upward trend that the program has been on for the past four seasons.
Sadly, Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire is no longer with us, so for the musical payoff, we had to go into the transfer portal. We came back with a pretty good replacement, Brian McKnight.