Bench production was an issue for Penn State last year. While we saw breakout performances from Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins in the starting five along with a great defensive campaign from Josh Reaves and some much-needed three-point shooting by Shep Garner, when one of those guys needed a breather or got into foul trouble, Penn State was in trouble.
It’s easy to look at Payton Banks and his career-high scoring average from last year and consider him a decent bench player, but he offered very little beyond his inconsistent three-point shooting. Banks appeared allergic to rebounds, almost never passed the ball, and didn’t play great defense either. Those are three reasons why he’s playing for South Florida this year. Still, Banks’s contributions were valuable compared to those of Terrence Samuel and Isaiah Washington, two guards who failed to carve out consistent roles from themselves despite the lack of depth at the position.
The guard depth issue will hopefully be alleviated by Jamari Wheeler, the freshman point guard who is getting solid reviews from Pat Chambers about his work in practice so far. However, Chambers is just as excited about the bench contributors who are returning to the team. Here’s what he told us at Big Ten Basketball Media Day.
Well, if you look at it, Julian Moore started half the season too, so we’re bringing six guys that have started, we’re bringing them back into the fold. [Nazeer] Bostick was about to… his minutes were about to go up, and then he gets hurt, so you have seven guys right there. And now you add Satchel Pierce into the fold, who played at Virginia Tech; it wasn’t like he sat on the bench, he actually played. So you have eight guys right now that I can count on. And now, Jamari Wheeler, John [Harrar], Deivis [Zemgulis], Trent [Buttrick]. They’re going to battle it out for that ninth and 10th spot to see who gets some time. Wheeler’s been terrific. He’s really pushing Tony every day. John, the big guy, is really pushing Mike Watkins and Satchel every day. So it’s going to be interesting to see how it all unfolds.
With just three points and three rebounds per game, Moore wasn’t as productive as we would have liked in 2016-17, but he’ll be pushed if not replaced in the backup big man role by Pierce, who sat out all of last year due to NCAA transfer rules. Meanwhile, Nazeer Bostick appears to be the clear backup to Reaves with the way he showed off his athleticism and tenacity when he was healthy last season. It will be surprising if the true freshmen John Harrar or Trent Buttrick see major playing time this year, but Buttrick has a better chance with the way he can shoot the three-pointer from his power forward position. Chambers has described him as a good pick-and-pop guy in the past.
The coach won’t have to turn to Buttrick so quickly, though, if Deivis Zemgulis picks up the slack. Billed as a sharp three-point shooter when he was brought on two years ago, Zemgulis failed to find a consistent role during his freshman and sophomore seasons. With the way Penn State’s depth is developing, 2017-18 could be a make-or-break campaign for Zemgulis, so it’s good to hear that his shot is improving from Chambers himself.
Yeah, you know, we changed his shot, we raised it up a little bit. His shot has better arc, it used to be flat. He’s shooting the ball right around 48 percent in practice, which is absolutely tremendous for him. I think he has more confidence, more belief in what he’s doing. He knows what he’s doing. Right now I think he has an edge to back up Lamar, just because of how well he’s playing and how well he’s shooting the basketball. But I definitely look for him to sneak in there and get some minutes.
Shooting in practice is different from knocking down threes in Big Ten action, but Zemgulis is still only a junior and Penn State still needs someone to hit shots off the bench, so there is at least some opportunity for a breakout from him.
If Penn State is successful in its quest to make the postseason this March, there’s a good chance that we’ll be talking about improved bench play as one of the reasons why. Yes, the Lions will also need for Carr to become a more efficient point guard and for Garner to become a more consistent shooter as well as for a dozen other things to go right. However, the bench is where all the personnel turnover has taken place, so there’s potential for the team to make major progress in that area. That would be nice, since we can’t count on all of our dreams coming true with the starters.