Tony Carr did a lot for Penn State during the 2017-18 season. That’s an understatement. The sophomore point guard led the Lions in scoring and assists, hit on 43 percent of his three-point shots, and posted a usage rate of nearly 30 percent. Those figures were good enough to land Carr on the All-Big Ten First Team, and that was before he led the Nittany Lions to an upset over Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament and an NIT championship at Madison Square Garden.
Carr is moving on to the professional ranks, and that’s great for the state of Penn State’s basketball program, but it leaves a big production hole to be filled. How well the Lions pick up the slack will be the top talking point leading into the 2018-19 campaign in which Penn State is expected to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
Lamar Stevens is a big reason why expectations are so high. Although he wasn’t as consistent a scorer as Carr was last season and he didn’t handle the ball as much towards the end of close games, Stevens showed that he has what it takes to be a top scorer in the Big Ten. The power forward grew more confident in his mid-range game as the season progressed and is never shy about finishing at the rim. Stevens’s three-point game left something to be desired, as he shot just 32 percent from beyond the arc, but his 4-for-5 performance in the NIT title game against Utah gave fans hope that he can improve in that area.
That shooting display capped a 28-point night for Stevens and helped him earn Most Outstanding Player honors for the tournament. If he’s able to have more games like that in 2018-19, Stevens will have a chance to replace Carr on the All-Big Ten First Team.
However, matching Carr’s scoring production is just part of the challenge. Penn State will also need someone to organize the offense from the point guard spot. Right now, Jamari Wheeler is atop that part of the depth chart, but there are also three incoming freshmen who could challenge for starting minutes. Rasir Bolton was recruited as a point guard and could overtake Wheeler this fall if he proves to be able to score somewhat efficiently. Meanwhile, Myles Dread and Myreon Jones Jr. should battle it out for the starting shooting guard role vacated by Shep Garner.
In other words, the guard position is a big question mark right now with head coach Pat Chambers retaining very little experience at the position. If Wheeler doesn’t take great strides with his jump shot over the summer, Chambers will be better off allowing Bolton or one of the combo guards to leap right into the starting point guard role. Wheeler was tough to watch on offense last year, so he’s better served coming off the bench and giving the defense a spark when it needs one.
The frontcourt appears to be in good shape with Stevens returning alongside Josh Reaves, Mike Watkins, and John Harrar. It will be a pleasant surprise if Watkins or Harrar develops an efficient one-on-one game, but Penn State will be fine if both guys keep doing what they did last year with Harrar rebounding like a beast and Watkins protecting the rim while finishing off the pick-and-roll on offense.
Besides the backcourt situation, the top player to watch on offense will be Reaves. Just like with Wheeler, we know what the man can do on defense, but Reaves has also shown the potential to become a big threat on offense. He would go silent for long stretches last season and then make a big, sexy run at the rim that made you wonder how he scored fewer than 10 points in more than half the Big Ten games he played in.
Reaves depends too much on the transition game for his offense, but he did show the ability to hit three-point shots in halfcourt sets in 2017-18. After going 32 percent from beyond the arc in his sophomore season, Reaves shot 38 percent last year. If he’s able to make another leap in 2018-19, it will go a long way towards replacing Carr’s three-point shooting and opening up more room to drive in the paint.
The ends of Penn State games will look a lot different this winter now that Carr isn’t there to a control a majority of possessions, but Chambers has the pieces in place to close out the wins he needs to reach the NCAA Tournament. Stevens is already the versatile scorer who can come up with clutch baskets in isolation, and Reaves showed in the third Ohio State game that he knows how to take advantage of a defense that’s focused on one guy.
All that’s left is for one or two of the young guards to take ownership of the point guard role, and the Lions will be set to take their fans on a fun ride that will hopefully include an NCAA Tournament berth.