Josh Pastner and the University of Memphis men's basketball team reeled in a six-man recruiting class that surpassed the efforts of nearly every other major college in the country. It is generally conceded that the Tigers' haul was the second- or third-best class in America in 2013, behind Kentucky and basically even with Kansas.
So just how is the incoming recruiting class looking as their first season at the collegiate level looms? Who is ready to be an impact player, and who still needs to improve before he sees significant time on the court? Earlier this week, we selected two (2) freshmen among the five (5) best Tigers on the roster this fall. What can we expect from all six of the rookies on campus this winter?
Austin Nichols, 6'8", 212: The lanky freshman from Briarcrest has steadily put on muscle for the past couple of years, and he arrives on campus bigger, faster and stronger. He's going to need all of that and more in his maiden voyage as a Tiger. There's no one else on the roster quite like Nichols; Shaq Goodwin isn't as skilled and David Pellom doesn't have the ability to step out on the perimeter and make things happen, while no one else has Austin's versatility and length. The Pastner offense--a dribble-drive/1-4 hybrid characterized by being initiated by ball-screens and dribble hand-offs from the left or right wing--cries out for a skilled stretch-4. He hasn't had one since he took the head job here at Memphis, and the offensive efficiency has suffered at critical times (think the loss to St. Louis in the 2012 NCAA Tournament) as a result. Nichols is that stretch-4. He's smart enough and skilled enough to make a huge impact on this Tiger team; will he hold up for the entire season? We predict: yes, he will. We'll be shocked if he's not in the top-4 on the team in minutes played this season.
Kuran Iverson, 6'8", 209: Don't look now, but Iverson, the most athletic big man on the team, has packed on some much-needed lean muscle this summer during voluntary off-season workouts. He's just a few pounds behind Nichols now. The critical difference is that while Nichols will be expected to be able to go down low and bang around to some extent or another, Iverson will strictly play on the wing (except for when he takes a smaller wing on an isolation and posts them up for a mismatch). The mercurial, outspoken Iverson looks primed to back-up his brash 'this recruiting class is much better than Kentucky's because we work harder' statement. Very few in the country can mate his ball-handling and play-making ability with his size and (now) strength. Kuran is one of the X-factors on this basketball team and will play a very key role in the rotation from the very start. He likely won't start right away, as rising sophomore Damien Wilson appears primed to step into a more prominent role on the team, but Iverson will be one of the team leaders in minutes played by year end, and perhaps a starter in postseason play.
Markel Crawford, 6'4", 187: The freshman from Memphis was finally cleared by doctors for 100% activity, and he's chomping at the bit to show what he can do. Crawford suffered partial medial collateral (MCL) and anterior cruciate (ACL) ligament tears shortly before his senior campaign at Melrose and tried to rush back to action in January before being shut down for good in 2013. He's almost a year out from surgery and the wheels are ready to go. Crawford is a tall, long guard with preternatural instincts, an impressive basketball IQ, a beautiful release on his trey ball and underrated passing ability. We expect Memphis to be intrigued by his play-making skills and to find ways to have Crawford try his hand at the point. Becoming a true combo guard will increase his value to the team and give Markel more opportunities to see the floor as a freshman. He'll end up #3 among freshmen in minutes played, but only time will tell if he'll actually crash the 9- or 10-man depth chart. If Pastner goes 10-deep, we think Markel will be in that number.
Nick King, 6'7", 220: King would still appear to be the odd man out among the freshmen from Memphis, just as we predicted in the spring. It's not that we doubt King's shooting ability or rebounding; with his sturdy, rugged frame, the reigning Tennessee Class AAA Mr. Basketball (who averaged 24 points and 15 rebounds per contest as a senior at East High School) has the tools to be great at the collegiate level. However, King continues to betray his basic flaws in workouts: the lack of ability to do anything going right or with his right hand, and lack of instincts/lateral motion on defense. And if we here at TSR see it, opponents will catch it, too, during film sessions. King is a matchup problem on the offensive end: too quick for bigger, stronger forwards, and too big for smaller wing players to mark. But if his shot is not falling, how will he impact this team on the positive side of the ledger? That's what King will have to show. We expect him to get minutes early as Pastner experiments with lineup combinations, but see King's time diminishing as the season wears on. He will not be in the active rotation come NCAA Tournament time, but look for the light bulb to come on for Nick during his sophomore campaign.
Dominic Woodson, 6'9", 318: Woodson reported at 318, got down as low as 305, but has put weight back on over the last couple of weeks. He has been told countless times not to expect playing time if he doesn't report to camp at 280 or less (Pastner would really love for the big man to be 270 coming into camp working toward an ultimate goal of 250, but is willing to accept 280), yet all early indications are that Woodson is not taking the edict very seriously. As much as Memphis could use a burly enforcer on the boards, as well as another matchup problem on offense (as Woodson is quite an accomplished 3-point shooter when he can set his feet and let it fly), we don't see it happening this fall. A great passer who can even handle the ball enough to snatch a rebound and get a fast break started, Woodson is a tremendously intriguing basketball talent. But all of that is a moot point if the big man cannot make weight, and right now, we see no realistic way that he can. Look for him to be rooted to the bench, where perhaps he will learn the lesson that when your coach gives you guidelines, you follow them or else sit.
RaShawn Powell, better known as Pookie Powell, is still in limbo. At this, the eleventh hour, the odds of Powell stepping on the campus at Memphis are exceedingly slim. It is too late for him to be admitted to the school, though most any university in the country seems to find a way around such policies when a stud athlete (which Powell most assuredly is) needs to enroll. Powell is a bigger, stronger version of Joe Jackson: a legitimate 6'1" scoring point guard who can initiate an offense. Pookie is still working on his point guard skills but he's a remarkable talent who would have gained valuable experience caddying for Jackson, Geron Johnson and (potentially) Michael Dixon. However, at this point, Tiger fans must face the stark realization that Powell may never step foot on the campus of the U of M again. If he's not a qualifier (which is what we are speculating), that would mean he'd have to go the junior college route for the next two (2) years, which is quite a long time in recruiting. He could fall in love with another school, or Memphis could fall out of love with his abilities (based on how he performs wherever he goes to school). We'll continue monitoring the situation, as calls to the Powells have not been returned at this time.