Since John Thompson III took over the Georgetown program back in 2004, his most successful teams have had two things in common: a steady, veteran presence in the back court to lead the team and versatile, playmaking big men who can dissect a defense by throwing that backdoor bounce-pass that has become a staple of the Hoya offense under JT III.
Think about it. When Georgetown made the Final Four in 2007 and won their second straight Big East title in 2008, their back court was made up of Jonathan Wallace and Jessie Sapp. When those two graduated, Chris Wright and Austin Freeman took the reins. That paved the way for Jason Clark last season. In the front court, Jeff Green made way for Roy Hibbert, who graduated just in time for Greg Monroe to step in and take over. Last season, Henry Sims finally lived up to his potential, becoming one of the better big men in the Big East and finding his way onto the roster for the New York Knicks this season.
Heading into the 2012-2013 season, those roles are two of the biggest question marks for the Hoyas.
After starting 25 games as a sophomore last season, Starks is the obvious choice to take on a bigger role in the back court. As the elder statesmen in the back court — Georgetown has no seniors, making Starks, a junior, the longest-tenured guard on the roster — it is a role that Starks knows he needs to fulfill, although he does understand the difficulties involved.
“It’s a challenge,” he told reporters at Georgetown’s Media Day. “You’re surrounded by a lot of alpha males, so you have to set an example. It’s not so much who can talk the best or who can bench the most, it’s about who can show the best. I think on gameday, I’ll have to bring that. I have had leaders like Jason Clark and Chris Wright to kind of show me the ropes. It’s just like the torch has been passed.”
Not only is Starks is lone upperclassmen in Georgetown’s perimeter attack, he also happens to be the only point guard on the roster that’s not a walk-on. In other words, he’s going to have the ball in his hands quite a bit, which would normally be a concern considering that he was fourth on the team in assists last year.
The beauty of the Georgetown attack, however, is that having a point guard that struggles to create off the dribble isn’t a concern. The Hoyas rarely run isolation plays. In a half-court setting, when the offense is functioning efficiently, Georgetown gets the majority of their open looks off of crisp passing, pick-and-rolls disguised as handoffs, and correctly taking advantage of the way the defense is playing. In other words, it’s all about reading and understanding where the next cut needs to be made and who has to get the ball at a certain time.
That’s where Thompson’s biggest concern with the youth on his roster lies heading into the new season.
“I’m not going into it thinking that we’re going to need Markel to go from X points-per-game to X-plus-six points-per-game. I think it will happen. I think we’ve got guys that can score,” he said. “We lost a lot of understanding with the group that left last year. We lost a lot of passing with the group that left last year. I think it’s easy, because we’re all programmed to look at stats, to think scoring. But a lot of the intangibles that I’m more concerned with losing in Henry, Hollis [Thompson] and Jason, that we’re going to miss.”
“I’m worried about understanding, stuff that comes along with being a senior, with being around and being with the program for a while.”
It wouldn’t come as a shock to anyone if the Hoya offense took a step back this season. Not only will they have a new look back court, but they’ll be dealing with a different presence in the middle. One of the things that makes Georgetown unique and difficult to prepare for is that their offense runs through their big men, who are quite often the team’s best play-makers. Nate Lubick changed his body during the offseason and is mentally prepared for an expanded role offensively, but nothing about his first two seasons on the Hilltop provide reason to believe he’s the next in the pipeline of future pros under JT III.
That title belongs to sophomore forward Otto Porter, who is a perfect example of the versatility of this year’s Georgetown team. He averaged 9.7 points and 6.8 boards in his first season with the Hoyas, numbers that Thompson — and just about every college hoops pundit across the country — believe will spike this year.
“Otto Porter is a worker. He is one of the guys that understands, as good as he is, that he can get better,” Thompson said of the guy currently projected as the 24th pick in the 2013 draft by DraftExpress.com (http://www.draftexpress.com/). “Otto takes pride in every aspect of the game. Then there’s the realization that, ‘Hey, I can get better at every aspect of the game’. It’s not just, ‘Can I get my shot off? Let me work on my midrange game.’ He really worked on all aspects of the game.”
Offensively, Porter appears to be improved. A natural small forward, Porter went to both the Kevin Durant and LeBron James Nike camps over the summer, where he worked on things like his three-point stroke (he shot just 22.6% from distance last year), his mid-range game and his ability to dribble and pass the ball. The early returns are positive, as he looks much smoother and more confident shooting the ball. During media day, Georgetown ran through some shooting drills while Thompson spoke, and at one point Porter his 12 out of 13 threes. Hard-workers with the skills and physical tools to be elite defenders are almost always going to be considered high-level prospects.
“Otto knows what’s out there. We won’t try to hide from him what’s out there. I think he’s dealing with it fine. Otto’s as grounded as they come,” Thompson said. “He just shows up, he brings his lunch pail and he works. Whatever happens, happens. I think the reason that a lot of good things have happened and will continue to happen to him is that he doesn’t get engrossed in all of that.”
Where Porter will make the biggest impact next season is on the defensive end of the floor. In fact, Georgetown’s strength next season will be on the defensive end. According to Kenpom’s rankings, the Hoyas were the nation’s seventh-most efficient defense a season ago. The reason for that was the number of players they have that can defend multiple positions, and the Hoyas return many of those guys. Porter can defend anyone on the floor, from point guards to centers. Another 6-foot-8 sophomore, Greg Whittington, can do the same. Sophomores Jabril Trawick and Aaron Bowen and freshman Stephen Domingo are big wings with long wingspans, and Trawick and Bowen have as much raw athleticism as anyone in the country. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, the prize of Thompson’s 2012 recruiting class, is a physical, 6-foot-3 combo-guard who is lauded as one of the more intelligent and well-rounded players at his position.
Last season, what made Georgetown so effective defensively was that Thompson was able to mix up defenses from game-to-game and from possession-to-possession. The length available allowed him to play a 2-3 zone, while the ability of his forwards to defend out on the perimeter made a switching man-to-man and a matchup zone options, as well.
That’s great news for Hoya fans.
The easiest way for a program to deal with youth and expanded roles offensively is to excel on the defensive end of the floor.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.