RICHMOND, Va. – Shaka Smart got to the point Wednesday.
In a meeting with members of the local media, the VCU coach provided insight into the Rams’ point guard situation for the upcoming season. Following the departure of senior Darius Theus (graduation) and Teddy Okereafor (transfer), the most logical choice to trigger the offense is rising junior and Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year Briante Weber.
It’s sound reasoning. Weber showed considerable improvement from his freshman season when backing up Theus last year. He started in place of an injured Theus in a win at Old Dominion on Dec. 7 and provided an 8-point, 9-rebound, 10 assist, 5-steal performance. He turned the ball over just once in that game. Weber averaged 5.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.7 steals per game last season and posted a point-guard friendly 2.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
But Weber hasn’t played the position in college for any extended period of time. The excitable ballhawk has been something of a hybrid in college, a defensive disruptor with opportunistic tendencies on offense.
The only “true” scholarship point guard on the roster will be well-regarded incoming freshman JeQuan Lewis from Tennessee. Classmate Jairus Lyles played a fair amount of point guard in high school, and Smart says he’ll also be in the mix.
While Weber may be most obvious choice, Smart says the Chesapeake native is taking the necessary steps to win the job, rather than assume the role by default.
“He’s had his best summer in terms of work ethic,” Smart said. “I think he’s been learning more and more that, in order to make withdrawals, you have to make deposits first. That’s been a big emphasis with him.”
It’s August, so Smart is under no pressure to commit to a starting lineup or a rotation, but that doesn’t mean he’s not actively considering the possibilities. He said he recently drew up a list of the players that could see time at each position. At point guard, Smart says he wrote down seven players: Weber, Rob Brandenberg, Melvin Johnson, Lewis, Lyles, Treveon Graham and Torey Burston. Although Smart listed Brandenberg at the top because of seniority, he made it clear that Weber is the clubhouse leader at this stage.
“Again, maybe one of those other guys earns the spot,” Smart says. “It’s certainly not set in stone, but it’s certainly his to lose. If we played a game today, he’d get the lion’s share of the minutes.”
Weber should also benefit from a stay at Chris Paul’s invitation-only CP3 Elite Guard Camp Aug. 9-11 in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“The list of guys going is pretty impressive,” Smart said. “It’s pretty much all-league guys from the biggest leagues, and I think just being around those guys, Chris Paul’s at the camp, there’s a few other professional guys there, there’s professional coaches that help coach the camp, so great people to be around.”
An unsettled point guard situation at VCU has been a hot offseason topic every two years since Eric Maynor’s departure in 2009. It’s happened twice previously, first with Joey Rodriguez, then Darius Theus. Both times, a junior stepped into the starting role as an unheralded replacement and dispelled coaches’ and fans’ fears with steady, if not occasionally spectacular point guard play. When discussing the position, Smart appeared confident the Rams would come out ahead again in 2013-14. It’s worth mentioning that Weber, like Rodriguez and Theus in their breakout seasons, will be a junior this year.
SUMMER OF HOOPS
The summer of 2013 will likely go down as the busiest in recent VCU Basketball memory. Juvonte Reddic earned invitations to the Nike Big Man Camp, as well as the LeBron James Skills Academy, Treveon Graham played for Team USA at the World University Games in Russia, Smart won a gold medal as an assistant coach for the United States at the FIBA U19 World Championship in Prague, Brandenberg and Jared Guest will play in a European exhibition tour later this month Global Sports Academy, and Weber is headed to Chris Paul’s guard camp.
Nearly every core member of the Rams returning in 2013-14 will have participated in some type of significant summer basketball event. Smart says that all this summer activity isn’t necessarily a coincidence. Victories, he says, open doors.
“I think the number one reason these opportunities are coming about, including me being able to work USA Basketball, is because of our program’s success,” Smart said. “I’ve tried to explain that to our players. I think they understand it to some extent. If not for winning, none of this stuff happens individually for any of us.”
Reddic’s summer travels have been well-documented, on this blog and elsewhere, not only for the impressive lists of players he competed against, but because of the role he’s expected to play for the Rams this season.
It’s hard for a player to dramatically alter his skill set over the course of a couple of four-day camps, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable. Smart believes Reddic’s ability to prove himself this summer against some of the country’s best college basketball players is already paying off.
“He did enjoy the camp overall,” Smart said. “I think he benefitted from just being around high-level players from other schools and even guys that are at the professional level. It’s a chance for him to look at himself in the mirror and say, I can play with these guys. I’m as good as these guys.”
It’s all part of what Smart says has been a productive offseason for the VCU power forward, who averaged 14.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last year.
“He’s the same guy, and he’s just gained some new experiences,” he said. “He’s always been a laid back, and he and I go ‘round and ‘round about that. I wish he was a little more assertive sometimes. I don’t know if he’s ever going to be a Type A personality, but he’s worked very hard, and he’s done a good job with his body.”
The more he talks, the more it’s clear how much Smart likes redshirt freshman Jordan Burgess. Ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA last season, Burgess was able to practice with the team in 2012-13, but could not play in games.
Smart has said previously that Burgess would have been one of the Rams’ top seven players last season, and it’s obvious the VCU coach sees the 6-foot-4 swingman as a difference-maker on the court and off.
“Jordan’s someone that’s been around our program for a long, long time because of his family and he’s someone that’s wise beyond his years, so I think he can provide leadership for us as well, once he gets his feet wet and gets acclimated to game competition,” Smart said.
“He was the toughest guy in our practices last year,” he added. “And when we had a hard time with guys like Dwayne Evans at Saint Louis, we’d watch the tape and look around as coaches and say, it’s Jordan, Jordan. Not saying if we had him we’d have won that game, but certainly he helps you with a guy that’s physical on the wing.”
“He might shoot some threes, I don’t think he’ll wear a headband. There’s only one guy in our program that gets to wear a headband.” – Shaka Smart on whether Juvonte Reddic would start imitating LeBron James after attending his camp this summer.