RICHMOND, Va. – VCU held an intra-squad exhibition Sunday night before 3,187 excited souls at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Stuart C. Siegel Center. It was many people’s, myself included, first chance to get a look at the 2013-14 Rams. While the Gold team came away with a 72-56 win, the score was little more than a matter of academics.
Here are some observations from courtside.
1-Guards, guards, guards and guards
To any fan who has followed this team of late, this is no surprise. VCU was expected to be deep in the backcourt this year. But until we got a chance to see a Jairus Lyles no-look pass or one of Doug Brooks’ four steals, it was hard to know how deep. If Sunday is any indication, uh, the Rams are insanely deep at the wings.
Returnees Rob Brandenberg, Briante Weber, Melvin Johnson and (if we’re calling him a guard today) Treveon Graham were pretty much the guys we knew they were. But JeQuan Lewis, Lyles, Doug Brooks and Jordan Burgess all had moments and illustrated how difficult a choice Shaka Smart will have when doling out minutes.
Lyles was magnetic for long stretches of the second half and he might end up being the Rams’ fourth option at point guard. Think about that. Lyles finished with eight points, six assists (two turnovers) and three steals.
2-Terrance Shannon can be a difference-maker
The Florida State transfer was everything VCU fans had hoped for and more. Shannon scored 16 points, grabbed seven boards and blocked two shots for the Gold team. In the second half alone, Shannon pumped in 11 points and four boards. But even more importantly, Shannon had a knack for being in the right place and making the right play. Tipped balls, offensive boards, steals, you name it, Shannon was there making the right play. It’s the kind of play you hope for from a fifth-year senior. He makes the Rams immediately better.
Shannon was 6-of-9 from the field, all of which came from close range. He won’t step out to 16 or 18 feet for jumpers like Juvonte Reddic, but he shouldn’t need to, either.
“Obviously, we saw Terrance is really going to help us, just with his presence around the basket,” Smart said afterwards.
3-“Microwave” Melvin Johnson
Melvin Johnson didn’t join VCU until August of last year and missed a lot of offseason conditioning. In addition, as a freshman, he needed time to adjust to Smart’s system and the Rams’ frenetic style of play. For the first half of the season, Johnson’s 3-point shot was M.I.A., and it wasn’t until mid-season before the former top-100 recruit looked comfortable on a nightly basis.
That pensive Bronx kid with the broken jumper looked light years away Sunday. Johnson knocked down 5-of-7 threes and finished with a game-high 25 point in just 24 minutes. He was just…dangerous. Even when he wasn’t hitting jumper last year, Johnson was frustrating opponents with his oh-so-very-New York set of jukes and floaters. Now? He’s an offensive dynamo.
In addition to comfort and confidence, Johnson looked physically stronger.
“A guy like Melvin Johnson really asserted himself tonight,” Smart said. “He does that in practice, but it’s a whole different deal when you’re out here in a game. I’m not sure if he’ll get 19 shots up every night, but he’s definitely shown that he’s going to be assertive.”
4-Point guard is up for grabs, and that’s okay
Smart has said in recent months that Weber was the Rams’ leading candidate to replace Darius Theus at point guard, but he’s also floated Brandenberg’s name, as well as Lewis and Lyles (not to mention Graham).
It would be hard to say any of the guys separated themselves from the pack Sunday, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Weber dished out eight assists and turned it over five times. For the most part, he responded well against full-court pressure and was able to get his team into its offensive sets in the halfcourt. While his defense is consistently a source of attention, he is showing maturation as a point guard.
Brandenberg ran some point Sunday, and was his usual, steady self. Meanwhile, Lewis and Lyles both showed flashes of dynamic athleticism, quickness and court smarts. Lewis did turn the ball over a freshman-like nine times, but he also scored 13 points and knocked down 3-of-5 threes.
No matter who ends up winning the starting job, it appears all will earn minutes this season.
“It’s a work in progress,” Smart said of VCU’s point guard situation. “When we’re playing against each other, there’s going to be some turnovers. If there isn’t, we’re going to be upset because then we’re not forcing turnovers.
“I thought JeQuan did some good things early on. I thought he got tired and it affected him in the second half. I thought Briante did some good things at the point, made a few mistakes, but that’s going to be a work in progress.”
- While Brooks was 1-of-6 from the field and 0-of-4 from three, Smart says he expects the freshman to be a reliable outside threat for VCU. The VCU coach said during a similarly formatted scrimmage at Franklin Street Gym this week, Brooks hit five 3-pointers.
- Johnson hit five threes during Sunday night’s exhibition. It took him eight games last season to hit five treys. Johnson was 10-of-19 from the field overall.
- The two teams combined to shoot 50 percent (51-of-102) from the field Sunday, including 38 percent (12-of-32) from 3-point range.
- Graham very quietly, and very Treveon Graham-like, put together a 15-point, 10-rebound double-double in 27 minutes.
- Junior Jarred Guest (ankle) did not play. He did participate in light warm-ups with the team prior to the game.
ONE [SHAKA] SMART QUOTE
- On Sunday’s effort: “As I told them in the locker room after we got done we have a lot to work on, but a lot to work with, so I’m excited about that.”
While it’s three weeks before VCU’s exhibition opener against California (Pa.), there are hints that the rotation is starting to take shape. In multiple interviews, Smart has indicated that Jordan Burgess is a front-of-the-rotation player. Given that information, at present, I’d say that means the Rams’ top eight is something like this: Weber, Brandenberg, Johnson, Burgess, Graham, Reddic, Shannon and Guest. But given the way the Rams play, there’s plenty of room for as many as 10 or 11 players to earn valuable minutes on a nightly basis.
SEQUENCE OF THE NIGHT
Burgess didn’t enjoy the best shooting night (3-of-10), but he showed a lot of reasons why Smart is so high on the redshirt freshman. During one dizzying sequence in the first half, Lewis buried a three, then Burgess stole the inbounds pass and scored a layup in traffic. On the ensuing play, Burgess ripped another steal, then threw a perfect outlet ahead to Rob Brandenberg for a dunk.