The Baylor basketball roster is a puzzle, just like most rosters. But while looking at it, I was stricken by how interesting this roster is and the story behind how it has been shaped and molded over the past few seasons.
The first piece that I want to take a look at is Isaiah Austin, one of the highest rated recruits to join the Bears. Many forget, but Isaiah Austin committed to the Bears in August of 2010. That is before any of his teammates were even Baylor students other than Cory Jefferson. The 5-star center from Arlington, TX committed to Scott Drew before we had even won a single NCAA tournament game (the Bears would advance to the Sweet 16 later that year). The McDonald's All-American came to Baylor as a presumed lottery pick and a one-and-done recruit.
However, after an up and down freshman season where he averaged 13 points and 8 rebounds per game, Austin declared that he would be coming back to Waco, TX for at least one more go around. His decision was primarily based on an injured shoulder that would require surgery and thus keep him from working out for NBA teams. Austin though, will share the burden of the returning star in the middle of the Bears post attack with Cory Jefferson.
To say that Jefferson is the opposite of Isaiah Austin would not be too far off. While still a highly recruited player coming out of high school (21st ranked Center in the 2009 class, and a 3-star recruit) he was definitely a project when he came to Waco. He played sparingly his freshman year before redshirting his second year in Waco. In his redshirt sophomore year, he was still primarily a backup as Quincy Acy, Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller, and Anthony Jones all carried the bulk of the minutes for the Bears in the post.
Jefferson only got just over 10 minutes per game, but expectations were still high for the 2012-2013 season as he would finally be the starter and get a large role. His scoring would almost quadruple up to 13.3 points per game, while average 8 rebounds per game and almost 2 blocks per game. Late in the year though, Jefferson became a star, with an amazing run to close the year with five 20+ point games in the last 7 games. In those 5 games, not once did he make under 70% of his field goals.
There were some thoughts that he would bolt to the NBA in a draft class that was deemed lesser than most. Still though, he was primarily thought of as a second rounder that would have to show well at the combine and individual workouts to move up in the draft. But Jefferson put those worries to rest and also declared that he would come back for his fifth and final year.
The power of the Bears squad is in their two post players, both of which came to Baylor out of high school. In terms of the other three positions on the court, the Bears have not had as much luck getting kids out of high school to develop and stay and turn into starters. Take a look at the guards from the 2009 class on:
Mark McLaughlin –2009 3-star Shooting Guard – Left the team before his freshman season
Nolan Dennis – 2009 4-star Shooting Guard – Transferred after 2 seasons, scored 90 points total.
A.J. Walton – 2009 3-star Point Guard – Multi year starter at point guard/off-guard over 3 years. Successful recruit
Stargell Love – 2010 3-star Point Guard – Transferred after 1 season
Bakari Turner – 2010 3-star Shooting Guard – Never made it to campus
Deuce Bello – 2011 4-Star Small Forward – Transferred after two years, sometime rotation player.
L.J. Rose – 2012 4-star Point Guard – Transferred after 1 season
Outside of AJ Walton, that is a whole lot of nothing, and no player made it longer than two years. Those are ALL of the high school guards the Bears have recruited since 2009. Baylor has had some success in filling the gap the past two years with a junior college player (All-American guard Pierre Jackson) and two transfer players (Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin) but the complete and utter failure to get some guards in here for multiple years straight out of high school is shocking.
So with that in mind, the Bears hit the guards hard in their 2013 class, with their probably new starting point guard coming via Junior College (Kenny Chery) and a possible shooting guard/point guard as well in 4-star high school player Allerik Freeman. Freeman comes to Baylor after signing with UCLA and then deciding against it after Ben Howland was let go as the Bruins coach.
The other way the Bears have gotten guard recently (and by far the most successful way) is via transfer, either from junior college or another 4 year institution. In 2010, the Bears welcomed a scrappy shooter from Canada via Boston College in Brady Heslip. Floppy haired shooting guard did not play in his first and only year at Boston College, and when they changed coaching staffs decided it was time to transfer. He signed with Baylor in June amid hopes that he could get a waiver to play immediately, but the NCAA rejected it. Sitting out the year helped Heslip get in much better shape for the 2011-2012 where he made a huge impact on the Baylor season. Averaging 10.2 points per game on 45.5% shooting from behind the arc, Heslip became one of the nation's most feared 3-point shooters. He highlighted his sophomore season with a 27 point, 9 made 3-pointers effort against Colorado in the NCAA tournament.
With most of the scoring punch leaving the Bears, the hope was that Heslip would take on a larger scoring role for Scott Drew's 2012-2013 team, but with his shooting mired in a season long slump and some injury issues early in the year, Heslip could never get fully on track. He would start to lose minutes to another player that transferred into the Baylor program from a BCS school.
Gary Franklin transferred to Baylor just a few short months after Heslip did. Franklin became eligible in the second semester of the 2011 season appearing in 27 games and averaging just over 10 minutes and 2.1 points per game. He was a bit player on a team deep with talent. At the beginning of the next season, he had a very similar role, with Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip getting the bulk of the minutes at the 2 guard spots. However, Franklin slowly began to take away minutes from Heslip by being a superior (though not good) defender and one that had better hall handling and playmaking skills. Both transfers enter their senior seasons at Baylor looking to win one of the starting guard positions.
The aforementioned Kenny Chery is the other player that will be pegged for a starting spot, more than likely at the point guard position. The junior college transfer is more of a scoring point guard with a quick first step and excellent outside shot? Does that sound familiar? It should, as Chery has some of the same characteristics of Pierre Jackson, the soon to be NBA point guard from Baylor. Chery though is not as fast, though not many are. He is a bit bigger than the 5-10 Jackson and is probably a better fundamental defender at this point of their careers.
But Chery is not the only transfer that is joining to beef up the Bears backcourt. The newest member of the roster is Royce O'Neal, a transfer from Denver who will have 2 years of eligibility. O'Neal will have to apply for a waiver to be immediately eligible, but there is some precedent in O'Neal's case for it to be granted. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound guard/forward will be asked to fill a role that was a gaping hole last year.
With the loss of Quincy Miller late in the recruiting process, the Bears were left without a prototypical small forward, and were forced to play AJ Walton big minutes at that position despite being just 6-foot-1. With O'Neal and Al Freeman, who is 6-foot-4, the Bears will have two options for a good sized guard to go along with Heslip (6-2), Franklin (6-2), and Chery (6-1). Last year, the Bears were very small in the back court, with Deuce Bello being the only player with at least average size for his position. Now, the Bears will be able to throw guys with good size out to all positions.
Also new to the 2013 Baylor squad and an option to fill a needed role at the small forward position is Ish Wainright, a 6-foot-6 bruiser at the forward position who is an outstanding rebounder and defender with a sneaky inside game and a developing jump shot. Wainright is a 4-star prospect from Rockville, MD and will bring and intensity to the court that will rival Rico Gathers.
The final new piece to the puzzle for the Bears is power forward Jonathan Motley, a 3-star player from Houston, TX. Motley is in fact the only recruit that was signed that is from the state of Texas. O'Neal is also (from Killeen) but the other three recruits are from Maryland, Nevada, and Missouri. The Bears staff started recruiting globally, then started recruiting locally, and now is recruiting nationally. Motley is an athletic power forward that really reminds me of a young Cory Jefferson when he first came to Waco. Will Motley turn into an All-American candidate after a few years at Baylor? It really is up to him and his ability to work hard and learn to expand his game.
Overall, the Bears coaching staff led by Head Coach Scott Drew had two big issues entering the offseason. First, they had a gaping hole at point guard. They answered that by bringing an excellent junior college player in Kenny Chery and 4-star prospect Al Freeman to join Gary Franklin in the competition. The next issue they had was the size in the back court and at the small forward position. With Freeman, Royce O'Neal and Ish Wainright now on their way to Waco, the Bears will have more options at the shooting guard and small forward position that have good size and give the Bears more flexibility in their lineups.
If they need to go bigger to line up against a longer or more athletic team, such as Oklahoma State, they can go with O'Neal and Wainright at the wing spots and Chery or even Freeman at point guard to match up better with the taller and stronger Cowboy guards. If they need to go smaller and run, they can put Chery out there with Heslip and Freeman and try and push the tempo. If they need more of a defensive look, O'Neal is a better option that anything the Bears had last year outside of AJ Walton.
With a more balanced roster and a roster with a lot more flexibility and options to matchup with other teams, Scott Drew will have a roster much more like two other ones that happened to end up in the Elite Eight. The years that he has had a balanced roster with good to great point guard play have led to the two best seasons in modern Baylor basketball history. Is it faulty to put those expectations on this team? Possibly, but it sure looks like a good roster to me.