A Sneak Peek at Next Year

We all knew that Oliver Purnell's first season in Clemson would be a struggle, and for the most part, that's how the 2003-04 season has played out.

Like most Clemson fans, I still want like to see the team finish with a couple of wins, and a win in the ACC Tournament play in game to give the program some momentum heading into next season.

The new blood coming in will help, no question. With a handful of consensus Top 100 players on board in this year's recruiting class, the future looks promising.

Nevertheless, the bulk of the 2004-2005 season will be manned by players already on the roster. Therefore, if we are going to see a different Clemson team next year, it is going to have to start with these guys. The honest reality of the situation is that most of the production from next year's team will rest with the players that are on the squad now.

With that in mind, I decided to keep a close eye on the "immediate future" of Clemson basketball Saturday afternoon at Littlejohn Coliseum.

In this column, we will take a brief look at the upperclassman at Clemson by analyzing where they will be in one year.

NOTE: The classes below denote what these players will be next year.

Sharrod Ford (6-9, 223 Senior)
  • Ford, possibly Clemson's most gifted player, is averaging 11.7 points per game in 2004.
  • Ford started the game Saturday with 2 blocked shots in the first 8 minutes of the game, proving he can be a force inside in the ACC.
  • Ford still is Clemson's best interior player night in and night out, and he almost assuredly will be the leader in the frontcourt for the Tigers next year.
  • Saturday afternoon against Virginia was vintage Ford. After blocking the two shots early, Ford spends much of the day out of the spotlight, never establishing himself on the inside as he scored only 4 points in 24 minutes.
Bottom Line: Clemson can't win next year without consistent play from Ford. He's athletic, quick on his feet, and has a plethora of offensive skills. A full year under Purnell should help, but the jury is still out.

Chey Christie (6-4, 183 Senior)
  • Chey Christie's junior season has yet to materialize into what most around the Clemson camp had hoped. Christie is averaging 9.7 points per game in 2004, but he never established himself as the Tigers go-to guy from the perimeter.
  • Christie appears to lack confidence more than anything, and it is hard to imagine how he can shake out of it until he catches fire for at least a couple of games in a row.
  • Christie hit a huge three Saturday with 4:20 to go in the game to tie the score at 48, then proceeded to turn the ball over on Clemson's last pocession before the Tigers could get a shot off. Saturday, Christie had 9 points but was only 4-11 from the field which is obviously not the kind of production Purnell needs.
Bottom Line: With his confidence eroded over the course of the season, it will be a minor miracle if Christie develops into an above average perimeter player next year.

Olu Babalola (6-6, 242 Senior)
  • The sometimes electric, sometimes out of control Olu Babalola is averaging 8.6 points per game this year.
  • Babalola is about as inconsistent as they come, but when he is on his game he is very dependable.
  • Babalola has a quick enough dribble to create penetration, but he never seems to know what to do when he beats his man and he often times is left in no mans land in the lane. But, like most games, he had his moments Saturday against UVA. Babalola had 12 of Clemson's first 38 points at the 11 minute mark of the 2nd half when he made a steal and thundered home a monsterous dunk.
  • At the 7 minute mark, Babalola converted a 3-point play on an offensive rebound to grab his 15th point out of the Tigers' 43 points. He ended up with 19 points on the game, obviously one of his better performances as a Tiger.
Bottom Line: Olu may never be a consistent player at Clemson, but his light shines bright enough on his good day (like Saturday) to keep sending him out there. His senior year will be a similar roller coaster ride as his previous two years in Clemson have been. I have just decided to love the good in Olu and close my eyes on the bad!

Lamar Rice (6-4, 210 Senior)
  • Rice, the junior college transfer from Flint, Michigan is averaging 4.2 points per game. Rice is about as smooth on the court as any Tiger, but he can't seem to consistently get open on the perimeter. Couple that with the fact that Rice is one of Clemson's weakest defenders and you can understand why Purnell does not give him more minutes.
  • Rice played only 12 minutes Saturday and scored only 2 points. In addition, he was beat several times on defense which prompted his prolonged stay on the bench.
Bottom Line: Rice will improve with a full year under Purnell on the defensive side of the ball. As one of the best pure shooters on the team, you would think he'd be in line for more playing time next season, especially if he improves on the defensive end of the floor.

Shawan Robinson (6-2, 183 Junior)
  • Robinson has developed into Clemson's most dependable outside shooter, averaging 11.3 points per game in 2004. Robinson had a difficult time getting open Saturday, scoring only 5 points in the first half.
  • Robinson was key down the stretch, however, as he scored 4 points in a row for the Tigers under the 3 minute mark.
  • Robinson finished the day with 10 points on only 4-11 shooting. But Saturday's performance has been somewhat unlike Robinson, who has been Clemson's best player in the back court most of the season. In fact, it would be hard to argue that Robinson is not Purnell's biggest surprise in terms of talent and leadership.
Bottom Line: With the uncertainty of Chey Christie's confidence, Robinson will hold the key to the Tigers success from the perimeter next season. While his shot may be "flat," his production as a sophomore is hard to argue with. He has the potential to be a 15-point per night guard for Clemson, and should Vernon Hamilton settle in at the point, the two could combine to be a dangerous combination next season.

Akin Akingbala (6-9, 230 Junior)
  • Akingbala has improved more than any Tiger under Oliver Purnell in 2004, averaging 5.1 points per game for the season. Akingbala got his second start Saturday against the Cavaliers, but he struggled to only 2 points in 24 minutes.
  • Akingbala plays within himself on most nights and is a work in progress on offense. He has good athletecism, long arms, and appears to have better hands than most of the players that roamed the Tigers' front court the last few seasons.
Bottom Line: Unlike most of the rising seniors, Akingbala's improvement has increased from week to week and if that trend continues he should provide Purnell a solid inside threat for the next two years. Akingbala must develop better post moves and learn to avoid foul trouble, but he will improve in those areas if this year is any indication. To use a cliché and a way too overused term…Akingbala has the most "upside" of any current Tiger big man.

Steve Allen (6-10, 230 Junior)
  • Allen has played in only 15 games this year due to injury, averaging less than one point per game. Allen played 4 minutes Saturday with a brace on his right arm.
  • Allen, at least physically, looks like he could help Clemson over the next two years. However, Allen looked lost on defense while in the game Saturday and that most certainly limited his minutes. This is understandable considering the amount of time Allen has missed this season.
  • Like Akingbala, Allen has yet to peak in terms of improvement so it is hard to pigeon hole him into a certain role at this point in his career.
Bottom Line: I like Allen's size and it is obvious he can hold his own strength wise down in the paint. He must stay healthy in the off season and work on his defensive skills if he wants to earn more minutes. I think he will improve defensively, earn more minutes, and then we will see if he has some offensive skills to go with his great frame.

Vernon Hamilton (6-0, 192 Sophomore)
  • It has been a work in progress for freshman point guard Vernon Hamilton as he has averaged a modest 7.1 points per game.
  • Hamilton started Saturday's game with 5 quick points, but it has been the turnovers that have been the knock against him (76 turnovers in 23 games).
  • The other knock on Hamilton is his inability to make free throws (he missed two in a row Saturday) averaging only 53% on the year from the charity stripe. Point guards, above all else, have to be able to avoid turnovers and make free throws. Hamilton has much work to do in those areas if he is the point guard of the future for Clemson.
Bottom Line: Being a freshman point guard in the ACC is no easy task. Hamilton's point production has been fine, and in all honesty, I could live with the turnovers simply because of the fact he is a true freshman. The frustrating thing about Hamilton, however, is his free throw shooting. You would expect his turnover to assist ratio to improve over the next 3 years. But if he cannot shoot the ball more consistently from the field and the line, he will never reach his full potential.

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