- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Markell Johnson, Devon Daniels, CJ Bryce, Braxton Beverly, Jericole Hellems, DJ Funderburk, Blake Harris
Key Losses: Torin Dorn, Wyatt Walker, Eric Lockett
Key Newcomers: Pat Andree (Lehigh), Manny Bates (Redshirt), Dereon Seabron, Danny Dixon (UMKC), Atticus Taylor (JUCO)
Outlook: A putrid non-conference strength of schedule (worst in the entire country) kept NC State out of the NCAA Tournament last season. It turns out when you play arguably the worst teams from the NEC, MEAC, Big South, MAAC, America East, and SoCon, the Committee tends to notice. Not even a respectable 9-9 record in the brutally tough ACC could save the Wolfpack’s Tourney hopes – probably because seven of those nine wins came against the bottom five teams in the league. KenPom will tell you NC State was actually better last season than its Tourney team in 2017-18, but a serious lack of notable wins doomed what seemed to be a promising year. Looking ahead to 2019-20, Kevin Keatts has yet another promising roster at his disposal, returning nearly everyone from last year’s squad.
Though six of Keatts’ top eight guys return, replacing the production left by Torin Dorn and Wyatt Walker will be no easy task. Dorn played the crucial 4-man role in Keatts’ four-guard lineup and NC State was a whopping +0.16 PPP better when he was on the floor versus when he sat (per Hoop Lens). Walker was a large reason why the Wolfpack were the ACC’s best offensive rebounding team last season and served as one of the few rim protectors on defense.
Regardless of the departures, we know what Keatts wants to do on the offensive side of the ball, as he’s played the same style ever since becoming a D1 head coach back in 2014-15. NC State is looking to push the ball in transition whenever possible and space the floor with its four-guard attack. Last season, the Wolfpack were the ACC’s 3rd fastest team and ranked 21st in the country in eFG% in transition. Crashing the boards is a Keatts specialty as well; his teams will sacrifice getting back on defense for sending bodies to the rim in hopes for easy second chance opportunities. This aggressive style has led to transition defense concerns in years past, but overall NC State’s glass attack was successful last season and the Wolfpack ranked 13th in the country in offensive rebounding rate.
One of the biggest questions looming over NC State heading into 2019-20 is who will step up into the 4-spot in Keatts’ lineup. Dorn was a perfect fit for this role in 2018-19, possessing the necessary strength to matchup with bigger forwards on defense and requisite speed to take advantage of plodding bigs on offense. Sophomore Jericole Hellems could be the answer here after turning in a decent freshman season. Hellems showed flashes of his potential when he scored in double figures six times in 2018-19 and his 6’7” frame could hold up against true 4’s. Lehigh grad transfer Pat Andree could also see time at the 4 this season. Andree is a career 41.5% three-point shooter who could cause real matchup issues on the offensive end and give NC State a lethal shooting attack. Defensively, though, Andree leaves much to be desired.
CJ Bryce and Devon Daniels may also be forced into playing de facto 4-man roles this season with NC State severely lacking depth in the frontcourt. Both players are good wing defenders (Daniels in particular), but matching up with the size and strength of ACC power forwards will prove to be a challenge. Offensively, Bryce will look to assume more of a go-to scorer role after his usage (expectedly) dropped from his days as a superstar at UNCW. More of a finesse player than the bruising Dorn, Bryce is an excellent spot-up shooter and has a dangerous pull-up game in his arsenal. Daniels’ shooting percentages fell from his freshman season at Utah with a higher volume, but he should be in store for a bounce back on this side of the ball. Defensively, he’s the best asset NC State has, able to guard three (hopefully four) positions.
Keatts’ other frontcourt options include UMKC grad transfer Danny Dixon, redshirt freshman Manny Bates, and redshirt junior DJ Funderburk. Dixon started 15 games for the ‘Roos last season and at least has size to take up space in the middle, but don’t expect much production from him in the ACC. Bates, a 4-star recruit in the class of 2018, was too raw for action last season, but holds potential as a shot blocker with his length. Funderburk will be the anchor of the NC State lineup; he’s an efficient two-way player that doubles as an excellent offensive rebounder and good overall defender. Playing without fouling will be Funderburk’s primary area of improvement this season, especially as he’s forced into more minutes with the departure of Walker.
NC State’s greatest weapon heading into 2019-20 is its deep and talented backcourt. Including Bryce and Daniels, Keatts has five (possibly six) solid options to run at the 1-3 spots on any given night. Point guard Markell Johnson is the undisputed leader of the Wolfpack and the engine that runs the NC State attack. Still a pass-first PG at heart, Johnson looked for his shot a lot more in 2018-19 and should continue that trend this season. Last year, Johnson built on a successful sophomore shooting campaign by knocking down 42.2% of his three-point attempts and also clamped down turnover issues that plagued him his first two seasons in Red & White. Look for Johnson to become more of a household name in 2019-20 as he proves he’s one of the best lead guards in the country.
Flanking and backing up Johnson in the backcourt will be juniors Braxton Beverly and Blake Harris. Beverly’s two greatest assets are his ability to shoot the ball from behind the arc and take care of the rock. Apart from that, he offers little in the realm of offensive or defensive assistance. 2018-19 was the second straight season in which Beverly shot just over 40% from inside the arc, and the Wolfpack were -0.11 PPP on defense when Beverly was on the floor (-0.15 PPP in 2017-18). Harris has yet to notch a ton of minutes through his first two collegiate seasons. Like Beverly, he’s a good outside shooter but has had far too many issues taking care of the ball. Harris will need to turn it around in 2019-20 or he’ll risk losing playing time to incoming 4-star freshman Dereon Seabron (lanky 6’7” wing) or even JUCO import Atticus Taylor.
NC State was a much-improved defensive team last season, but still lagged behind much of the ACC. Pressure should once again be the primary focus of Keatts’ defensive look, aligning with his preference to use a majority-guard lineup. Last year, the Wolfpack pressed at the 7th highest rate in the country (31% of its possessions) and looked to create transition opportunities off steals (28th in TO rate). Below is a look at NC State’s diamond press set-up:
And here’s the desired result:
In the halfcourt, the Wolfpack are intent on not allowing three-point attempts – no team was better in the ACC at taking away the three-point line in 2018-19. The trade-off of that aggressive style is a higher risk of getting torched in the paint, which happened to the Wolfpack constantly last season. NC State allowed the 12th highest rate of shot attempts near the rim last season and sent opponents to the free throw line at the highest rate in the ACC. With a thin frontcourt, this trend may continue in 2019-20.
Bottom Line: NC State has the talent to be a top 25 team in 2019-20, but then again it had that same talent in 2018-19. Keatts has proven to be a good coach during his short tenure, and the Pack have been a top 50 squad in each of his first two seasons at the helm. Expect to see yet another high octane, efficient offense this season coupled with a good-not-great defense. If Johnson can take a leap and become a “superstar”, NC State should have no trouble getting back to the Big Dance. However, frontcourt depth and interior defense could muddy the water.