- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Torin Dorn, Markell Johnson, Braxton Beverly
Key Losses: Al Freeman, Omer Yurtseven, Sam Hunt, Lennard Freeman
Key Newcomers: CJ Bryce (UNC Wilmington), Wyatt Walker (Samford), Blake Harris (Missouri), Devon Daniels (Utah), Eric Lockett (FIU), Manny Bates, Derek Funderburk (JUCO), Ian Steere, Jericole Hellems
Editor's Note (8/21): Blake Harris has been granted a waiver and will be fully eligible for the 2018-19 season.
Outlook: It’s hard to overstate the significance of the NC State coaching change from Mark Gottfried to Kevin Keatts. If Gottfried is a VHS tape, Keatts is Netflix. If Gottfried is Magikarp, Keatts is Gyarados. In his final season as head coach, Gottfried led the Wolfpack to their worst year since the Sidney Lowe era despite having a lottery pick playing point guard. Keatts then took over and led NC State to a 7-win ACC improvement and a 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament with victories over Duke and UNC to boot. NC State’s style changed, Keatts brought in a robust group of transfers, and the incumbent personnel blossomed. Now with a new corps of transfers and freshmen, the Wolfpack look to earn a repeat bid to the Big Dance.
When Keatts came over from UNC Wilmington, he brought with him his signature style of play. On offense, this consists of an up-tempo 4-out, 1-in look often featuring four guards around a lone big man. On defense, this features high pressure particularly in the full court (NC State ranked 14th in the country in press rate last season). Already in his two short years at the school, Keatts has managed to construct his roster to fit his preferred style of play. He unleashed Torin Dorn’s potential last season and brings in several two-way versatile players in 2018-19.
Dorn is a key cog for the NC State machine because of his ability to play outside his normal position. At 6’5”, Dorn can play a pseudo four role thanks to his strength and outstanding rebounding ability. Offensively, Dorn is a matchup nightmare for opposing units that send out a traditional two-big lineup due to the guard’s ability to step out from beyond the arc or drive the lane:
Defensively, Dorn’s size isn’t readily exploited thanks to NC State’s high pressure and a formidable 5-man anchor lurking in the paint. Last year, Omer Yurtseven and Lennard Freeman served as rim protectors (though not always much more than that on defense); this season, it’ll be up to Samford transfer Wyatt Walker and former Ohio State big man (and JUCO import) Derek Funderburk. A pair of 4-star freshmen, Ian Steere and Manny Bates, may see some run in the paint as well.
Walker is the main guy to watch up front. He was limited to only two games last season due to a leg injury, but when healthy can be a tank inside. Walker was one of the best rebounders in the SoCon during his Samford career and has a nice touch around the basket. Funderburk isn’t really a bruising big, but can step outside and shoot a bit – he averaged 11.5ppg in the JUCO ranks last season and is the 4th rated JUCO prospect in 2018. Of the freshmen, Bates is higher rated, but Steere is clearly the more polished product. While Bates has length and shot blocking chops, he’s far too raw to trust right now at the ACC level. Steere has a good 35 pounds on Bates, is a ferocious dunker, and can bury a three-pointer when needed.
To make up for the wing gaps left by Al Freeman and Sam Hunt, Keatts brings in his former pupil CJ Bryce, an All-CAA performer in 2016-17 at UNC Wilmington, and Devon Daniels, a former Utah Ute who started 26 games as a freshman. Bryce is tailor-made for the Keatts system and proved it when he scored 17.4ppg for a very good Seahawk squad as a sophomore. Like Dorn, Bryce can get buckets from anywhere on the floor but does it in a more finesse sort of way than the former:
Where Dorn is more of a punishing driver, Bryce is more of a shooter / pull-up threat. Daniels has “break-out” written all over him. He shot 61% from two and 41% from three as a freshman in the Pac-12 and should fit perfectly into the Keatts system. As a bonus, both players should be defensive upgrades over Freeman and Hunt. 4-star freshman Jericole Hellems, a Chaminade product (i.e. David Lee, Brad Beal, Jayson Tatum), holds plenty of potential to shine down the road.
Rounding out the backcourt rotation will be two returning point guards in Markell Johnson and Braxton Beverly and FIU grad transfer Eric Lockett. Johnson broke out in a major way last season outside of the shadow of Dennis Smith. The 6’1” junior ranked #1 in the ACC in assist rate and #5 in the country in rate and assists per game. He is first and foremost a facilitator but also shot 40.9% from three last season. Beverly almost wasn’t allowed to play last year after transferring from Ohio State in the offseason following the firing of Thad Matta. Thankfully, the NCAA finally did something right and let the 6’0” guard see the court. Beverly ended up being an enormous part of the Wolfpack’s success with his shooting and ability to take on a second PG role on the floor. Defensively, Beverly is an absolute sieve (NC State allowed 0.15 more points per possession when he was on the floor) so it shouldn’t surprise to see Daniels take the starting 2-guard spot. But, Beverly should still see plenty of run in his sophomore season. Look for Lockett to provide scoring punch off the pine as he shifts from go-to guy at FIU to key role player at NC State.
Despite the loss of Yurtseven, this should be a better version of last year’s Wolfpack team. Keatts has his preferred style of player at every position on the floor and has a deep bench from which to work. Expect the Pack to harass opponents on defense with their multitude of interchangeable wings and look to run off turnovers in transition. A top three finish in the ACC is not outside the realm of possibility.