WINSTON-SALEM – Just when it looked as if Jeff Bzdelik might be doing some things to bolster enthusiasm, he turned around and confounded observers of Wake Forest basketball.
If you are one to give Bzdelik the benefit of the doubt, despite his on-court record, his 2014 recruiting class was one of the few positives on your list.
With his first two signees, Bzdelik and his staff built some optimism for the future. First, point guard Shelton Mitchell committed. Mitchell is a four-star recruit ranked No. 67 overall by Rivals. Then to start September, the Deacons added Isaac Haas, a 7-2, 275-pound center who is a four-star recruit from most services. Rivals ranks him 64th overall in the class.
So far, so good. But then in mid-September, other recruiting dominoes began to fall elsewhere, leading to one of the more puzzling signings in recent Wake Forest history: Rondale Watson, a 6-3, 190-pound shooting guard from Greenbrier (W.Va.) East. Watson has averaged more than 20 points a game the last two seasons while being named to the Class AAA all-state second team.
Let’s look at a few of the dominoes first. The Deacons were pursuing two highly rated front-court players who ended up committing to Cincinnati: 6-7 Gary Clark and 6-8 Quadri Moore. Wake fans were optimistic about Clark because of his friendship with Mitchell, although he never really showed a lot of enthusiasm for the Demon Deacons. Moore had listed the Deacs in his top five at the start of September.
Interestingly, one of the main reasons for Clark and Moore chose Cincinnati was an assistant coach with Wake Forest ties, Larry Davis. He came to Wake Forest when Dave Odom took over as head coach in 1989 and left in 1993.
The Demon Deacons also were involved with four-star Matthew Fisher-Davis, a 6-5 shooter from Charlotte. He committed to Vanderbilt after visiting Wake Forest on Sept. 13. Another shooting guard, Khadeen Carrington out of New York, committed to Seton Hall.
Only a few known targets were left, such as 6-8 Sean O’Mara, a three-star recruit from Lisle, Ill. But Bzdelik shocked everyone with Watson, who was not ranked or even profiled by either Rivals or Scout, which is rare for a major-college commitment these days.
Apparently, the Deacons decided to go all-in on Watson after Fisher Davis’ announcement, taking the whole coaching staff to Greenbrier on Sept. 17. Watson came to campus the next day for the first time, and he tweeted his commitment later that evening.
Bzdelik’s choice to go after Watson is puzzling in many ways. The most obvious is Watson’s low profile. While it’s always possible that a recruit can blossom from unheralded to a strong contributor, that’s more and more rare in these days of almost constant internet recruiting coverage. Too often, there’s a reason that these players aren’t on anyone’s radar, most often a one-dimensional game.
One report said that Watson had drawn some attention from Marshall, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Georgia Southern and Xavier. However, that doesn’t appear to be much more than those schools observing Watson, as his only two known scholarship offers were from Charleston Southern and East Tennessee State.
Those names brought back bad memories for many Wake Forest fans, as it reminded them of one of the most frustrating aspects of Odom’s tenure. While Odom landed a few big-time recruits, he spent a lot of time around the fringes, often signing players who seemed to only have offers from Southern Conference schools. A few of those blossomed, but many didn’t, causing Odom to have a high transfer rate and a frustrating lack of talented depth.
Since Odom, those signings have been few and far between. (Shamaine Dukes, anyone?)
Let’s give Bzdelik the benefit of the doubt and assume that the comments of Watson’s coach, Jim Justice, are correct: “He’s 6-3 and can jump out of the gym. Wake was looking for a two guard who could score, and they found one.”
While you can never have too many players who can shoot, as Wake’s recent long-range woes have proven, we’re not sure why Bzdelik would be so intent to land a shooting guard, whether it was Watson or one of several others he pursued.
Looking ahead to the guard positions for 2014-15, Mitchell (freshman) and Madison Jones (junior) would be at the point, with Miles Overton (sophomore) at shooting guard. Codi Miller-McIntyre (junior) can play either position, and Greg McClinton (sophomore) can play shooting guard and small forward.
If Mitchell is as good as advertised, the only place for Miller-McIntyre would be shooting guard, although he hasn’t shown a great outside shot yet.
But the real issue is that the Deacons are weak up front. Bzdelik will have juniors Aaron Rountree and Arnaud Adala Moto as athletic small forwards, and junior Tyler Cavanaugh as an outside-shooting power forward.
The frontline would be junior Devin Thomas and freshman Haas with only junior Daniel Green, if he ever recovers from his knee injury, and 7-0 project Andre Washington.
The other issue is that Bzdelik has maxed out his scholarships not only for the 2014 class but for 2015, as well. The Deacons do not have any players scheduled to graduate after the 2014-2015 season.
More Questions Than Answers
So, Watson’s signing leads to a number of questions:
* Does Bzdelik really think Washington and Green can provide adequate backup? Going into a season with only two quality players taller than 6-9 (Thomas and Haas) seems like a risk. Washington hasn’t shown any ACC-caliber ability so far, and Green has barely seen the court because of injuries. Bzdelik probably hopes that Green can at least come back to be a defensive force, but while he’s shown potential, counting on a player who averaged 1.4 points and 1.7 rebounds before suffering two knee injuries seems pretty risky.
* Does Bzdelik think he can play small with players such as Rountree and Cavanaugh at power forward, at least as backups? Rountree has shown the physical ability to play bigger than his size (6-8, 195), but he can’t score. Cavanaugh has been the opposite so far, only showing some shooting ability, but no desire to mix it up inside.
* Does Bzdelik not have confidence in Miller-McIntyre? As a freshman, Miller-McIntyre was a combo guard who wasn’t really great at either position. In fact, by the end of the season, Bzdelik felt more comfortable with the unheralded Jones at point guard. Perhaps he’s seeing Miller-McIntyre as a player without a position going forward.
* Does Bzdelik see a rash of transfers coming? If the Deacons are going to succeed, this seems like a must for several reasons: the need for talent in the frontcourt, the full roster for 2015-2016 and the massive graduating class (eight players) scheduled for after that season. Bzdelik probably needs at least three transfers total after this season and next to reset the program. Our bets for now would be Washington and Cavanaugh.
No matter what happens, the commitment of Watson will go down as another confusing chapter in the tenure of Bzdelik. When one more big-time recruit might have swung many of his detractors to at least some optimism for the future, he did the exact opposite: fanned the flames of discontent with an unknown.