June 29, 2006
ATLANTA -- NBA teams and coaches couldn't gamble on prep phenom Javaris Crittenton. So Georgia Tech and Paul Hewitt will instead, albeit in a different context.
Zam Fredrick, the lone returning point guard on the Yellow Jackets' roster, transferred to South Carolina last month. His departure likely means that Crittenton, who might have been a first-round NBA pick had the league not instituted a rule making high school players ineligible for the draft, will be starting and playing a majority of the minutes, a la Jarrett Jack during his freshman season. Jack started all 31 games and averaged 32 minutes per contest for Tech in 2003.
Hewitt is counting on several players improving their ball-handling skills this summer so they can spell Crittenton. Shooting guards Mario West and Lewis Clinch and swingman D'Andre Bell are three players Hewitt mentioned.
"Javaris can't play 40 minutes," Hewitt said. "We'll work it out. I don't think it will be an issue."
Or at least less of an issue than if Fredrick had stayed. Crittenton was all but assured of supplanting Fredrick for the starting job anyway.
Hewitt started following Crittenton when the latter was a freshman at Southwest Atlanta Christian and played on the same team as Dwight Howard, a post player who jumped to the NBA before the rules were changed and now stars for the Orlando Magic.
Hewitt recruited Howard -- who has said that Tech would have been his college choice -- but spent as much time as allowed with Crittenton, too.
Hewitt also invested heavily in Fredrick during his high school days. Fredrick broke the South Carolina high school scoring record during his career at Calhoun County. He spurned the school where his father starred, South Carolina, to play for Hewitt at Tech.
But college basketball was far different than the high school variety for Fredrick. At just 6-0, he was too small to play his natural position, shooting guard, in the ACC. Hewitt moved him to point guard immediately. Fredrick spent the 2004-05 season learning the position and playing little behind Jack and senior Will Bynum.
The lack of playing time -- just 19 of 32 games, with an average of less than seven minutes -- irked Fredrick. He announced that he would transfer last spring, only to change his mind after Jack left early for the NBA and heralded recruit Austin Jackson signed a baseball contract with the New York Yankees.
That gave Fredrick a chance to prove himself last season. He started and played 29 minutes per game, averaging 11 points and three assists. He also committed more than three turnovers per game, though, and shot just 41 percent from the field.
More troubling to Hewitt was the offense's tendency to bog down, particularly when opponents increased the defensive pressure. Fredrick's instincts as a scorer often took over in those situations. He tended to drive or shoot rather than distribute the ball. Fredrick also struggled defensively against both taller and quicker point guards.
Fredrick showed flashes of being a viable point guard for the Yellow Jackets. He scored 22 points, passed out six assists and committed just one turnover in a win against N.C. State. He had 18 points, three assists and two turnovers in a victory over Centenary. Yet Fredrick also committed five or more turnovers in eight games.
Then there is the Yellow Jackets' 11-17 record and 11th-place finish in the ACC. Hewitt blames his team's "inability to compete at the end of games" more than the inconsistent point guard play for the disappointing season.
Hewitt refused to detail what led to Fredrick's decision to transfer this summer, other than to say he didn't ask him or pressure him to leave. The coach said Fredrick dedicated himself to losing weight -- he weighed approximately 215 pounds at the ACC Tournament in March -- and working on his game in the months following the season, doing "everything" Hewitt asked him to do.
Fredrick transferred anyway, heading to South Carolina without the guarantee of a scholarship. With Crittenton coming in and a wealth of experienced players at the other guard positions, perhaps Fredrick decided he could play more minutes elsewhere.
Regardless of Fredrick's reasons for transferring, Hewitt remains optimistic about next season, despite the lack of depth at point guard. Four other starters return, including swingman Anthony Morrow, forward Jeremis Smith and center Ra'Sean Dickey. Together, they accounted for 69 percent of Tech's scoring and 70 percent of its rebounding last year.
Clinch returns at shooting guard. He came on late, after missing a month early in the season with a stress fracture in his leg. He scored 20 or more points in the Yellow Jackets' final two regular-season games.
"If we're going to improve, it's going to be on the strength of Ra'Sean Dickey, Jeremis Smith, Anthony Morrow and Lewis Clinch," Hewitt said. "They're the guys who have to improve because they have the experience, and they know why we lost those games last year."
CRITTENTON, YOUNG READY TO HELP
The arrivals of Crittenton and fellow freshman Thaddeus Young could make Georgia Tech a contender again in the ACC. Both are McDonald's All-Americans, and they will allow Hewitt to employ a more up-tempo style of play.
Crittenton is the type of long (6-4), aggressive point guard Hewitt favors. Young, a 6-8 forward, has the skills to play either facing the basket or with his back to it. At times in 2006-07, the Yellow Jackets will sport a big lineup with Dickey, Smith and Young in an extremely talented frontcourt.
Still, Hewitt is tempering his enthusiasm for the incoming freshmen.
"They are two very talented young men on the offensive end, and I'll be surprised if they don't contribute significantly on that end. The one thing I do know is that until you get a kid in practice and start to work with him and know what he can and can't do, it's hard to project freshmen," he said. "They're good, and a lot of people around the country wanted them very badly, and we were very fortunate to get them, but I can't project how they'll play this year."
If recent ACC history is any indication, Crittenton will do just fine. Duke and North Carolina both started true freshman point guards last year. Greg Paulus led Duke to the ACC title, and Bobby Frasor helped North Carolina surprise many by finishing as the league runner-up.
Jack led Tech to the NIT quarterfinals during his freshman year, with less talent around him than Crittenton will have this season. Crittenton has big aspirations.
"I feel like we're going to have a great team," said Crittenton, when he signed his letter of intent last fall. "The Final Four will be in Atlanta, and I think we have a shot."