By Tom Berry
High Point (N.C.) Enterprise
November 17, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM Just before official workouts began in mid-October, Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser sidestepped the potential contributions of freshman Chris Paul. That's why we practice, Prosser said. We'll find out.
Prosser found out long before the Demon Deacons opened the regular season against Memphis on Nov. 13. Paul's play in practice and two exhibitions fueled speculation that the hometown point guard, who grew up 15 minutes from Wake's campus, would match the lofty expectations surrounding the McDonald's All-American.
Paul averaged 10 points and 6.5 assists in the exhibitions, including a driving layup and free throw to take the lead late against Athletes in Action. His performances increased the enthusiasm of fans already excited about the return of four starters from the program's first outright ACC regular-season championship in 41 years.
Chris Paul can be a great basketball player, teammate Jamaal Levy said, and it won't be long.
Wake finished 25-6 last season, went 16-0 at home and won the regular-season crown by two games. But the Deacons slumped during second-round losses at the ACC and NCAA tournaments, something the team has not forgotten.
We were down right after it happened, sophomore guard Justin Gray said, but now we're using it as motivation. We know what it takes to get to the (NCAA) Tournament and we know what it takes to win the ACC, but there are two things we haven't done that we want to do. We want to win the ACC Tournament and go deep, deep into the (NCAA) Tournament, trying to get to San Antonio.
The Final Four comes to San Antonio next spring, and the Deacons return six of their top seven scorers in an attempt to get there. That doesn't count Paul, at the head of a talented four-man recruiting class. The Deacons will reach for the stars without All-American Josh Howard, the first player since David Thompson in 1975 to be unanimously voted ACC player of the year. Howard took his game to the NBA, as a first-round pick of the Dallas Mavericks.
That's just the way it is, and I think that's one of the beauties of college basketball, Prosser said. It's not the pros, where you have guys with 10-year contracts.
Even without Howard, Wake returns players who made 72 percent of the team's points, 76 percent of its rebounds and 83 percent of its assists last season. It's impossible to place a percentage on Howard's contributions as a leader and go-to player, however, and that loss could be huge on a team with no seniors.
It's very different without (Howard), I'll tell you that right now, junior guard Taron Downey said. We lost a lot of firepower, so everyone else has to be more consistent.
Like last year, physical setbacks were a consistent theme for the Deacons on the eve of the season. Downey, the returning starter at point guard and one of the ACC's most underrated players, had an emergency appendectomy on Nov. 5 and missed the final exhibition game. Vytas Danelius, a returning second-team All-ACC performer, was slowed by tendinitis in his knees. Reserve forward Chris Ellis broke a bone in his foot at the opening practice and is out indefinitely.
The situation was similar last year, with Howard bothered by painful shin splints and fellow senior Steve Lepore slow to recover from knee surgery. Howard's injury rarely became a topic during the season, as he emerged as one of the nation's best players.
(Howard) was never afraid, Prosser said, and I think that had a ripple effect on his teammates.
Several returnees appear capable of having the same disregard for the fear factor. The vocal Gray, Wake's leading returning scorer (12.7 ppg), missed a month with a broken jaw last season but still made the ACC All-Freshman team. His jaw was wired shut and he lost 19 pounds, yet he scored 18 points while wearing protective headgear in his first game back to help beat Duke. Danelius and the slender Levy are the ACC's top two returning rebounders from a team that became the first ACC squad ever to lead the nation in rebounding margin (plus 9.6). As one of three returning players to make either first- or second-team All-ACC, Danelius must be considered a player of the year candidate. Downey was an iron man last season, starting all 31 games and leading the team in minutes played (34.4 per contest). He's among the ACC's top four returnees in free throw percentage, assists and assist-turnover ratio.
All or one of the four could take over Howard's leadership role.
Who will be the leader? Danelius asked. It is not up to me. The team decides. You must earn it on a daily basis. It's all a part of finding your role.
The Deacons have plenty of role players. Freshmen Todd Hendley and Kyle Visser must provide inside depth until Ellis returns. Sophomore swingman Trent Strickland, who scored 11 points in the final exhibition, is the team's most athletic player and someone Howard has said reminds him of himself. Freshman wing guard Jeremy Ingram could become instant offense off the bench.
Despite Wake's four proven players, two others Paul and sophomore center Eric Williams may determine whether the Deacons will be as good as last season.
Williams started every game in 2002-03, yet foul trouble and excess weight limited him to 20 minutes per game. The former McDonald's All-American has lost about 15 pounds and appears capable of being the dependable inside presence Wake needs.
(Williams') production is a key component to our success, if we're going to have success, Prosser said. He's diversified his game offensively, and a lot depends on how he plays defensively. He's really got to stay out of foul trouble and stay on the court.
Paul will be on the court often, whether it's spelling Downey or Gray or being part of a three-guard rotation. Downey's appendectomy could be the impetus for Paul to be an immediate starter. A three-guard lineup is intriguing.
It makes us quick, it makes us very good offensively, they can all shoot the ball and they play very well off each other, Prosser said.
The negatives could come defensively, if one of the guards has to defend a small forward six inches taller.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall, Gray said. We've all got big hearts.
Gray also sees no problem with rotating three guards at two positions. He pointed out that he and Downey were exhausted at times last season with no substitutes in sight, and Paul's obvious talent will make the team better.
From Day One, when (Prosser) was recruiting Chris, it's not like we were saying, We don't need him, Coach,' Gray said. He's a great player, and we need great players at this school to do big things.