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Rookies' Progress Will Define Future

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

March 6, 2007

WINSTON-SALEM – Looking ahead to next basketball season, the key for Wake Forest will be to see whether some of its young players can step forward from complementary to starring roles.

While the second half of this ACC season was one of improvement for the Demon Deacons, they still were driven by senior center Kyle Visser. In the upset of Virginia on Senior Night, Wake's top scorers were Visser and fellow senior Michael Drum. Without those two next year, who will step up?

It's a good bet that freshman point guard Ish Smith will be there. In the final four games of the regular season, Smith showed that he continues to improve, averaging 7.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 2.3 turnovers.

"(Smith) has a chance to be a very, very, very good player," Prosser said. "We have a lot of work to do, he and I, but …"

Freshman forward Jamie Skeen has a chance, too. He had three double-doubles this season, and he showed range to the three-point line. While he'll have to continue to improve, especially in the lane, he likely will be at least a solid player in the future.

Others appear to be longer shots at this point. Guards Anthony Gurley and Harvey Hale each had a 20-point game down the stretch, but they've been extremely inconsistent. Can David Weaver move from 10 minutes per game to become a quality starter at center?

Perhaps the most intriguing story next season will be freshman swingman L.D. Williams. Why Williams compared to the others? Because he may have the best chance to be a star. His physical gifts are greater than many in the league, and his attitude is excellent.

For Wake fans, it's easy to compare Williams to the last two high-profile small forwards who came through the program: Josh Howard and Trent Strickland. All three were great athletes who started slowly as freshmen.

Howard worked to be better each season, eventually becoming the ACC player of the year and leading Wake to an ACC regular-season championship. Strickland struggled to find any consistency, seemingly improving very little until his senior year. Even then, he was part of a disappointing team effort.

Will Williams follow one of those paths? Interestingly, his freshman season looks a lot like Howard's.

Here is the comparison: Howard averaged 24.9 minutes, 9.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, shot 47 percent from the field, 29 percent from three-point range and 58 percent from the line. Williams (through the end of the regular season) averaged 25.9 minutes, 8.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, shot 48 percent from the field, 36 percent from three-point range and 54 percent from the line.

As a sophomore, Howard made strong jumps in every category: 27.2 minutes, 13.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, shot 49 percent from the field, 39 percent from three-point range and 69 percent from the line.

Howard and Strickland differed in other ways. Howard became a lock-down defender, while Strickland often got beat back-door while he was looking for a steal. Early in their careers, both focused their anger at others, including coaches and officials, but Howard learned to harness his toward his opponents and toward driving himself. Strickland never did, and it distracted him from his game.

Against Virginia to end the season, Williams showed signs that he was headed in the right direction on both fronts. He shut down Virginia guard J.R. Reynolds in the first half, then shut down a hot Sean Singletary in the second, holding him to 1-of-8 shooting.

"I just did what I knew how to do," Williams said. "I locked up. I had Reynolds in the first half, and Coach Prosser said, ‘Accept the challenge.' I just really, really made it a point of emphasis. I really didn't even want to score today."

He also understood how to get under Singletary's skin. He repeatedly forced officials to calm the situation, and he had Singletary complaining to them in the second half. But Williams managed to do it in a way where his big smile came through when the attention was on him, not in a way that drew a technical foul, as Strickland often did.

"Sometimes I'm ready to fight on the court," Williams said. "I'm just that competitive. I hate to lose. Coach talks about how it's not your will to win, it's about how much you hate to lose. I really hate to lose."

That kind of fire has been missing from the Deacons since point guard Chris Paul left after the 2004-05 season. It's a lot to ask of a second-year player, but if Williams can pull all of those elements together, the Deacs could be much better than many expect next season.


For several years, the Sports Journal and others have picked apart the recruiting strategies used by Wake Forest football coach Jim Grobe and his staff. Grobe has shown a number of different techniques that allow Wake to attract players he can build into winners. He's taken a difficult recruiting situation and made the best of it.

Grobe gave another indication this year as to just how hard he and the staff think about every little detail of what might make an athlete successful. He indicated that it's basically a policy for the staff not to recruit too far from home.

"That's something that's been very important to us, recruiting kids within driving distance," Grobe said. "I think it means more to kids who have a lot of family, have a lot of friends, people coming to every game. The guys that have a lot of support in the stands play a little harder."

It's just another example of Grobe trying to figure out how to squeeze every little ounce of edge he can get in a situation where he's outgunned by most of the conference. It's also intentionally squeezing an already tight pool of players a school such as Wake can recruit. For the academic profile he needs, Grobe easily could use the entire country.

"For us, it's important not to be a national recruiter," Grobe said. "What we're trying to do is recruit kids where their family can jump in the car on Friday or Saturday morning and be here to see them play more times than not, because we think it means a little bit more to them."

This year's team had only three recruited players from west of the Mississippi: Nate Morton (Texas), Boomer Peterson (Nebraska) and Boo Robinson (Louisiana). It featured 74 players from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida.

This year's recruiting class took 18 of its 21 players from those latter states. The "outsiders" were from Ohio, Virginia and Texas. The class had seven North Carolina signees, including four from schools close to Winston-Salem. But recruiting local also brings its own pressures.

"We try to research the North Carolina kids better than anybody else, and especially the local kids," Grobe said. "The worst-case scenario for us would be to overlook a local kid, and have him go on someplace and play really, really well.

"But a real close second to that would be to bring in a local kid and he never plays for you. So we probably do our homework more on the local kids more than any other kid, because we want a local kid to come and be successful."