Penn State entered the preseason a year ago without many expectations. The highly touted recruiting class arriving this fall was already in place, and so there was a sense from many observers that the Nittany Lions — absent its leading scorer, D.J. Newbill, who graduated — would be playing out the string almost from the first game in anticipation while coming off a 4-14 performance in the Big Ten in 2014-15.
Then Brandon Taylor happened.
The senior transformed seemingly overnight from a streaky shooter who mostly hung out around the perimeter to an all-around threat who could create his own shots at the rim. His points per game average spiked from 9.1 to 16.3, giving a young Penn State team the steady hand it needed to win seven Big Ten games for the first time since its last NCAA tournament appearance in 2010-11.
If Penn State hopes to beat expectations again, it needs another veteran or veterans to mature similarly.
Make no mistake, freshmen Nazeer Bostick, Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens and redshirt Mike Watkins represent what’s probably the biggest single-year infusion of talent and depth this program has seen, not only under coach Pat Chambers, but ever. It’s a group rivaled in recent history only by the 2007 class that included Talor Battle, David Jackson, Jeff Brooks and Drew Jones, all key members of that last tournament team.
The buzz about these young players is natural, and the speed at which they adapt to the college level will probably be the most important factor in how this season plays out for Penn State.
Raw talent will only take the Nittany Lions so far, though, and that’s where it’s important for members of the four-man junior class to leverage its experience into breakout seasons.
Point guard Shep Garner probably has the most potential to take on that leadership mantle. Last season, he averaged 14.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists, and, with Taylor gone, he’ll start the season as facilitator of the offense.
In that role, it’s important for him to continue to rein in the impulsive shooting that plagued his freshman season and creeped up a few times as a sophomore, talented as he may be as a scorer. With plentiful talent around him, he’ll realize his potential most when finding shots for both is teammates and himself.
Beyond him, swing man Payton Banks and Julian Moore bring probably the most upside. Both have been playing in Chambers’ system for two years and have had their moments.
Banks, who averaged 9.4 points last season, has been known to bang home a deep shot fairly consistently, but he needs to use his 6-foot-6 frame and subtle athleticism to get to the basket a little more. Moore, meanwhile, needs to prove he can handle more minutes, especially now that fellow big men Donovon Jack and Jordan Dickerson have graduated and forward prospect Joe Hampton has dropped off the roster, leaving Moore and Watkins as the only eligible big men available. (Virginia Tech transfer Satchel Pierce will be eligible next season.)
Former Connecticut guard Terrance Samuel will also be eligible this year after sitting out 2015-16. He brings 65 games of collegiate experience, but he has made only modest contributions so far, averaging 3.0 points and 1.7 rebounds in two seasons with the Huskies.
Without having seen him interacting with this lineup, it’s hard to know how exactly he fits within Chambers’ vision, but he does carry a strong defensive reputation. That example alone may be important for a team full of young players who haven’t learned to deal with the grind of defending for 40 minutes at the college level.
It’s unlikely any of these players will add seven points to their scoring average this season. Taylor’s growth was pretty exceptional, and this Penn State team is a lot deeper than the one he inherited as a senior. They won’t be facing the same pressure, especially as individuals.
That said, it’s just hard to imagine Penn State riding a bunch of freshmen to a postseason berth, especially in a conference as rugged as the Big Ten.
Leadership can sometimes be overrated in college sports, but maturity is not, and, without it, the Nittany Lions seem doomed to repeat the growing pains of past youth movements in the program’s recent history.
These four juniors can change that, from producing a little more offense to setting a good example in the practice gym, which would go a long way toward getting this team where it wants to be.