CHARLOTTE — At the 2021 ACC Tipoff, NC State men’s basketball head coach Kevin Keatts made the decision to bring along redshirt junior forward Manny Bates and senior forward Jericole Hellems. It’s a testament to the trust the pair has built with Keatts, the first set of guys that he recruited to spend four years with him.
It’s also a testament to the blood, sweat and tears this Wolfpack men’s basketball team has poured into improving its product. Bates and Hellems are at the forefront of that. And for the first time in his NC State career, Keatts has the versatility and depth to produce a shockingly stellar product across the roster. That all starts with the frontcourt.
Bates and Hellems are joined by a bevvy of new faces. Between four-star freshman Ernest Ross, sophomores Jaylon Gibson and Ebenezer Dowuona, and junior transfer forward Greg Gantt Jr., the Pack’s frontcourt depth is extremely young. In what seems like a flash, Bates and Hellems have transitioned to leadership roles.
“We really just have knowledge of the game,” Bates said. “Learning the game instead of just playing it off instinct is gonna take them a long longer time, so I'm just trying to break down everything. Like if they make a mistake in practice, I'm kind of pulling them aside like, ‘You got to do this right. You got to do that right’ … just for them to expand their knowledge of the game.”
In particular, Bates and Keatts singled out Dowuona as someone that could stand to learn plenty from Bates’ style of play.
With the team legitimately having about 12 potential rotational pieces, competition is bound to be stiff. But according to both Bates and Hellems, the young, tenacious pieces have embraced the challenge.
“I wouldn't say it’s a change in mentality because I feel like everybody that I've played with all these past years has had it like a dog in there,” Bates said. “Especially in the young guys, I feel like they are in love with competing. They're big competitors. ... I just feel like our young guys are really bringing so much energy and making the whole team bring out that dog in them. Everybody's competing to a different level. Everybody's trying to win.”
Bates has lofty goals for this Wolfpack squad. While he emphasized he is more concerned about winning than personal accolades, Bates said he was hungry to win the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year award fresh off his first nomination to the All-Defensive Team last season. In both his opening presser earlier this fall and during the tipoff, Keatts made it a point to illustrate the drastic changes the Fayetteville, North Carolina native has made to his game. Bates had a more modest assessment.
“Honestly, I try not to focus on just one thing,” Bates said. “I’m working on the holes in my game. Confidence to shoot my 15-foot midrange area. Building confidence to shoot the 3. I’ve become a much stronger rebounder in that time too… just trying to be a complete player.”
As for the Pack’s other elder forward, Hellems made huge strides at the end of last season and was eventually named an honorable mention for an All-ACC Team spot. After former Pack star Devon Daniels went down with injury, Hellems averaged 14 points per game while shooting 36.7% from distance on 3.8 attempts per game.
“You know [Hellems is] my tight end,” Keatts said. “A tight end can run, he can block, he can pass. Jericole is a combo forward. He can shoot, he can drive, he can defend. He can do a lot of things and he brings so much to our team. The stuff that we don't see is what he does in the locker room. He's a tremendous leader. He's been through the fire of NC State. He understands what we're about.”
Hellems said in order for him to emerge as a true offensive star for the Wolfpack, he needed to improve his mentality, and that’s something the forward feels he accomplished in the offseason.
“I play a part in just being able to guard one through five and then on offense being able to play the three [or] four and just be more comfortable with the ball, making plays for others, and then obviously making plays for myself,” Hellems said. “So it’s exciting to just be able to grow as a player.”
When breaking down NC State’s forward rotation, one player seemingly gets forgotten by the Wolfpack faithful in Gibson. If there’s one player that Keatts seems to bring up unprompted more than any other, it’s Gibson, even dating back to last season. While much isn’t known about Gibson’s playstyle with the Pack seeing as he played just 80 minutes in total last season, it’s clear that he’ll have a more defined, energetic role this season.
“He's the kindest person that you ever meet,” Hellems said. “But he's so quiet and he works hard and he's gonna be a great player. He just has to figure it out as all of us do. He's gonna be great.”
As for one of the Pack’s two former four-star transfers in Gantt, Hellems and Bates were extremely high on the versatile forward. Bates went on to say that he sees a lot of Jericole Hellems in Gantt in both the way he plays and who he is as a person.
“Yeah, we already [connected] as a person,” Hellems said. “It's crazy. Because every time I talk to him, he always tells me something that’s kind of similar to my life that we’d have gone through together. And it's just like, God put him there for a reason. So he's definitely one in the same.”