NC State men’s basketball head coach Kevin Keatts spoke to the media for the first time ahead of the 2021-22 season, the day before the team’s first practice of the year. Here’s what stood out from the fifth-year head coach.
Manny Bates rumors
If there’s one thing that dominated any headlines regarding the men’s basketball team this offseason, it was the Pack’s roster turmoil. NC State lost promising three-star defensive bulldog Shakeel Moore over the offseason, someone who turned several heads in his freshman season. The team also lost guard Braxton Beverly and forwards Max Farthing and Nick Farrar to the transfer portal, as well as guard Devon Daniels and forward D.J. Funderburk to graduation.
But rumors swirled that the Pack had a real chance to lose redshirt junior forward Manny Bates, a move that would have crippled the program. Obviously, that didn’t come to fruition, and Keatts was quick to dismiss that that rumor had any credit.
“I think a lot of people jumped the gun and assumed that Manny Bates was leaving,” Keatts said. “Which I didn't. I felt comfortable about it. You know, Manny and I have always had a tremendous relationship. His mom and I've had a tremendous relationship. And [there was] never one point that I felt like, that, ‘Hey, Manny is gonna go’ anywhere.”
Those strong remarks should make the Wolfpack faithful feel good for a number of reasons. For one, Bates is the best player to come through this program since Dennis Smith Jr. Bates has very real pro prospects and could become Keatts’ first full-time player at the next level. Also, this gives the Pack a secondary leader it desperately needs. Senior forward Jericole Hellems and Bates are the two longest-tenured players on the roster, and in a transition year, it’s crucial to have as many impactful voices in the locker room before next season.
As for the upcoming season, Keatts was optimistic that Bates would further break out this year, and added that he’s augmented his game in a significant way.
“He's gotten better from the day he walked in here,” Keatts said. “I think you guys saw some glimpses of how good he can be offensively. And he's worked extremely hard in the offseason to change his body, increase his range. We've stepped him out to 18 feet and [he’s] able to make some shots. But he is also shooting 3s now. And so I like the direction he's going in. He's a leader. He will be one of the leaders on our team, and we're expecting a big year from him.”
Sophomores improving in offseason
One of the biggest themes of Keatts’ opener was the improvement he’s seen from his sophomore class, namely guards Cam Hayes and Dereon Seabron. Last season, that duo saw action early and often. By the end of the year, both were full-fledged starters.
At the end of the last season, 6-foot-7 guard Seabron started seven of the last eight games, including in the ACC Tournament and NIT. In those games, Seabron averaged 8.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.6 stocks in 26.8 minutes per game while shooting 53.8% from the floor.
Hayes, on the other hand, started in all eight of those contests, registering 11 points, 3.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals in 31.5 minutes per game. Where Hayes excelled the most last season was from beyond the arc, connecting at a scorching 38.5% clip from deep on 4.9 attempts per game. While Hayes was excellent from 3-point range, he did struggle on points in the paint, shooting just 40.7% on 2-point attempts overall last season. However, there is significant reason for optimism that the rate will improve.
“When you see Cam Hayes,” Keatts said. “You're going to see a different guy. He’s got bulk on him now. He's a guy who's really hit the weight room.”
Outside of Bates, it’s hard to exactly pinpoint what players can erupt as stars. If there is any player that is capable of making the next jump, it’s Hayes.
Freshmen will start and play
Interestingly, Keatts addressed early and unprompted that his 2021 recruiting class will start and play in games this season. Guards Breon Pass and Terquavion Smith, as well as forward Ernest Ross compose the Pack’s first-year class, with the latter two being four-star recruits. Ross in particular ranks No. 21 on the all-time list of top Wolfpack men’s basketball recruits.
“Our three freshmen are talented,” Keatts said. “They can play. A couple of those guys you'll see in the starting lineup at times. Not saying they're going to start from day one, but they'll make their way in there.”
While it’s unlikely that Pass gets big minutes in the beginning, Smith and Ross have the dynamism to take on huge roles early on, much like Hayes did last year. As of now, Hayes, Hellems and Bates appear to be the only three players absolutely penciled in for starting roles. That leaves gaps all around the wing, which could theoretically be filled by the younger players.
Keatts liked to play Hayes and former player Braxton Beverly together in two-guard lineups, and Smith adds an extra layer that Beverly didn’t provide. While lineups featuring Hayes and Beverly struggled inside, Smith is a true three-level scorer that looks fantastic finishing through contact and could have a role there. However, the much likelier outcome is that junior guard Casey Morsell takes on a starting role, as he has looked outright fantastic over the offseason and is a former four-star recruit himself.
As for Ross, the big man’s role on this roster is likely to be more pronounced early on. If Hellems plays down to the three, Ross and junior forward Greg Gantt have equal opportunity to take over the four spot full time, with the ability to play small-ball center if needed.
“[Ross is] long, athletic, runs the floor,” Keatts said. “Maybe the fastest big we have. … He can play both forward spots. We'll play him some as a four. And then as he gets a little bit comfortable, we'll transition him into some of that small four area. But surprisingly can shoot it from all sides. He's probably our best shot back on the team other than Manny Bates... a tremendous offensive rebounder.”
Regardless of the actual lineup decisions made by Keatts, it’s clear he has a significant amount of versatility to play with.
Big lineups are going to be interesting and unique
Speaking of versatility, the frontcourt is the spot with the biggest question marks. As of now, it appears that Gantt and Ross will alternate playing in the four spot, but Keatts named four players that will have more pronounced roles as versatile big men this season: Ross, Gantt, Hellems and sophomore forward Jaylon Gibson.
“We call them big guards,” Keatts said. “And so I've got a lot of guys who could play that D.J. Funderburk role. But they're big guards. Jericole can play it. You got a guy like Greg Gantt [who] can play it. You also have Ernest Ross. And then you've got a guy like Jaylon Gibson. And so we've got at least four guys that can play a little bit more perimeter than what [Funderburk] gave us.”
There’s going to be a lot of switching up the frontcourt. Last season, it was cut-and-dry between Funderburk and Bates, but this year it will take time for Keatts to settle on a lineup he likes best. There’s also the case of sophomore forward Ebenezer Dowuona. Dowuona has amazing size at 6-foot-11, will provide legitimate backup center minutes and is someone who could emulate Bates’s game.