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September 29, 2008
The Demon Deacons essentially start two point guards in sophomore Jeff Teague and junior Ishmael Smith. Both have great wheels – they could be the fastest tandem in the country – and they complement one another because each uses his speed for different purposes.
Sophomore guard Jeff Teague averaged nearly 14 points a game last season.
Smith, who enters his third year as a starter, is more of a setup man who can score but prefers to pass the ball. Smith suffered a foot injury in a pickup game last week that required surgery, and he probably will miss most of preseason practice. He's expected to be back in time for the season opener. The Deacons need Smith to be healthy so they can take full advantage of what promises to be a deep rotation loaded with scoring threats.
Junior L.D. Williams, a two-year starter, could be moved to the bench in favor of a bigger lineup, but he will still play 20-plus minutes a game. An athletic 6-foot-4 wing, Williams may be the best defender on the team and in the past has guarded the opponent's top perimeter scorer. Williams has a knack for energizing the team with highlight-reel worthy dunks. He needs to improve his ball-handling and outside shooting.
Shooting guard Harvey Hale, a senior, will be one of the first players off the bench. Hale, who has been a starter on and off for the past three seasons, has a history of being a streaky shooter. Sophomore shooting guard Gary Clark, who saw action in 24 games last season, could be used as a role player to provide more depth.
That group of guards is the deepest in the ACC and also ranks among the most talented. But the Deacons need someone to knock down open 3-pointers with regularity. They shot 31.6 percent from beyond the arc last season, last in the ACC.
The Deacons are welcoming a collection of big men who will make coaches at the most elite programs envious. Forward Al-Farouq Aminu (6-9) and centers Tony Woods (6-11) and Ty Walker (7-0) – which made up the nation's No. 3-rated recruiting class – are all five-star recruits. Each probably will play in the NBA someday. That trio joins what was already a solid returning core and will combine to give the Deacons one of the most talented and deepest frontcourts in the nation.
The multi-dimensional James Johnson was arguably the best freshman in the ACC last season. An inside-outside scoring threat, Johnson ranked 12th in the league in scoring (14.6 ppg), third in rebounding (8.1 rpg), fifth in field-goal percentage (48.7 percent) and eighth in blocks (1.3 bpg). Johnson had eight double-doubles, including a 24-point, 16-rebound performance in that signature win over the Blue Devils. With such an influx of talent, Johnson may not be relied upon as much, but he still could prove to be the team's best player.
The Deacons also return a pair of juniors who saw regular action last season – 7-foot center Chas McFarland and power forward Jamie Skeen. McFarland was one of the ACC's most improved players. After barely playing as a freshman, the big man ranked second on the team in rebounding and fifth in the league in blocks. Skeen was a solid contributor off the bench and can be counted on for rebounding.
Aminu is the most ready of the three freshmen and could start from Day One. Long and athletic, Aminu possesses a similar game to that of Johnson with an ability to shoot from 3-point range and score in the paint. The Deacons will use the two together frequently, which will create big matchup issues for opponents.
Walker and Woods, who will challenge McFarland for a starting job, will make their biggest impact on defense. Both have the size and athleticism to be great shot blockers. Walker is more polished and can step outside and hit jump shots. Woods is more of a raw project who could go through some growing pains this year.
Deacons ranked eighth in the league last season in scoring offense at 72.2 points per game. Expect that number to rise by four to six points. Their personnel is built for the open court, and with a much deeper rotation, they will be pushing the pace much more. In halfcourt sets, Smith will look to create off the dribble, and Teague and Johnson probably will remain the No. 1 and No. 2 options.
The defensive problems that plagued the Deacons during the last couple years of the Skip Prosser era appear to have been fixed. After ranking last in the ACC in scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense in 2006-07, the Deacs moved to fourth and sixth, respectively, in those categories. A change from an aggressive man-to-man to more of a pack-line defense where nobody drifts out beyond the 3-point line deserves the credit. In the second year of the new system, the Deacs should improve a little more.
SHOES TO FILL
Nobody. All scholarship players return for the Deacons.
MUST STEP UP
Three-point shooting. The Deacons lack a reliable outside shooter, and as a team they need to do a better job of knocking down 3-point shots. Otherwise, they won't be able to do any damage in the NCAA tournament.
Aminu. Ranked as the No. 7 prospect in the 2008 class, Aminu has the potential to be a one-and-done player. Aminu will certainly bolster Wake's offense, but it's on the boards where the versatile small forward could make the biggest difference. The coaching staff says he can be a great rebounder.
Andrew Skwara is a national basketball writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.