Anthony Barber was posing for the 76ers with the letters “P-H-I-L-A,” sprawled across a crisp, white jersey on Monday. Caleb Martin turned 21-years-old in a different state across the country. Two starters gone; a completely different mindset for head coach Mark Gottfried and his new team.
Two starters might not seem that significant, but those two starters combined for an average of 35 points per game last season. But none of that matters anymore.
Change is something that Gottfried knows how to embrace.
“I walked out of the Syracuse Carrier Dome thinking Trevor Lacey was coming back, Terry Henderson had just sat out and Lennard Freeman had a phenomenal sophomore year,” Gottfried said. “He then had surgery. Terry got hurt. Trevor entered the draft. Things changed…quickly. And that’s a part of sports; a part of life.”
In order to avoid a repeat of last season’s disappointing 16-17 record and make it back to the NCAA tournament, the Wolfpack needed change. Questions loomed about whether or not Gottfried would even be able to fill a complete roster this season after only having a commitment from highly touted, five-star guard Dennis Smith.
Then something magical happened.
In a matter of a few short months, NC State signed five-star center Omar Yurtseven from Turkey. Four-star forward Ted Kapita switched his commitment from SMU to NCSU in late June, following another commitment from forward Darius Hicks. On the heels of Kapita, Markell Johnson, a 6-foot-1 guard who was labeled as No. 48 in the ESPN 100 Class of 2017, reclassified and committed to NC State.
While the glamour of the freshmen is nice, the veterans are the glue that hold the unit together. But with that comes several unknowns.
The lingering question of whether or not redshirt senior Terry Henderson can stay healthy is present. Senior Beejay Anya’s weight in relation to his game remains a factor. With senior Lennard Freeman almost certainly redshirting, sophomore Maverick Rowan and junior Abdul-Malik Abu are the only reliable staples.
Even the freshmen class has a major unknown in the form of Yurtseven’s eligibility. At the start of practice, the 6-foot-11 freshman is yet to be cleared by the NCAA for this season.
But Gottfried and the rest of the team seem to be perfectly okay with that, at least for right now.
“We addressed (how they can be better) with our roster,” Gottfried said. “There’s a whole new feel about this team. Our eyes are focused straight ahead.”
Leading with good intentions
One thing that everyone agreed on is the fact that there are no egos on this roster.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Henderson said. “We haven’t proved anything to anybody. We’ve got a few guys including myself who haven’t even stepped foot in the ACC yet.”
Even so, Henderson understands the importance of being a vocal leader on the court. Making sure to emphasize that he’s willing to do whatever it takes, Henderson said that he just wants to win. Along with winning comes Barber’s replacement in the form of Dennis Smith.
“Dennis Smith is the best guard in the country,” Gottfried said. “Period. Hands down.”
Henderson echoed his coach.
“Those kind of kids only come around once every few generations,” he said. “Being a part of (Smith’s) journey is a blessing and an honor. I’m just proud of him.”
It’s that kind of mentality that the Wolfpack believes will win games this season. Nonetheless, even the glorified freshmen need some guidance. What better leader to turn to than Abu? Emerging as a leader by experience, Abu knows that the title comes with a lot of responsibilities. He said he’s making it his job to ensure that everyone is ready when it’s time for the first tip off.
“I’m almost jealous of them,” Abu said. “I wish I had me telling young Malik where to be, what to do — you know, calmly talking to them.”
“Anything that I don’t feel comfortable with, they help me with,” freshman Markell Johnson said. “They look at me just like a little brother. I look at them like big brothers.”
With so many new faces, it would be easy for them to get caught up in starting roles and personal statistics. Not with the 2016-2017 team.
When they aren’t attending class, Henderson said that they are in someone’s room playing video games or going out and having fun as a group. With that comes weekly trips to Waffle House.
Transfer Torin Dorn said that the chain restaurant was very important to the team’s camaraderie; and he wasn’t kidding.
“We just went there last night,” Dorn said. “We always go right after we play and we all love breakfast.”
When they aren’t rolling deep at Waffle House, Smith said that they are watching film together. Henderson said that they are competing in the gym during off hours outside of practice.
“We like to compete,” Henderson said. “Competition breeds winners. That makes everybody hungrier to win games.”
A little friendly competition never hurt anybody, and Smith is welcoming it as the Wolfpack kicked off its first practice on Friday. Because of the camaraderie that’s already been established, the result should prove to be something special.
“I think it’s going to be a brotherhood,” Smith said. “You’re going to be able to tell when we start playing. It’s going to be something to see.”
Even though some questions and unknowns wait to be uncovered for the Wolfpack, one thing is certain: change most definitely isn’t a bad thing. If all goes as planned, the Wolfpack could easily see a tournament appearance this season.
“This year, everyone is a weapon,” Abu said. “I have the utmost confidence in my team.”