Basketball Sneak Peek: the Wing Players

We are now mere hours away from the start of football practice, but before Nick Saban's boys suit up on the field tomorrow, we're going to continue our early position-by-position sneak peek at the basketball team for this season.

Last week, we previewed the point guards and the shooting guards. Today, we move on to the wing players, or the small forward position, a position that could hold the most promise of any spot on the floor for Grant's team this season.

BACKGROUND

Last season the Tide was woefully lacking in size out on the wing. The only small forward on the roster was a true freshman, Tony Mitchell. Things got even slimmer when the team’s biggest guard, sophomore Andrew Steele, was lost for the season after only six games.

While the Tide was forced to play with three smaller guards for large portions of most games during the season last year, depth and size out on the wing should not be an issue this season. Not only is Steele returning from injury (we classified him as a shooting guard) but versatile 6'5" incoming freshman Charles Hankerson could also provide a big scoring boost to the Tide perimeter. And of course, let's not forget 2010 Freshman All-SEC selection Tony Mitchell, who will be looking to add range and consistency to his game in his second season in Tuscaloosa.

#5 Tony Mitchell -- Sophomore -- 6'6" -- 210 -- Swainsboro, GA

#2 Charles Hankerson -- Freshman -- 6'5" -- 210 -- Miami, FL

THE PLAYERS

#5 Tony Mitchell -- Sophomore -- 6'6" -- 210 -- Swainsboro, GA

Tony Mitchell originally signed with former coach Mark Gottfried in the 2008 class, but unexpectedly had to sit out a year in prep school due to a problem with his high school transcript. He re-signed with Alabama as part of the 2009 class while Gottfried was still employed as head coach. As a highly-touted four-star recruit ranked among the top 40 players nationally, he can justifiably be classified as Gottfried's last major signing.

Nevertheless, it was Anthony Grant, not Gottfried, who was coaching when Mitchell finally stepped on campus in the summer of 2009. Grant elected to start Mitchell on the bench at the outset of his freshman season, but his playing time came early and often. Mitchell averaged over 23 minutes per game despite fighting through a minor injury and a bout with mononucleosis early on in the season. After Steele was lost for the year just six games in, Mitchell was featured heavily in the starting lineup, starting 18 of the final 26 games of the season. He finished the season third on the team in scoring at 9.2 points per game, and second in rebounding at 5.2 boards per game. He was also third in steals with 40 on the season. His production landed him on the coaches' All-SEC Freshman team.

Despite his solid production and All-Freshman team honors, Mitchell's season was not exactly a smooth ride. His minutes and his production on the court fluctuated wildly over the course of the season. There were games where he looked like he had already arrived as a complete All-SEC type player, and there were games where he wasn't a huge factor. Looking forward to this year, consistency will be Mitchell's #1 priority. The first place he should begin is his 3-point shooting. College basketball teams nowadays that expect big things in the post-season need multiple 3-point threats on the court at all times. With Mitchell expected to start on the wing this year, he needs to improve upon his 26% long-range shooting. He showed flashes last season for a few games at a time of being able to knock those shots down, but the Tide needs him to become more of a consistent threat from deep to make the offense truly dangerous, especially with so little experience at the point guard position and the lack of shooting threats overall.

Mitchell has the potential to move past All-Freshman SEC to All-SEC, and if the Tide wants to make big strides in Year 2 under Coach Grant, he needs to at least be in the discussion for such honors at the end of the season. Mitchell is already a good defender and a very good rebounder with excellent athleticism. If he can become a more consistent scoring threat, he could be poised for a breakout season.

#2 Charles Hankerson -- Freshman -- 6'5" -- 210 -- Miami, FL

Charles Hankerson became Anthony Grant's first commitment of his first recruiting class back in July before his senior year. He may also be Grant's first star signing. Hankerson was barely even on the recruiting radar his first two years as a high school player, but then exploded on the scene with a breakout junior season in which he led his team to the school's first-ever state championship. Hankerson put his team on his back in the final, scoring 27 points en route to claiming the Florida 6A championship--the most competitive division in arguably the most competitive state for high school sports. Most big-time college coaches had already made decisions on offers by the time his junior season wrapped up, but Tide coach Anthony Grant, himself just arriving on the scene after being hired at Alabama, quickly snatched him up.

This impressive video of Hankerson from more than a year ago, the summer after his breakout junior campaign, shows the kind of pure shooting and body strength that enabled him to take over the Florida 6A state playoffs. Following his signing with Alabama last November, Hankerson went on to ring up huge scoring totals his senior season, to the tune of an astounding 31.7 points per game--and keep in mind we're talking about 32-minute games here, so this would be the equivalent of averaging 40 points each outing for 40-minute games. The recruiting services still aren't completely sold on him; he is rated as a four-star prospect on scout.com, but only a three-star prospect on rivals.com, although he is ranked among the top 150 players nationally on both sites. Keep in mind, though, that the services don't really take into account senior year performances, since most high school players sign before their senior season even begins.

You never know how any recruit, no matter how much or how little hype they have gotten, will actually perform once they hit major college basketball, but all indications from video and statistical evidence over the last 18 months point to Hankerson being a true sleeper. Again, you never know with a true freshman, but Hankerson has the potential to be the pure scorer that Alabama desperately needs out on the perimeter. He has excellent upper body strength and the size to play the small forward position, and his shooting touch is superb. He's not the most explosive athlete you'll ever see playing big-time college basketball, but his body control and court awareness are more than enough to make up for it. Finally, nearly every article out there involving Hankerson describes his serious, almost fanatical, work ethic that has helped lead him to breaking out in such a manner late in his high school career.

OUTLOOK

Once again, thanks to a big boost in backcourt depth from last year to this, projecting how things will go at the wing position will be somewhat difficult. The fact that Mitchell and Hankerson are both on my watch list for breakout performers this year makes that task even more difficult.

Predicting Mitchell to be the starter would be the safe bet. After all, he started the majority of the games there as a true freshman last year. Due to his ideal size for a college small forward, his superior athleticism, and his defensive and rebounding skills, Mitchell should at minimum see the same kind of minutes he did last season. However, if he wants to move beyond his 23 minutes per game to being more of a 30-minute type of player, he's going to have to bring more to the table in the half-court offense, especially with things getting more crowded on the wing with the return of Steele and the presence of Hankerson.

Speaking of Hankerson, if his prolific scoring ability in Florida 6A ball translates even marginally to SEC ball, it's going to be very hard to keep him off the court given the Tide's lack of pure perimeter scorers. The fact that he has the skills to slide over to shooting guard will only increase his chances of getting out on the floor. Unless he just blows people away in pre-season practices in October and early November, expect to see Hankerson start out his freshman season on the bench while getting plenty of chances to come in and contribute from the first game onward, much like Mtichell's freshman season last year.

Things very well may be as simple as Mitchell and Hankerson splitting time at the small forward position. Things could get complicated, however, if Grant elects to go with a three-guard lineup. This possibility is not out of the question, especially if the two incoming post players (more on them in our next piece) fail to instill confidence and the three veteran shooting guards step up and demand playing time. If Grant does elect to go this route, he would likely play the 6'6" Mitchell as a forward and leave Hankerson to battle with Steele for the third guard spot.

While predicting the lineup this far out may be tricky, it is a good problem to have for 'Bama fans. Both Mitchell and Hankerson offer the type of dynamic ability that could lead either--or both--to become breakout stars for the Tide this season.

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