The hiring of Nate Oats has Alabama basketball fans fired up for a number of reasons: a new, exciting brand of offense, a reinvigorated focus, some great name-related puns, etc. But maybe the most exciting aspect of the Oats hire is how much more he is expected to get out of the talented roster that the Tide routinely has in place, and how he is planning on continuing to add to the far-from-bare cupboards lined-up in Coleman Coliseum.
At his last stop in Buffalo, he took over a decently talented squad that had been put in place by former head coach Bobby Hurley (of Duke, and now, Arizona State, fame), but that had lost their top two players to unforeseen attrition. He was able to make the most out of what was left and cobbled together another MAC Championship and NCAA Tournament appearance in his debut season. By the time Year 4 in Buffalo came to a close, Oats had built the Bulls into a mid-major power, winning 32 games, moving into the Top 25 polls, and damn-near advancing to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament after crushing his former boss and his Sun Devils in the opening game. And that wasn’t a fluke: the Bulls were talented. Some of them were surprisingly highly-rated players that Oats and company had convinced to spend their winters in upstate New York. Others were projects that Oats’ staff had to develop into the players they became. Either way, they were good.
Now, Oats will take over a Tide team with much more talent and experience than the one he inherited in Buffalo. It’s almost a guarantee that he will continue to add to this gifted group of guys. The real question is: by how much?
The Back Court
Oats’ teams have always made their mark in the back-court, utilizing quick, lengthy guards to get up-and-down the court, disrupt lanes on defense, and knock down perimeter shots. With that in mind, Kira Lewis must be licking his chops to play in this system. The 6’3 point guard averaged 13.5 PPG, 2.9 APG, 2.3 RPG, and 0.8 SPG on 43.3%/35.8%/78.3% (FG%/3P%/FT%, for future reference) shooting as a 17-year old (I promise that’s the last time I’ll reference that) true freshman last season. In the preseason scrimmage against Georgia Tech, Lewis dropped 20 points, 7 assists, and 7 rebounds, an incredibly well-rounded performance that garnered him player of the game recognition. His defense still has a decent way to go, according to Oats, but Lewis is going to be stuffing the stat-sheet this season, and all-conference honors should be expected of the young guard.
Spelling him at the point this season will be graduate-transfer James “Beetle” Bolden. The senior was averaging 12.2 PPG, 2.5 APG, 2.6 RPG, and 1.1 SPG at West Virginia last season before injuring his ankle, which he is still recovering from. As is typical of all of West Virginia coach Bob Huggins’ guards, Bolden is a scrapper who brings great energy on the defensive side of the court. He’s also a career 40.0% 3P% shooter, with a sweet lefty stroke that will allow he and Lewis to coexist on the court in crunch time.
At the off-guard spot, veteran John Petty (10.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.9 APG on 41.3%/34.5%/70.7%) will be joined by a pair of highly-regarded true freshmen, Jaden Shackelford and Jaylen Forbes. Alabama fans know how hot Petty can get at times, his only issue has been his consistency with his shot. If Oats can work with Petty to develop a consistent jumper and improve his strength, focus, and quickness on defense, the sky is the limit for him as a potential stud 3&D player. Forbes, a 6’5 product out of Florence, Mississippi, was known as a shot-maker in high school. He even participated in the High School All-Star 3-Point Shootout. However, it’s been the slightly lower-rated Shackelford that has been lighting it up in practices. That transferred over to the scrimmage against Tech, as Shackelford led the team with 21 points on 6/10 shooting from beyond the arc. Oats has said that Shackelford is the most college-ready freshman he’s ever coached before, and Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner echoed that sentiment by stating, “The Shackelford kid, man can he shoot the ball.”
This back-court has the makings of a really good unit. If Kira becomes an all-conference type of player, Petty works on his consistency, Beetle brings his intensity, and Shackelford and Forbes quickly become factors on the offensive end of the court (because the defensive end always takes more time), Alabama is going places in 2020. And that’s without even noting that former McDonald’s High School All-American Jahvon Quinerly is still attempting to gain immediate eligibility to play this season as well.
The Tide’s wings and bigs have a little less optimistic outlook.
Let’s start with the good first, though. A trio of juniors return with plenty of experience and loads of potential in Herbert Jones, Alex Reese, and Galin Smith. Jones is the ultimate defensive stopper and glue-guy. The 6’7 wing can defend any position on the court with his blend of length and athleticism. He rebounds the ball well and shows flashed of brilliance taking the ball to the rim. He simply has seemed to lack confidence. He’s never been a shooter (41.6%/27.7%/49.7% career), and it appears to have affected his game on the offensive end. If Oats’ staff can at least build some confidence in his offensive abilities, Jones has the potential to play at the next level. But that shot needs some serious work.
Reese, on the other hand, needs little work from a shooting standpoint (6.3 PPG last season on 40.3%/37.5%/75.5%). His biggest area in need of improvement has always been his quickness and ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the basket. On that end, Oats’ grueling strength and conditioning has already bared fruit, as Reese has dropped a lot of bad weight coming into the season. If he can improve his handles and his lateral quickness on defense, he could be a match-up nightmare with his 6’9 size and strong build.
Smith was a bit of a project when he came to the Capstone, as the 6’9, 250 pound post player had only played basketball for a short time prior to attending college. He is really a load on the inside, but his skills have needed serious refinement. He will likely start at center for Alabama this season, so hopefully the staff has made some serious progress with his abilities.
If not, one of either redshirt freshman Javian Davis or true freshman Raymond Hawkins will have to step up. While the Tide could certainly go with a smaller group and play Reese at the five spot, and I expect that to be the case at times, the season-ending injuries to 6’6 blue-chip freshman Juwan Gary and 6’8 former JUCO All-American James Rojas have seriously depleted Alabama’s depth in the front court. Rojas would have fit in perfectly as a high-motor, stretch five that can get up and down the court like Donta Hall could, but with the ability to step out and knock down shots.
Avery Johnson’s biggest strength as a head coach was his ability to recruit at a high level (see: Collin Sexton, Kira Lewis, John Petty, etc.), so the only perceived con to hiring Oats was a relative drop in recruiting. Well, Oats has proven that, sometimes, perception isn’t reality. While Oats has yet to lock down a commitment for the 2020 class, he certainly isn’t settling for the type of players he was recruiting at Buffalo.
Alabama is strongly in-play for a pair of 5-star recruits for the upcoming class. Bryan Hodgson, who Oats brought over from Buffalo, and Antoine Pettway (as if he needs any introduction) have been hard at work on the recruiting trails. The Tide is the only team that has received any “Crystal Ball” predictions from the staff at 247 Sports for the composite 5th-rated combo guard in the country, Nimari Burnett. Alabama is also in a hotly-contested battle with Michigan State and Kentucky for the composite 3rd-rated power forward in the country in Isaiah Jackson. The Tide also appear on a number of highly-ranked prospects top 8-10 lists.
In other words, Oats isn’t settling for anything less than the best. Time will tell if he and his staff can close on those types of talents, but the Tide are already becoming a factor in recruiting nationally (Burnett is from Chicago and Jackson is the top-ranked recruit in Michigan).
Momentum is really picking up for Tide Hoops, as the program looks to retake its spot near the top of the SEC. Nate Oats is the primary reason for this outlook, and for a number of reasons. But unlike many programs that have to hope for a lengthy rebuild (glares across the state), Alabama will look to hit the ground running come Tuesday night against the Penn Quakers. With an already-talented squad looking to add even more star power in the future, working for a staff as gifted in development as Oats’, things are really looking good for the Crimson Tide.