You don't have to look past the team's scoring averages to figure out the impact of the Penn State frontcourt in 2013. The top three Nittany Lion scorers were all guards. Top returning forward Ross Travis was fifth on the team last season with seven points per game and he flashed some potential in his sophomore season. However, Travis shot just 35 percent from the field and was part of the problem when it came to State's ineffective offense. It was Sasa Borovnjak who led the Lions in frontcourt scoring last year, but he and his 54 percent field goal average have gone and graduated. Travis and fellow returnees Brandon Taylor and Donovon Jack have to step up for Penn State to improve in 2014.
In spite of some truly awful shooting percentages, Travis is PSU's most exciting starting forward and the one who seems to have the most potential. Last season he grabbed 7.4 rebounds per game and showed the ability to guard three positions. He's your typical "hustle" guy who will fight for the ball and run the floor with athleticism. Head coach Pat Chambers loves players who hustle, so Travis is on the floor a lot, and he should continue to be because of his rebounding and defense. For Penn State to break out of their little shell, though, Travis has got to improve his offensive game. While the junior has shown a willingness to contribute (he jacked up more than one three-pointer per game in 2013 even though he only hit on 12.5 percent), that attitude has yet to translate to efficient scoring on anything other than put-backs.
Didn't we just finish talking about a forward who shoots the ball too much relative to his ability level? Well, Taylor is another one. Just a freshman last season, Taylor wasn't shy about showing off the ugly side of being a "stretch" power forward. In 20.2 minutes per game, Taylor grabbed only 3.3 rebounds... and attempted 3.6 three-pointers. At least he was a little more accurate than Travis with 29 percent of his shots going in from beyond the arc, but the youngster could learn a lot from Travis when it comes to rebounding and defense. With star point guard Tim Frazier returning from injury in 2014, there should be less forced shots for the Lions, and Taylor is one guy who could stand to be more selective.
Starting at center for Penn State will be inexperienced sophomore Donovan Jack. He's supposed to be a rebounding and shot blocking presence in the middle of the Penn State defense, but Jack didn't get to show off too many of his talents in 2013 thanks to a stress fracture in his foot. It will be interesting to see what Jack can do when he's healthy and has a starter's share of playing time, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Chambers run out three guards on the floor more often than not. The Lions have a lot more depth and talent in the backcourt, and they may find themselves in situations where they want to have as many scorers on the court as possible.
Penn State is lacking experience at the forward position, but there are a couple of interesting prospects on the bench worth mentioning. The first is Payton Banks, a versatile freshman from California. At 6'6" and 220 pounds, Banks actually played some guard in high school but he's big enough to handle small forward in a Big Ten lineup. Chambers has praised Banks for his athleticism, mid-range game, and ability to play multiple positions. If he actually has an effective jumper, Banks could find himself cracking the rotation sooner rather than later.
Fellow freshman Julian Moore appears to be more raw than Banks, but he's decidedly more exciting because of an interesting combination of size and speed. Moore is said to be able to run the floor quite well and has a good vertical leap. Add that to the fact that he now stands at 6'10" after shooting up four inches from his high school days, and you have a player the likes of which aren't seen at Penn State. At 215 pounds, Moore is a string bean, so look for him to spend some time in the wait room before logging heavy minutes for the Lions.
Biggest Question: Can a consistent scorer emerge?
The Lions were just dreadful at shooting the ball last season. They finished with an effective field goal percentage of 44.3, which was 320th in the country. Offense should be an emphasis in 2014, and getting Frazier back should help, but as we saw in 2012, the point guard can't do it all by himself. Penn State needs to see Travis or Taylor take a significant leap on offense if the team hopes to compete with the conference heavyweights this season. If that doesn't happen, we might as well see what Banks and Moore can do as true freshmen.
The good news for Penn State is that Travis and Taylor put up a lot of points during the team's European tour in August, so there's hope that that kind of production can carry forward to the regular season. If it does, the Lions could be a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten. If not, then at least Travis is still a terrific rebounder who can defend multiple positions. Taylor, on the other hand, ought to work on his rebounding game, especially when he's on defense and not setting up shop 20 feet from the basket. Penn State's backcourt should be fun to watch this season, if for know other reason than because the unit is inexperienced and prone to variation.