Tim Frazier did a lot for Penn State basketball during his five years with the program. He provided a steady hand at the point guard position, set up shots for himself and others, and became the Lions' all-time assist leader. He leaves some big shoes to fill, but one thing Frazier didn't do well was score the ball efficiently.
Last year's senior leader shot just 29 percent from beyond the arc and 43 percent overall for a Penn State squad that was one of the worst in the Big Ten at effective field goal percentage. To make up for the leadership and distribution skills that are lost with Frazier, Penn State's guards this year must shoot more efficiently.
Even though four of five starters are returning, the Nittany Lion lineup is still in flux because we don't know who the fifth starter will be. Brandon Taylor, Ross Travis, and Donovon Jack are all coming back to man the forward spots. Head coach Pat Chambers says that D.J. Newbill will take over for Frazier at point guard, but the shooting guard position is a mystery for now.
Let's start with Newbill, though. He's quietly become one of the top players in the Big Ten. Last year he scored nearly 18 points per game while shooting 45 percent from the floor and leading the Lions to a pair of wins over Ohio State. During his sophomore season (his first with Penn State after transferring from Southern Miss), Newbill was forced to play point guard full-time after Frazier ruptured his Achilles tendon early in the season. While the Philadelphia native provided plenty of excitement at the point, he turned the ball over far too often and didn't shoot efficiently.
With Frazier out of the picture again, it wouldn't be shocking to see Newbill approach 20 points per game. The big questions are how many shots will it take and can he perform better as a pure point guard than he did two seasons ago.
Starting alongside Newbill at the outset of the season will be either John Johnson or Geno Thorpe. Johnson, like Newbill, is an experienced player from Philadelphia who transferred into the program soon after Chambers took over. Unlike Newbill, Johnson hasn't proven to be a very good college basketball player so far in his career. Last season he shot just 38 percent from the field while attempting a nearly equal amount of twos and three. He's athletic enough to score in a pinch, but often he would jack up ill-advised shots in what amounted to a wasted possession. Think of him like a less talented version of J.R. Smith without the defense.
Although Thorpe didn't do much on offense in 2014-15 (just 3.2 points in 11.8 minutes per game), he did at least prove to be a solid defender, and that would get him the starting nod if I were coach. Thorpe was highly recruited out of high school and placing the athletic sophomore alongside Newbill may allow his offensive game to develop more. Thorpe may never become a great outside shooter, but there's plenty of potential left with him.
The first guard off the bench for Penn State will be either Shep Garner or Devin Foster. While Foster is more of the pure point guard that the Lions need to play floor general, he's also in his first season of Division I basketball after playing his first two campaigns at junior college. We don't know how well Foster's skills will translate to the Big Ten, but last year with Vincennes University in Indiana, he averaged 12.2 points and 4.8 assists per game while posting a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. If Foster can come close to those kind of numbers in the non-conference season, he deserves to be slotted into the starting lineup with Newbill shifting over to his more natural shooting guard role.
Garner is a freshman from Chester, PA who played some point guard in high school but is considered a more natural two. He's one of the top players to watch early in the season, as he could fill a lot of different roles depending on his performance. If Garner plays well in the early going, he could supplant Johnson or Thorpe as the starting shooting guard, or maybe even move into the starting lineup as a point guard if Chambers decides that he'd rather play Newbill off the ball. As a talented prep scorer who can play either the one or the two, Garner has the potential to play himself into heavy minutes early in his Penn State career.