It's a new era for the Penn State basketball team. With star guard D.J. Newbill having graduated, the Nittany Lions will enter the 2015-16 season looking for a new leader and go-to scorer. While head coach Patrick Chambers' crew will certainly be a little young and inexperienced, there will be plenty of opportunities for players to step up into bigger roles.
Which is why it's convenient that Penn State has arguably its best incoming recruiting class in school history joining the team this season. With two four-star recruits in guard Josh Reaves and forward Mike Watkins, and a three-star player in Deividas Zemgulis, the Nittany Lions are bringing in a level of talent that is unprecedented for the program. While it's never easy for any freshman to make an impact right away, here's a look at each player and their chances to succeed next season.
Of the three new freshmen, Reaves is the one with the best chance to get on the court right away. Part of that is his talent and range of skills, but he also plays the position that is the biggest need for Penn State. With Newbill graduating and sophomore Geno Thorpe departing by transfer, the Lions have a gaping hole at guard. Shep Garner will return to run the point, but after him, it's anyone's guess as to who will be the other starter in the backcourt. Starting as a freshman is a big task, but if Garner pulled it off last year, so could Reaves. At 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds, Reaves will need to bulk up, but he brings good height for the position. He also brings terrific length and athleticism that project him to be terrific on defense and in transition. He'll have to work on his ball-handling and go through the normal freshman growing pains, but he looks like a player with the potential to be a jack-of all-trades wing who can shoot, rebound and defend. Really, there's no reason he can't step into Thorpe's former role of defensive specialist and energy guy next season. And with no other obvious candidates to start (Isaiah Washington and Devin Foster are the only other guards on the roster), Reaves should get on the court right away.
At 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, Watkins brings a combination of size and athleticism that is rarely seen at Penn State. The Philadelphia native is another guy known for his effort and hard-nosed style, and will also give the Lions more of the rebounding and shot-blocking that they need. His offensive game is far from polished, but Watkins can hit his free throws (a major plus) and gives every indication of being a future impact guy. The biggest difference between him and Reaves is that the position Watkins plays is far more crowded right now. Seniors Brandon Taylor, Donovon Jack and Jordan Dickerson all project to start in the front court, and while each one of them has plenty of flaws, they are way more experienced and will no doubt get major minutes next season. After that, rising sophomores Julian Moore and Payton Banks showed flashes as freshmen and will also be competing for playing time. Although Watkins has more potential than all of them, he may have to wait his turn.
A native of Lithuania, Zemgulis has talent but is more of a project than Reaves and Watkins. At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he brings great size for a wing and can shoot from the outside. While he'll also have to beat out a number of people to get on the court, he does fill a need for the Lions as long-distance shooting has always been a problem in Happy Valley.
Bottom line, Reaves has the best chance to get significant playing time next season. But look for all three new Nittany Lions to eventually be standout players.