For most of this decade, Penn State has relied heavily on the talents of one player at a given time. First it was Talor Battle, followed by Tim Frazier, and then of course, D.J. Newbill, who just graduated following a terrific senior season. Now however, things seem to be changing for Patrick Chambers’ crew. With no clear star among next season’s crop of players, the Nittany Lions will need to be more balanced if they want to find any success in the Big Ten. Still, Penn State has a decent mix of talented youngsters and solid veterans.
Although the Nittany Lions will have numerous contributors in 2015-’16, let’s take a look at a few of the most important for the team to have success.
#1. Shep Garner
There was very little hype about Garner going into last season, but that didn’t stop the 6’1" guard from starting every game and finishing second in scoring for Penn State at 9.2 points per game. Like most freshmen, however, he struggled with his consistency, shooting just 36 percent and making 2 shots or less from the field in 13 contests.
Not only will the Nittany Lions need Garner to be steadier this season, they’ll need him to handle two roles. While the Philadelphia native will likely run the point the majority of the time, he’ll also be counted on to be one of the team’s primary scorers. It’s a tough task to ask, especially for a player who had the luxury of splitting ball-handling duties with Newbill last season. Although he’s proven himself to be a good passer, he’ll have to continue to get used to making decisions in critical moments. That also means improving his shot selection. For a player whose 3-pointer wasn’t always on, Garner had no trouble hoisting them up last season, averaging 5.1 threes per game (making 33.7 percent). It’s safe to say Chambers gave him the green light most of the time, but while Penn State lacks a plethora of outside threats, Garner will have to find other ways to help the offense when his jumper isn’t falling. He’s got confidence though, and Chambers will be counting on him to be a leader for a squad that desperately needs one.
#2. Brandon Taylor
Last season was a frustrating one for Taylor. The forward entered the season expected to be the Nittany Lions no. 2 option, but he struggled to score consistently and never seemed to completely recover from a midseason knee injury sustained against Rutgers. The result was a stat line that didn’t improve much from the year before, as Taylor averaged 9.1 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 37 percent from the field.
Penn State will need a lot more from him this year, and it’s not like the 6’6" forward doesn’t have the skills to be a key contributor. Taylor is an athletic player who can shoot the three, play in the post, rebound and even block some shots. The problem for him is finding a way to maximize his talent on offense. Last season, Taylor spent way too much time on the perimeter, averaging five 3-point attempts per game and hitting just 33.5 percent of them. Once again, it’s not like the Nittany Lions were loaded with long-range killers, but Taylor will be more effective next season if he can adapt to scoring in the paint when his shot isn’t falling (sound familiar?). Playing down low will also help him get to the free throw line more. Last year, the New Jersey native attempted just 0.9 free throws per game and made 63 percent, a far cry from the 87 percent on 1.9 attempts he made as a sophomore.
This doesn’t mean Taylor shouldn’t shoot from the outside at all, just that he needs to make it a smaller part of his arsenal. It remains to be seen how Chambers uses him in his final season, but Taylor will likely need to up his scoring and rebounding if the Nittany Lions are going to have any success.
#3. Josh Reaves
There are a couple players you could put in this spot, namely Reaves’ fellow freshman Mike Watkins. But I’m going to go with the 6’4" guard from Virginia, who will be counted on to contribute to the Nittany Lions backcourt immediately.
A four-star recruit who possesses serious athletic ability, Reaves was always going to play as a freshman, but his arrival is even more important now given the departure of shooting guard Geno Thorpe. Penn State’s backcourt will feature numerous combinations next season, but it’s hard to imagine Reaves not playing heavy minutes. He may go through some growing pains, but Reaves has the skills to be devastating in transition and on defense. If he plays up to his capabilities early, he could be an upgrade over Thorpe, who was a top defender and energy guy but wasn't consistent on offense. On a team that often lacks impact athletes, Reaves has the potential to be a featured player, especially if he proves he can shoot. Time will tell how good Reaves turns out to be, but Penn State will be in a tight spot next season if he can't make an immediate impact.
Penn State will need numerous other players (Watkins, Jordan Dickerson, Donovon Jack to name a few) to play big roles next season, but Garner, Taylor and Reaves will be especially important. Garner and Taylor will assume a bulk of the scoring role, and Reaves will have to play big minutes whether he is ready or not. If they can't do those things, it could be another frustrating year for Chambers and company.