Welcome to the season of rampant speculation.
After capturing the programs second NIT Title and staring a potential AP Preseason Top 25 ranking in the face, Penn State basketball fans had their rug of unbridled optimism pulled out from under their collective feet on Monday when news of stud point guard Tony Carr’s impending departure to the NBA broke late in the afternoon.
Carr leaving after his sophomore year to enter the professional ranks is a bitter sweet uncharted symphony for fans of the Nittany Lions. Having a player good enough to forgo eligibility and enter the NBA draft has happened a whopping zero times in program history.
So while it’s a noteworthy accomplishment for a program that fancies itself on an upward trajectory towards relevancy, it’s equally disappointing that Carr leaves Happy Valley without getting the Lions to the promise land that is the NCAA Tournament.
But as they say, the show must go on. Penn State had been taking more than a few steps forward, so a step back, while painful, isn’t the death blow to the Lions’ chances of continuing its climb next season.
In fact, Carr’s decision to sign with an agent this early in the process puts Penn State in the best possible situation to asses its current standing and best aline its roster to plug the hole Carr is leaving behind.
But how exactly will they fill those rather large shoes? I’m glad you asked.
On The Roster
The 6-foot-1 soon-to-be sophomore presents Patrick Chambers with a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, Wheeler would actually provide the Lions with an upgrade over Carr at the defensive end of the court.
Despite averaging only 14.4 minutes per game during his freshmen campaign, Wheeler registered 1.3 steals per contest. Extrapolate that out to a full 40 minutes and Wheeler would have led the nation in thefts with 3.7 per game.
Furthermore, Wheeler might very well be Penn State’s best on the ball defender, which is saying something for a team that will be returning All-Big Ten defensive first teamer Josh Reaves. The idea of having both Reaves and Wheeler on the court together for long stretches of time could turn Happy Valley into Press State and cause headaches stretching from Lincoln, Neb. to College Park, Md.
On the flip side, however, Wheeler has a long ways to go before his offensive output catches up to his defensive prowess.
Penn State will desperately be looking to replace 208 made 3-point baskets from the duo of Carr and four-year starter Shep Garner. If Wheeler is manning the point next year, Pat Chambers will need to look elsewhere to replace that production as even a modest improvement on his 14.3 shooting percentage from beyond the arc would leave a lot to be desired.
That said, Wheeler remains the most likely of replacements for Carr among the Lions current stable of guards. It would be a fools errand to expect any one person to replace arguably the greatest player in Penn State basketball history. The fact that Wheeler projects as an upgrade over Carr in one aspect of the game would be a huge win for Chambers, and with some tweaks to the style of basketball the Lions play, could keep Penn State competitive in 2018-’19.
In a perfect world Bolton, a 3-star combo guard from Virginia Beach, Va., would have learned behind Carr next season before ascending the thrown as the next talented lead guard to bless the Bryce Jordan Center’s hardwood.
Alas, that plan may need to be accelerated a bit with the freshmen, who fielded offers from the likes of Clemson, Cincinnati, VCU, and Virginia Tech, stepping straight into the Lions starting lineup.
From the highlight package above it’s evident why the Lions were eager to sign Bolton to a Letter of Intent. Squint a little and his offensive skill set looks an awful lot like the player he’ll be looking to replace.
But while there’s shades of Carr’s game in Bolton, anyone expecting him to replicate what the NBA draft-bound guard did his freshmen year may want to tap the breaks a little.
Carr came to Penn State as a top 100 prospect who had the security blanket of playing with two former high school teammates.
Bolton will have no such assistance and thus, will need time to adjust to the speed of the college game. He’ll also need to improve his handle before being trusted to run the point for Penn State with any regularity. Ultimately, a time share between Wheeler and Bolton remains the most likely scenario to fill the Lions sudden need at point guard.
Aaron Calixte, Maine
Of course, there are other ways for the Lions to solve its point guard problem beyond the current projected construction of next years roster.
Going the grad transfer route can be a little like trying to capture lightning in a bottle, but fortunately for Penn State, this years crop of collegiate guns for hire has more than its fair share of diamonds in the rough.
And chief among those diamonds might just be Maine transfer Aaron Calixte.
The 5-foot-11 senior averaged 16.9 points per game for the Black Bears last year and since declaring his intentions to transfer has received interested from just about every high major looking to fill a void at the point guard position.
Missouri has reportedly already offered a scholarship, while Oklahoma and Arizona have also been in contact with Calixte.
Now typically attracting a high-level grad transfer to State College would be a tall order. However, next season is shaping up like a win-win perfect storm, with the Lions having an immediate need at point guard on a team with NCAA aspirations.
A rising tide lifts all ships, so a Penn State team seemingly one piece away from contention and a grad transfer looking for the perfect situation to raise their profile could be a match made in basketball heaven.
Joe Cremo, Albany
If the Lions are hoping to land the services of Albany transfer Joe Cremo, they best get in line.
Interested suitors in Albany grad-transfer Joe Cremo not short as he‘s hearing from Creighton, Arizona, Ohio St, Wichita St, St Joes, Louisville, UConn, West Virginia, Texas Tech, St Bonaventure, SMU, Marquette, Texas, Seton Hall, Cincinnati, Boise St, Rutgers, Nevada & BC— Corey Evans (@coreyevans_10) April 2, 2018
The attention the 6-foot-4 guard has attracted is warranted however, as Cremo averaged nearly 18 points, four assist and four rebounds per game last year during a season that saw him named to the America East All-conference first team and All-academic team.
And while his game isn’t particularly flashy, he’s a solid player with plus decision making, evident by his performance below.
Landing the Scotia, N.Y. native might be a pipe dream for Pat Chambers, but he should be rolling out the damn red carpet in an effort to woo the impact senior to Happy Valley.
Zach Johnson, FGCU
The potential former Florida Gulf Coast Eagle would bring welcome NCAA Tournament experience and 16 points per game to State College. He also shot almost 40-percent from beyond the arc, meaning he could play a role in mitigating the loss of Carr and Garner’s 3-point production.
But as is the case with any impact grad transfer, the competition to land his services will be stiff.
Florida Gulf Coast's Zach Johnson has heard from Gonzaga, Louisville, VCU, Oklahoma, Miami, Creighton, Dayton, Saint Louis and Xavier about a potential grad transfer.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) April 2, 2018
Also testing the NBA Draft waters without an agent. 16.1 PPG, 37 in A-Sun title game.
Adding an additional wrinkle to his recruitment is Johnson’s flirtation with the NBA draft. If he’s invited to take part in the scouting combine, his decision on what becomes of his basketball future may drag on too long for the Lions liking.
Still, after watching him stroke it from long range, letting this play out might be worth the wait.