After fielding a lineup that boasted a wealth of Division I basketball experience during the past season, Baylor basketball will be forced to go back to the drawing board to find production for next season. The Bears lose three players to graduation: senior power forward Cory Jefferson, senior guard Gary Franklin and senior guard Brady Heslip. Sophomore center Isaiah Austin is also widely expected to forgo his junior season and enter the 2014 NBA Draft.
With those anticipated losses, the Bears will lose three of their four leading scorers from the past season. The four combined for 56.1 percent of Baylor’s scoring, 43.1 percent of rebounds and 82.8 percent of Baylor’s blocks.
Heading into next season, the big question facing Baylor will be size in the frontcourt.
The Bears have been a team that has lived inside historically, with such players as Milwaukee Bucks forward Ekpe Udoh, Oklahoma City Thunder forward Perry Jones III and Austin overmatching teams physically.
Next year, that height advantage will be gone. With Jefferson graduating and Austin likely leaving for the NBA, no player taller than 6-foot-8 on Baylor’s roster has played a game for the Bears.
The brunt of the load will likely fall on sophomore forward Rico Gathers. The 6-foot-8, 270-pound bruiser was one of the best per-minute rebounders in college basketball last season.
In only 17.8 minutes per game, Gathers was second on the team with 6.4 rebounds per game, or 14.4 rebounds per-40 minutes. For comparisons sake, Jefferson, the team’s leading rebounder this season, averaged 11.3 per-40 minutes.
Outside of Gathers, no other scholarship players have played on the interior at any point for Baylor. The Bears will hope to see 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman center Chad Rykhoek return from multiple hip injuries to play major minutes at center. If not, redshirt freshman Johnathan Motley will be relied on to play major minutes right away.
While Baylor loses a great deal of scoring in the frontcourt, it could gain much of it back with a revamped backcourt. Junior point guard Kenny Chery averaged 11.5 points per game this past season.
Over the last seven games of the season, Chery averaged 17.7 points and 5.2 assists per game, including posting Baylor’s first triple-double in Big 12 Conference play with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in a double-overtime win against Kansas State on Feb. 15.
While Baylor loses size in the frontcourt, they will return significant length on the wing.
Sophomore 6-foot-7 forward Taurean Prince showed the ability to score in bunches for the Bears last season, and will be relied on as more of a consistent offensive option next season. Glue-guy 6-foot-6 inch forward Royce O’Neale will also return for the Bears.
Baylor’s backcourt will be augmented by the arrival of new additions. Freshman shooting guard Al Freeman redshirted his first season in Waco after a forearm injury, but will make his Baylor debut during the 2014-15 season. Freeman is a 6-foot-4 shooting guard.
“Al is not only a talented offensive player, but he also takes great pride on the defensive end of the floor,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said when Freeman committed in May 2013. “He’s a very versatile player who can do a lot of things well.”
Freeman will be joined in the backcourt by three members of the 2014 signing class: shooting guard Damiyne Durham from Oakwood, shooting guard Kobe Eubanks from Centereach, N.Y., and point guard Lester Medford from Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa.
“Damiyne is similar to LaceDarius Dunn in his ability to score from all over the court,” Drew said. “He can put points on the board in a hurry. Lester is an explosive guard who scores in bunches and does a great job defensively forcing turnovers and getting out in transition.”
Medford will join Chery and New Orleans Pelicans draft pick Pierre Jackson as the third junior college All-American Drew has signed over the past four seasons.
Chery and O’Neale will return for the Bears as starters, while Gathers will likely join them in the starting lineup at one of the frontcourt positions. Freeman will have a chance to earn minutes at shooting guard, and the other frontcourt spot could be filled by Rykhoek, Motley or maybe even Prince.