Sacrificing size for ballhandling, Josh Pastner hopes recipe works

Georgia Tech forward Moses Wright (5) looks to pass the ball against Florida A&M during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Atlanta, Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Georgia Tech forward Moses Wright (5) looks to pass the ball against Florida A&M during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Atlanta, Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Without even consulting with coach Josh Pastner, Georgia Tech forward/center Moses Wright had a word for his two post-player colleagues, Rodney Howard and Saba Gigiberia, when the team reconvened after its two-day Christmas break.

“I told them, ‘Coach is going to have to play one of you, so both y’all have got to compete coming into the game so he can see which one is ready to go,’” Wright said Tuesday.

Wright has been splendid in the Yellow Jackets’ 4-3 start, leading the ACC in scoring at 19.6 points per game. He also ranks sixth in rebounding (7.4 rebounds per game) and fourth in field-goal percentage (57.5%). But he has only one 6-foot-9 body and 40 minutes to give against North Carolina on Wednesday night at McCamish Pavilion as the Jackets jump into ACC play and further test the merits of their small lineup. The Tar Heels rotate four players 6-10 or taller and have a bottomless appetite for offensive rebounds, led by Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot.

“They play volleyball on the offensive glass,” Pastner said.

Hence, Wright’s suspicion that he’ll need long-bodied help against the Tar Heels and in league matchups going forward. After failing their first test against a vertically imposing opponent – a 74-61 loss to No. 18 Florida State in both teams’ ACC opener – the Jackets can again measure the efficacy of their small-ball lineup.

“For us, we’ve still got to be what we’ve got to do as Georgia Tech,” Pastner said. “Will Saba or Rodney have to be ready to play? Absolutely.”

After season-opening losses to Georgia State and Mercer, Pastner locked on the seven-man rotation of Jose Alvarado, Jordan Usher, Michael Devoe, Bubba Parham, Khalid Moore, Kyle Sturdivant and Wright, giving them 791 of 800 minutes in the next four games. Only in the runaway win over Delaware State on Dec. 20 did Pastner unchain their teammates from the bench, including 10 minutes each for Gigiberia and Howard.

In going small, the Jackets are making a trade, giving up the potential for rim protection in exchange for an offense that can take care of the ball and create open shots.

In the past two seasons, Tech often was at its best when center James Banks was challenging shots inside the 3-point arc. Of their 31 wins in those two seasons, the Jackets collected 24 of them by limiting the opposition to 46% shooting on two-point tries. Tech opponents managed to shoot 55% or better inside the arc only 10 times in 63 games.

This season, however, Pastner has Wright or the 6-7 Usher patrolling the bottom of the Jackets’ trademark 1-3-1 zone defense where Banks and Ben Lammers before him made their mark as elite shot blockers. Or, Wright, Usher and Moore (6-7) have defended post players when they’ve gone to man-to-man. In three of seven games, opponents have made 55% of their two-point shots.

North Carolina won’t surprise Tech if it tries to exploit its height advantage.

“Watching film, they bring a lot of physicality in their post play,” Wright said. “These days leading up to the game, that’s a lot of the stuff that we’ve been focused on, their high-low action and the way they get it up the floor very quickly and look for the first post. So we’ve been looking at how to defend that a lot.”

But, North Carolina will have to account for the Jackets’ advantage in quickness and improved facility with the ball. After averaging 16.2 turnovers last season, the Jackets have averaged 9.2 in the past five games. At the same time, Tech is averaging 17.4 assists per game in that span, compared with 13.7 last season.

Trading defense for offense isn’t the favored method for Pastner, who has relied upon a defense-first mentality in his four-plus seasons at Tech. But, with all of his most trustworthy players – besides Wright – sized for the perimeter, that will have to be the recipe for now.

“So that is something that we have to continue to look at,” Pastner said. “Do you sacrifice some size to continue to have low turnovers?”

If Gigiberia and Howard can come along, against North Carolina and in games to come, Pastner will have more of a decision to make. For what it’s worth, Wright gave an endorsement of the two based on scrimmaging against both following his challenge.

“I’m battling against them, and I’m feeling the physicality that they’re bringing,” Wright said. “I’m like, if Coach puts either of them in, we’re going to be good to go regardless. That’s how I’m feeling going into the game with them.”

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