How Ben Lammers has dealt with a frustrating season

Virginia's Jack Salt (33) shoots between Georgia Tech's Ben Lammers (44) and Evan Cole (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, in Charlottesville, Va. (Zack Wajsgras/The Daily Progress via AP)

Credit: Zack Wajsgras

Credit: Zack Wajsgras

Virginia's Jack Salt (33) shoots between Georgia Tech's Ben Lammers (44) and Evan Cole (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, in Charlottesville, Va. (Zack Wajsgras/The Daily Progress via AP)

It has not been the season that Ben Lammers hoped, for himself or his team. In his final season, the Georgia Tech center hoped for an NCAA Tournament berth and to be named first-team All-ACC, as well as the league’s defensive player of the year for a second year in a row.

The goals were not unreasonable. He was on the preseason All-ACC team. Tech returned three of its top six players from last season’s team. The Jackets’ first game of the season, three months ago in Shanghai, offered an eye-opening glimpse into the improvement he made over the offseason.

He crushed it against UCLA, scoring 24 points, on 11-for-18 shooting, with 10 rebounds, two steals and a block. He had jump shots, pretty reverses and was a defensive force. And then he came back to the U.S., sprained his right ankle in the second game of the season and never was the same player until Wednesday’s game at Virginia.

“You get a little angry here and there, especially the games that, there’s been a few where I did pretty much nothing for my team,” he said. “It’s frustrating knowing that I, especially compared to last year, did so well there and then dropped off here.”

Statistically speaking, Lammers hasn’t been a dud. In ACC play, he is averaging 10.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks while making 42.2 percent of his shots. But a season ago, he averaged 14.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3 blocks while shooting 46.7 percent from the field. His free-throw percentage has dropped from 76.2 percent to 63.2 percent, evidence of how the injury has messed with his confidence.

And Tech, barring a highly unlikely run to the ACC Tournament championship in two weeks in Brooklyn, N.Y., will miss the NCAA Tournament. Going into its matchup Saturday at No. 15 Clemson, Tech is 11-17 overall and 4-11 in the ACC, losers of six in a row and 10 of its past 11.

“It’s just one of those things, I wish I could change the pattern of this past whole season, but you can’t do that,” Lammers said.

After Tech’s loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday, coach Josh Pastner acknowledged that he probably should have sat Lammers for two or three weeks to let him fully heal rather than let him hobble through it. The injury was severe enough that he didn’t practice for about three weeks to save the ankle for games. Playing more minutes than any center in Division I (36:10 per game) hasn’t helped.

But, thinking that Lammers was too critical to the team’s success, Pastner kept playing him. It was one of a number of slings that beset the Jackets, along with guard Josh Okogie’s six-game NCAA suspension and dislocated finger, the paid leave and eventual resignation of assistant coach Darryl LaBarrie and Pastner’s off-court legal tangles as he has been accused of sexual assault, a charge he has vehemently denied.

That would be enough, but it doesn’t include guard Tadric Jackson’s three-game NCAA suspension and season-ending injuries to freshman guards Jose Alvarado and Curtis Haywood. Arguably, though, Lammers’ injury has cost Tech the most.

While it’s not a fitting final season for an athlete who has exemplified the best of Tech, Lammers has responded with maturity.

“I know what I’m capable of, but there’s not a whole lot I can do because it’s strictly a physical limitation, so there’s not a whole lot you can do besides just wait until your body connects the dots and heals fully,” he said.

Finally, against Virginia on Wednesday, Lammers felt the best he had since the UCLA game, and it showed. He scored 22 points – his most in an ACC game this season – on 9-for-15 shooting with seven rebounds. In the game, he reached 1,000 career points and recorded his 244th career block, passing John Salley for third in school history.

“He looked like the old Ben that I know,” Jackson said.

Lammers said he began to feel better in the Duke game Feb. 11. As he recovered, he said he has felt a step or two behind, “but this game (against Virginia), I actually felt good, which is a weird feeling.”

“He can finish out really strong, and if he does like he did against Virginia on Wednesday, that’s a good sign for us,” Pastner said.

Lammers absolved Pastner for his decision to keep playing him.

“I’m not an expert on ankles. I don’t know what difference it would have made,” he said. “Honestly, it would have been annoying for me not to play, so I don’t regret playing on the ankle. I’m very happy I’ve been able to play every single game, but what (resting) would have done, I couldn’t tell you.”

It leaves him three more regular-season games and at least one ACC Tournament game. Lammers has received an invitation to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a pre-draft showcase in April played before NBA scouts.

“I just have to look at it as, I get to play at least three (in the) regular season, one more (ACC Tournament game) against some great teams on national television,” he said. “A lot of people wish they were in my spot, so I might as well make the most of it.”