How James Banks can help Georgia Tech this season

Tech’s James Banks III and Grant Williams of Tennessee fight for a loose ball during their matchup Nov. 13, 2018, at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee won the game 66-53.

Tech’s James Banks III and Grant Williams of Tennessee fight for a loose ball during their matchup Nov. 13, 2018, at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee won the game 66-53.

Georgia Tech's potential trajectory for the season changed about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. That's when coach Josh Pastner learned from the athletic department's compliance office that center/forward James Banks' application for an immediate-eligibility waiver from the NCAA had been granted.

With the addition of a long-limbed, energetic and intelligent big man to the active roster, the Yellow Jackets’ approach will shift two games into the 31-game season.

"We'll have to readjust a little bit," Pastner said following the Jackets' 66-53 defeat against Tennessee on Tuesday night, Banks' debut game. "We'll have to get with the staff (Wednesday) and think things through."

Prior to Tuesday’s ruling, Tech coaches had hope that the NCAA would grant a hardship waiver to the Decatur native, who transferred back home after two seasons at Texas in part for reasons related to family. But they were hardly certain. In recent months, the NCAA had shown a more lenient approach in granting waivers in cases similar to Banks’.

“You don’t know,” Pastner said. “You had to play and plan a way where James wasn’t going to be here because we don’t know, and now that he’s here, we’re going to have to adjust some things.”

The obvious change is that Banks will provide the Jackets with more depth in the frontcourt. Banks may prove to be a more effective option than Sylvester Ogbonda, who played 23 effective minutes in the season opener against Lamar in place of starter Abdoulaye Gueye, but was limited to eight against Tennessee while Banks played 16 and might have stayed in longer had he not fouled out. Either way, it’s one more body and five more fouls to give.

“He’s got to keep working on some things, but he changes our complexion,” Pastner said of Banks. “He gives us some things where we can play big in different lineups.”

Banks seemed a little off his game against Tennessee, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. He had been playing on the scout team to prepare the starters and backups for the Lamar and Tennessee games, and he remained on campus after the team bused up to Knoxville on Monday, missing out on the shootaround and pregame meetings.

Banks said it had been frustrating to watch other players receive waivers for cases apparently similar to his before the season started. He and Pastner didn’t have an explanation on the delay, and if they had any gripes with the NCAA, weren’t about to voice them. Banks was ready to sit out and dedicate the year to his improvement but was quite happy for his plans to change.

“I’m cleared, I’m able to play and now it’s just my turn to give GT fans what they want, give my team what they deserve, what we’ve been working towards this whole summer and this whole preseason,” he said.

Coming off the bench, Banks was 1-for-2 from the floor and 3-for-4 from the line for five points to go with seven rebounds before he fouled out. The foul accumulation was not ideal, but it was healthy production for 16 minutes of play, particularly given the circumstances and that he wasn’t heavily involved in the offense.

Said Pastner, “I always say the best thing about the (Tech) job is the Atlanta airport. There’s flights nonstop all over the world, so we were able to get James on a nonstop flight and he played, and I thought he did some good things.”

Banks may help shape the Jackets most on defense. In part because of his help in the lane, the Volunteers’ effective field-goal percentage (which weights the value of 3-point baskets over two-point field goals) was 43.8 percent, a rate that Tennessee shot below only six times en route to a 26-win season and the No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

“I think we can be very good defensively,” guard Brandon Alston said. “That’s one of the best defensive teams in the country, in our opinion, and I think we’re right there with them.”

Tennessee players chalked it up to having an off shooting night, but Tech wouldn’t be wrong to claim some credit for it. With his length and agility, Banks can be a rim-protecting force in the style of Ben Lammers the past two seasons. In 2016-17, when Lammers was healthy, Tech finished No. 6 in defensive efficiency (KenPom), helping the Jackets win 21 games in Pastner’s first season.

“He’s a big dude,” guard Shembari Phillips said. “You’ve seen his wingspan. He’s a defensive presence outside of (Ogbonda and Gueye). He provides another shot-blocking ability. With his athleticism and his frame alone, I think he’s going to be a big part of what we’re trying to do.”

The Jackets were on their heels on offense against Tennessee, which played a physical and aggressive style. Chances are they’ll be better the next time they see a team like the Volunteers and won’t shoot 3-for-19 from 3-point range. But it also gave indication of how heavily Tech may have to rely on its defense and, in part, on Banks.

“We’ve got to hang our hat on the defensive end,” Pastner said. “We can’t allow our offense to be who we are. That’s got to come through our defense.”