With center Ben Lammers defending the rim and clearing rebounds, Georgia Tech went into its Saturday matchup at Syracuse ranked No. 5 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Josh Pastner on Ben Lammers: ‘He’s a stud’

In Shanghai last week for the season opener against UCLA, Georgia Tech center Ben Lammers offered his own personal construct that helps him stay grounded in the present. It’s called Future Ben.

On road trips, for instance, Lammers tries to concentrate on the game at hand and not worry about the schoolwork that awaits him as a mechanical engineering major.

“That’s problems for Future Ben,” Lammers said. “You don’t need to worry about that right now.”

Sometimes, Lammers said, he’ll have trouble staying alert in a morning class and, once he realizes he hasn’t been paying attention, he’ll scribble a note to Future Ben.

“I’ll be, like, ‘Sorry, wasn’t paying attention,” he said. “Check the textbook.’”

This past week, Future Ben undoubtedly has paid for his alter ego’s trip to China, during which he focused more of his attention on time with his teammates – going to Shanghai Disneyland, bartering for knockoff sunglasses and prepping for the Bruins – than his studies.

On the basketball side, a considerable burden awaits Future Ben, as well. With guards Tadric Jackson and Josh Okogie suspended for three and six games, respectively, for NCAA rules violations, the Yellow Jackets will be relying even more heavily than usual on Lammers, a second-team All-ACC pick and the conference’s defensive player of the year. Tech plays its home opener Sunday against Bethune-Cookman.

“I would never say this because I believe in ‘The open man is the go-to man’ and team basketball,” coach Josh Pastner said before going ahead and saying it. “But till those guys get back, he’s got to really lead us, like put us on his shoulders in a sense.”

Tech’s game in Shanghai against UCLA crystallized the Jackets’ dependence upon Lammers, who broke out last season by averaging 14.2 points and 9.2 rebounds.

In the 63-60 loss to the Bruins, Lammers scored a game-high 24 points (one shy of his career high) on 11-for-18 shooting. The rest of the team scored 36 points on 9-for-40 shooting. The next highest scorer was freshman point guard Jose Alvarado, with 12 points.

Of the other seven players who shared the floor with Lammers, four were freshmen, another was a graduate transfer and only two others were returnees. Of the two returnees, guards Justin Moore and forward Abdoulaye Gueye, only Moore had ever scored in double figures, three times last season as a freshman. Graduate transfer guard Brandon Alston had done it 16 times at Lehigh. Offensive firepower doesn’t define this group.

“We’ve got to find a way to help Ben,” Pastner said.

Tech will play without Jackson, who averaged 12.1 points last season and showed improvement in his offensive game in the preseason, for two more games. Okogie will be out five more games.

A gifted passer out of the high and low posts, Lammers isn’t the type to hunt for his shot, but perhaps this isn’t the worst development for him to take on a greater load. After his standout season as a junior, he already is aware of the heightened expectations. He was named preseason All-ACC and has been named to watch lists for the Wooden Award (player of the year), the Lute Olson national player of the year award and the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award (top center).

He finds the expectations both motivating and confidence-building affirmation.

“Now people know what I’m capable of, so there’s obviously more expectations to live up to that and probably improve on that, which obviously I hope I’m able to do,” he said. “And I’ve been working out, so I think I will be able to improve on that.”

Against UCLA, he showed that improvement. He scored on difficult reverses and on a tough putback and also on a series of jump shots almost out to the 3-point arc.

“Look, he was terrific on Saturday,” Pastner said. “He’s a stud. It is what it is. There’s no other way to describe it. He’s a stud.”

Last season, he was effective around the basket, but wasn’t quite as consistently deft as he was in Shanghai. Pastner gave Lammers the charge going into last summer to work on his shots around the basket. Pastner felt that Lammers too quickly passed out of the post or relied on a fadeaway jumper.

“If you watched (the exhibition game against) Faulkner and UCLA, he didn’t rush, he didn’t try to get the ball and just pass it out,” Pastner said. “He took his time, and he scored around the hoop.”

Pastner would love more contributions from Alvarado and 3-pointers from Alston and freshmen Curtis Haywood and Evan Cole. He knows quite well the Jackets can have trouble scoring against anyone.

Selection Sunday is a long way from here, but the Jackets need to safely navigate the next five games before the team is complete. A home loss to Bethune-Cookman, Texas-Rio Grande Valley, North Texas or Grambling State would be horrifically bad losses. A home loss to Northwestern in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge would be more palatable, but the Jackets need as many quality wins as they can obtain given their tepid non-conference schedule.

A year ago, the Jackets nearly suffered an unthinkable loss to North Carolina A&T, when they couldn’t crack 60 against a team that proved to be (by RPI) the second worst team in Division I.

Lammers doesn’t have to score 50, Pastner said, but “he’s going to have to lead us to get us to where we want to get to.”

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