There will be a time when the minutes that freshman forwards Evan Cole and Moses Wright are receiving at the end of a dreadful season will pay off for Georgia Tech. That time, though, probably isn’t the final two regular-season games of the season (the next of which is Thursday against N.C. State at McCamish Pavilion) or next week’s ACC Tournament.
But coach Josh Pastner believes the experience they’re receiving now will benefit them and the Yellow Jackets in the seasons to come.
“You see the big picture down the road,” Pastner said. “You’ve seen these last few games. You’ve seen the potential, which should be exciting for Georgia Tech fans.”
Neither Wright nor Cole, who have joined the starting lineup as injuries have reduced Pastner’s options, is making a late run for ACC all-freshman team consideration. They’re prone to fouling and can defend better. But they’re making contributions, aren’t out of their depth and only stand to get better, and the playing time they’re getting figures to accelerate that process.
The amount of playing time they’ve received recently is not typically accorded freshmen of their stature. Wright was an under-the-radar prospect who wasn’t even rated by recruiting services coming out of Raleigh, N.C. A South Forsyth High grad, Cole signed with North Carolina-Wilmington before a coaching change following last season provided him a release from his letter of intent and gave him the opportunity to move up.
A little more than a month ago, their playing prospects were so dim that Pastner put them on what he called a redshirt program, adding extra weightlifting and skill sessions to make better use of the season. However, after point guard Jose Alvarado’s season-ending elbow injury and some lineup shuffling, Cole has started the past four games and Wright the past two.
“I’m definitely comfortable now playing and starting at this level,” Wright said after Tech’s loss to Clemson on Saturday. “At the beginning, I guess I was kind of nervous. It didn’t really faze me, but now I’m really comfortable.”
In starting Tech’s past four games, Cole has totaled 21 points and 17 rebounds while playing 26.5 minutes in those games. He is 8-for-14 from the field and 4-for-6 from 3-point range. Cole, 6-foot-9, can play close to the basket and on the perimeter. On Thursday, he’ll face the coach who once signed him to a letter of intent, N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts, who was at UNC-Wilmington before he was hired away after the 2016-17 season. Cole requested his release and then signed with Tech.
“Very good basketball player, can score the basketball inside and out, athletic, runs the floor,” Keatts said. “He’s going to be a very good basketball player in the ACC, and that means a lot because you’re talking about a kid who was originally signed in the (Colonial Athletic Association).”
Wright, who has started the past two games, scored 14 points with 13 rebounds in those 65 minutes of play. He hasn’t scored efficiently, particularly from 3-point range. But he has the physical tools and some skill. He’s 6-9 with a long reach and explosiveness off the floor.
“He’s a live body, long,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “As he continues to get stronger and grow into his body, he’s going to be a good player. He’s got some perimeter skills where he can put it on the ground once or twice and get to a place and make a play. He’s not a great 3-point shooter yet, but he can make one, and that’s obviously going to get better.”
Wright actually started four games in the nonconference season, including a 19-point performance against Florida A&M in which he was 8-for-9 from the field with seven rebounds and three steals. But, like most freshmen, he was inconsistent and ended up out of the rotation as forward Abdoulaye Gueye took over playing time. In Tech’s first 11 ACC games, Wright played 19 minutes. Likewise, Cole played 22 minutes in the first 11 ACC games.
However, the injury to Alvarado in the 12th ACC game (against Duke) and Cole and Wright’s energetic play in the second half of that blowout loss opened the door for them to join the rotation. Both gave McCamish a jolt by crashing the offensive glass for put-back dunks against the Blue Devils.
“It’s been very impressive,” center Ben Lammers said. “Because I know freshman year whenever I went in, especially, it was a little daunting.”
They may not be on the track for All-ACC stardom. Still, Pastner believes that both can be the sorts of players who down the road could average along the lines of 12 points and eight rebounds. Pastner has hammered a message that the freshmen – Alvarado, Cole, Wright and guard Curtis Haywood, out for the season with a shin injury – form a solid group that will be much better by the time they’re juniors and seniors.
They could one day embody the “get old and stay old” mantra that Pastner has adopted as Tech’s path to success, meaning winning with junior and senior players and then continuing to develop underclassmen to take their place.
Wright and Cole both need to get stronger and become better defenders, Pastner said. Wright’s shooting has to improve. The more they are depended on, the less their effort and production can rise and dip like a yo-yo.
The experience that they, along with Alvarado and Haywood, have gained, is not much consolation for a disappointing season. Injuries and off-court issues have left Tech, which harbored preseason hopes of advancing upon last season’s 21-16 record, at 11-18 and on a seven-game losing streak. But, for Tech, there’s not exactly a lot to celebrate.
“I think people can see they’re going to get better,” Pastner said.