What Georgia Tech’s newly signed class says about progress, strategy

It’s not a class that will make the recruiting gurus hyperventilate. But the trio of prospects who signed letters of intent with Georgia Tech during the early signing period represent progress for men’s basketball coach Josh Pastner and his staff.

From the perspective of recruiting rankings, the class is a step up from Pastner’s first class, which has shown potential through the preseason and one regular-season game, but was unheralded. It’s the product of having time to develop relationships and also having a product to sell.

“I just think people saw us play, they liked how we played, and there was a little more buzz about us,” Pastner told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday. “Going in (last year), we were picked last place, there was zero momentum, people didn’t know what we were going to do, so at least there were data points on how we were going to play.”

Point guard Michael Devoe of Orlando, Fla., forward Khalid Moore of New York and forward Kristian Sjolund of Katy, Texas, all signed with Tech in the past week after committing in recent months.

The prize is Devoe, Pastner’s first top-100 prospect (No. 88 by 247 Sports’ composite ranking), a four-star recruit. He picked Tech over Wake Forest and Florida, among others. Moore and Sjolund were both three-stars, according to the 247 Sports ranking (all three were four-star prospects by ESPN’s rankings), and rated the class’ Nos. 212 and 235 prospects, respectively.

“Michael’s going to be a really good player,” Pastner said. “He’s got high IQ for the game, understands basketball, a great student. All that good stuff.”

A year ago, Pastner and his staff took a big swing at the state’s top prospects, only to fall short on Wendell Carter (Duke), Collin Sexton (Alabama) and Rayshaun Hammonds (Georgia). Pastner lamented that Tech wasn’t yet cool. In the spring, they were bridesmaids in the chase for M.J. Walker (Florida State).

“I thought it was important that we made an effort with them,” Pastner said. “I knew it was going to be an uphill battle, but I thought it was important that we were going to lay the groundwork and do the best we could in the local area. We needed to set the tone early.”

Tech signed one recruit in last year’s early signing period, point guard Jose Alvarado. Pastner picked up a commitment from shooting guard Curtis Haywood in December, but had to scramble in the spring for his final two signees, forwards Evan Cole and Moses Wright.

Alvarado, Haywood and Cole were three-star prospects, ranked Nos. 166, 275 and 503 (247 Sports composite ranking), respectively. Cole signed after he was released from a letter of intent from UNC-Wilmington after coach Kevin Keatts left for N.C. State. Wright was unranked (247 Sports listed 625 players in the class), a prospect well off the radar who, with raw ability and length, may prove a steal.

The three-player class embodies Pastner’s recognition that Tech, at least for now, likely can’t compete with Duke and North Carolina and other elites for five-star talent. Pastner has stressed going after players that are “gettable,” namely prospects that are underrecruited or that he and his staff have identified early and developed a relationship with before other power-conference teams.

Devoe would be in the latter category. Pastner had been pursuing Devoe since last summer. This summer, Devoe said that Pastner was the head coach who had watched him the most. Further, with a strong academic record, he is the sort of prospect for whom Tech's academic standing makes more of a difference.

Sjolund and Moore fit the underrecruited type. Tech began recruiting Sjolund during his junior year and Moore over the summer. Pastner said that both are “sneaky good” players with potential to be developed over their careers. “Sneaky good” could be read as “better than most people think.” Tech competed with other power-conference schools for both, and may have won with some of the buzz, the possibility of playing time and connections.

Having grown up in Houston, of which Katy is a suburb, Pastner is friends with Sjolund’s AAU coach. Moore played for the same AAU team as Alvarado and reportedly received a strong endorsement from him.

“I think we did a good job evaluating,” Pastner said. “Now we’ve got to continue it with development.”

While Devoe seems the likelier candidate to be an impact player immediately, Sjolund and Moore fit the “get old and stay old” strategy that Notre Dame coach Mike Brey has effectively adopted and that Pastner has espoused as well. With the odds against Tech to land five-star prospects, Pastner sees the Jackets’ best chance to win is to sign less regarded prospects and develop them into effective players by the time they reach their junior and senior seasons, and then continue to replenish the roster.

While he was a signee of former coach Brian Gregory, center Ben Lammers might be the perfect example. Lammers chose Tech over Marquette and Miami, but with time and coaching developed into one of the better players in the conference last season as a junior. Even before the freshman class had played its first game last week in Shanghai, Pastner already was talking about what those players might be as juniors.

Pastner won’t stop pursuing the five-star prospects that he believes he has a chance to sign. Ashton Hagans, a junior point guard from Newton County High rated the No. 10 player in the 2019 class, is chief among them. But players like Devoe, Moore and Sjolund might be where the Jackets thrive.

While the three signees plus the 10 scholarship players with eligibility remaining give Pastner a full 13, he’ll continue to recruit for a fourth signee, banking on the likelihood of a transfer or perhaps guard Josh Okogie leaving for the NBA. A post player to fill the void left by Lammers is a priority.

Chances are it won’t be a high-impact player. But, for now, that’s OK with Pastner. Get old and stay old.

“That’s what we’ve got to do here,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”