Georgia Tech basketball coach Nell Fortner during the Yellow Jackets' exhibition game against Clayton State Oct. 30, 2019, at McCamish Pavilion.
Photo: Georgia Tech Athletics
Photo: Georgia Tech Athletics

Q&A with Tech coach Nell Fortner: ‘We’re a work in progress’

Georgia Tech’s women’s basketball team begins its season Tuesday night at home against Houston in the debut for coach Nell Fortner. It’s a moment of transition, both for Fortner and for Tech.

Fortner succeeds MaChelle Joseph, who coached the Yellow Jackets for 16 seasons before she was fired after last season upon findings that she was abusive and bullying. Fortner has returned to coaching after six seasons away from the bench, following tenures at Purdue, the U.S. women’s national team, the WNBA’s Indiana Fever and Auburn.

Tech, which finished last season 17-13, has also undergone sizable change to the roster, as ACC rookie of the year Elizabeth Balogun and ACC all-freshman team member Elizabeth Dixon both transferred to Louisville.

Fortner met with media Tuesday in advance of the opener. The following were among her answers to questions about the team.

Q: What did you take away from what you saw on the defensive end in the exhibition-game win against Clayton State?

A: We’re a work in progress. We really are. We still have a long way to go. And we’ve still got a lot of developing to do. We’ve got some players who really are some good basketball players. But we’ve got some developing to do to make us a complete team.

And our defense right now is not where it needs to be, but, again we’re a work in progress.

Q: What have been your impressions of (leading returning scorer) Francesca Pan?

A: First of all, my first impressions of Pan is I love the kid. She is just a super kid. She’s really a fun conversationalist, she’s smart. She’s a really good basketball player. She’s a smart basketball player. She sees things. She sees peripherally. She can see at about 360 (degrees).

She’s got really great vision, good passer. But understands the game really well. And that’s really fun to coach. A nice shooter, has a good touch on the ball from the 3-point line on in. It’s been really fun coaching her. She just adds a lot to the floor.

Q: Your team was picked to finish 11th (by coaches) and 12th (by media) in the ACC preseason polls. Is that a reasonable assessment?

A: I can see where that would happen with the league coaches and the media. I’ve got no problem with it. It doesn’t mean anything to me, it doesn’t mean anything to us as a team.

I know that sounds like coach-talk, but it is what it is. We work hard every day and that’s not our expectation, and that’s what matters most.

Q: How have you developed as a coach in your absence?

A: I think I’m a little wiser as a coach. I don’t get as upset about things as I did when I was coaching before. I have more of a tendency to kind of assess a little better and not to get as excited on the negative side quicker.

It’s more about really guiding this team. We’ve got some experienced players that you just need to guide a little bit. It’s not so much about motivating them. It’s guiding them and helping them in the right direction, make the right decisions at the right time.

Q: You took this job under obviously unusual circumstances. What do you feel like your kids have been looking for from you and your staff?

A: I don’t know if there’s anything I can say that they’ve been looking for. I think that we’ve really grown as a team. We’re becoming a team, where we can rely on each other, trust each other, be there for each other.

Every day I see these kids, and I have for the last seven months, and it’s just getting to know them, how they function, what’s the best way they function, what kind of motivation they need.

I really like this bunch. They’re a good bunch of kids, and they work hard and they want to do well. And when you’ve got that — you work hard and you want to do well – that’s a good place to start. So looking forward to seeing where we can take that.

Q: Have you had a moment of realizing that the job has changed since you last coached?

A: I get asked that a lot. “What’s the difference?” “Is it different?” Kids aren’t different. Eighteen- to 22-year-old kids are the same. They still are only that age and they only have that much growth. They only have that much maturity. It is what it is.

So they need guidance, they need leadership, they need discipline, they need encouragement. But their world moves a lot faster than it did when I was here. And that’s the biggest difference.

Their ability to have to take in a lot of information at a really fast pace all day long is amazing to me. That’s the world they live in. So to be able to manage that when they get on the floor, when you get ’em in the film room and you get ’em in the weight room, that’s the difference that you can help them manage some of that information overload.

But you know what? That’s how they live. But when they get between the lines on the court, my expectations of them are to give me their attention and to bring it for basketball in between those lines for 2-1/2 hours every day. And then after that, wow, their world takes off. It’s amazing to me.

Q: After Francesca, who are players that you feel need to be able to contribute a lot?

A: I think Pan and “Lo” (forward Lorela Cubaj) — Lo does a really good job of leading us inside — (guard) Kierra Fletcher at the point is someone that’s really important with her guiding this team, being able to do multiple things at that position, whether she’s running the offense, scoring.

But I think you’re looking at Lotta-Maj (Lahtinen), who started on her Finnish (U20) national team this summer and really played well. Did an excellent job running that team. From a position that’s not natural position, as a point, but she did it. So she’s come back with a lot of confidence in playing this year.

And then (center Nerea) Hermosa, from Spain, is a very high-level post player that needs to continue to develop, but she’s got a lot of skills that she’s come with that we’ll definitely be able to build on.

And our bench, (guard Jasmine Carson), with her shot, is really a nice offensive player. Everybody. We’ve got 10 players that’ll dress, and 10 players that’ll have to help us win. So looking forward to seeing what those 10 can do.

Q: You’ve lost a lot of scoring and rebounding and you’re going through a transition. Can this team make the NCAA tournament?

A: Our goal is always to make the tournament. I won’t go so far as to say what I think our chances are, but that is our goal. Every day that we work, that’s what we want to do. Every team in the country, that’s what you want to do. We’ll stick with that right now.

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