T.J. Shipes ready to fill key need for Georgia State

His starting five includes two seniors, a transfer from Kentucky, a transfer from USC and another player who is a preseason all-Sun Belt Conference selection.

But Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said his favorite player heading into Saturday’s regular-season opener against Southern Poly is a sophomore who is only now starting to find his role: T.J. Shipes.

“If I had to give an MVP (award) in the exhibition season it would be T.J.,” Hunter said. “He brings energy on both ends. He knows ‘if I play hard it will be good enough.’”

The Panthers are loaded with shooters, from Devonta White to R.J. Hunter to Ryan Harrow to Manny Atkins to Rashaad Richardson.

But someone needs to grab those rebounds. Washington, who transferred to Georgia State two years ago, likely will start at center. But until the exhibition opener against Shorter, Washington hadn’t played a “traditional” basketball game in more than two years because of an injured shoulder. Hunter said he wants to bring Washington along slowly.

That’s where Shipes comes in.

As the second center off the bench, Shipes grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked three shots in 16 minutes against Shorter. He pulled down two more rebounds with another block in 10 minutes against Fort Valley State. Last season, he averaged less than a rebound and barely a block in 5.4 minutes per game.

“I’ve realized my main role, and that’s going to be playing defense and getting rebounds,” he said. “I’ve started to listen to what the coaches are saying. It’s helping out a lot, actually.”

It’s not that Shipes wasn’t listening last season. He had difficulty comprehending what the coaches wanted him to do in Hunter’s complicated defense.

But after a summer of workouts, much of which was spent on defense, Shipes said he knows exactly what he’s supposed to do and where he is supposed to be.

“Last year, I was telling the new kids, we had no idea … none of us understood the defense,” Shipes said. “This year it seems so much easier.”

While trying to understand the defense, Shipes also was dealing with the death of one of his best friends from high school. Adam Smith, a junior at Buford, collapsed and later died during a workout with the basketball team in September last year.

“I couldn’t grasp the fact that it happened,” he said. “When he was brain dead, I kept thinking he was going to come back.”

While trying to adjust to life as a student and as an athlete, he was trying to help the Smith’s deal with the loss of their son. He would return home to Buford to be with them or talk to them on the phone.

Shipes was back two days after Smith’s death for basketball practice. He said it was good for him to be back doing something, rather than sitting around mulling life.

“On the court, it helped to be doing something to get your mind off of it,” he said. “Anytime you lose someone, you think about complaining. Adam being a basketball player and loving the sport, if I would complain, I was like ‘he didn’t get this chance.’”

Shipes said he still sees reminders of Smith every day. He was a big Ohio State fan, and his nickname was Superman. A few weeks ago, Ohio State’s band’s halftime performance had a “Man of Steel” element.

Shipes saw it and thought about Smith.

So, with Smith in mind, Shipes continues to push himself. He recognizes that any energy he can provide on the court or on the bench will help his teammates.

“If we have energy, we are bound to win,” he said.