Jan. 08, 2017
Penn State Can Be To Philadelphia What Syracuse Is To New York
As we saw in their huge win over Michigan State at the Palestra Saturday afternoon, Penn State men's basketball program is for real. They've got one of the most talented, athletic young squads in the entire country, and they've got not just the talent but more importantly the toughness and the skill to play with anybody. If you're still sleeping on the Lions, you better wake up.
So how did Penn State get here? It all started with a scoring guard from New York.
Don't get me wrong, Penn State had had some talented, very good players and some tough squads in the past.
In fact it was prolific-scoring, athletic and incredibly skilled guard/forward Geary Claxton -who would probably have been an NBA player had he been an inch or two taller and stayed healthy- who really began the process of turning the program around. From his freshmen year, it was clear Claxton was going to be a special player and one of the all-time greats for the blue and white.
A year later, Jamelle Cornley joined the standout from West Haven, Connecticut in State College, and the two would go on to form one of the best duos in program history.
Cornley was a great player in his own right -very similar to Gerald Henderson when he was at Duke in that he was guard-sized but played so much bigger than that- and his consistent combination of tough play all over the court and knack for putting the ball in the basket was the perfect complement to a skilled scorer like Claxton.
However, it was prolific New York high school scorer Talor Battle choosing to take his talents to State College that really changed things for Penn State basketball.
He was the kind of talented and quick scoring guard who was the perfect third scorer to complement Claxton and Cornley, and Penn State got off to their best start in years behind the aforementioned trip. Unfortunately Claxton -who was off to the best year of his Penn State career- would tear his ACL in a game against Wisconsin and would miss the rest of the season, leaving the Nittany Lion faithful to forever wonder what might have been.
Another big positive for the Lions was the addition of a big man who was 6'10" and played like it. I'm talking of course about Andrew Jones, who would be a major presence down low for Penn State and -along with 6'8" Jeff Brooks, who would've probably been a first round NBA draft pick had he been an inch or two taller- was a big part of them making a postseason run in 2010-11.
When tough, talented combo guard Tim Frazier decided to commit to Penn State and join Battle in State College for the 2010-11 season, it gave the Nittany Lions the kind of backcourt duo they had been missing, as each was capable of having a big night offensively on any given night and the defense had to account for both on every single possession. This complemented Andrew Jones and Jeff Brooks down low and made Penn State a team that could definitely catch you off guard if you underestimated them.
Unfortunately Penn State could never really replace Andrew Jones or especially Jeff Brooks -who was the heart and soul of their frontcourt- down low, and though they signed some nice recruits at the other perimeter positions such as future Boston Celtic Chris Babb, they never really had another player pan out to complement Frazier as a true second scorer.
Then former Strawberry Mansion High star guard DJ Newbill decided to transfer to Penn State just months after they went on their surprising postseason run and changed Happy Valley forever.
Before doing so though, he asked the Philadelphia area guards he knew about head coach Pat Chambers to find out if he was the right guy to play for. Kyle Lowry and D.J. Irving had played under Chambers at Villanova -where he was an assistant on Jay Wright's coaching staff- and Boston University respectively, and Maalik Wayns had been recruited by him when he was at Villanova. All three players spoke highly of Chambers and swayed Newbill to take his talents to Happy Valley.
Newbill recruited on behalf of Chambers and Penn State before he even played in a game for the Lions.
He was a major reason former Girard College High standout John Johnson chose Penn State when he decided to transfer from the University of Pittsburgh, and Newbill didn't start or stop there. He had given an interview to the Philadelphia Inquirer after it had been made official that he was transferring to Penn State where he said that he wanted to see many more local players follow in his footsteps and take their talents to Happy Valley.
It became clear during Newbill's redshirt year for Penn State that he was going to be a special player and could very well end up being one of the best in program history. He pushed star guard Tim Frazier in every practice and started to become a leader on the team before he ever put on a game jersey. Former high school rival Johnson would do the same for Newbill during his own redshirt season.
During Newbill's first year of eligibility at Penn State, he was joined by a 2012 recruiting class that included talented 6'9" Reading-area forward Donovan Jack, among others. However Jack would never really live up to the hype or put it all together, and it would be a less-regarded gritty forward out of Trenton Catholic who would go on to be by far the best player out of that class. That player of course was Brandon Taylor. More on him later in this piece.
When star player Tim Frazier went down for the season early into what was his senior year, Newbill got his chance to shine. The 6'4" workhorse of a point guard put up gaudy offensive numbers and combined with junior Jermaine Marshall to form a very potent backcourt for the Lions in addition to being the true point guard that neither Battle nor Frazier had been.
Newbill would take a back seat to redshirt senior Tim Frazier in 2013-14 but would still have a huge season where he led the Lions in scoring and struck fear into the hearts of opposing defenses across the country. However, Penn State was unable to find a legitimate consistent third scoring option and would end their season with a loss in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Newbill would raise his game even higher his senior year, leading the Big Ten in scoring, and Penn State would end up going on a run that saw them win their first two games of the Big Ten Tournament behind Newbill and a supporting cast that included emerging scorer and relentless energy player Brandon Taylor, transfer John Johnson, and forward Ross Travis in addition to true freshmen Shepp Garner. Unfortunately Newbill's illustrious career in Happy Valley would end the very next game, as the Lions collapsed in the second half against Purdue.
Speaking of Shepp Garner, his committing to Penn State as part of their 2014 recruiting class helped open the Philadelphia pipeline coach Tom Chambers and DJ Newbill had established for Penn State, and would lead to Center Mike Watkins signing but most importantly to Signing Day 2016, when guard Tony Carr and forwards Nazeer Bostick and Lamar Stevens -all of Garner's alma mater Roman Catholic- would sign their letter of intent to play for coach Chambers and Penn State. More on that later in this piece.
It followed a 2013 class that included Center Julian Moore, also of Philadelphia. Moore isn't tough like Watkins or Brandon Taylor but he's skilled around the hoop and very mobile for a big man. He's also capable of playing tough down low and blocking shots when he really wants to. If he ever becomes a legitimate big man, Penn State will be really tough to beat.
Shepp Garner and Brandon Taylor would both go on to have breakout seasons for Penn State in 2015-16 but unfortunately the Lions just couldn't find a big to pair with Taylor down low and ended their season at .500 with a first round exit in the Big Ten Tournament courtesy of Ohio State. Had freshmen Mike Watkins been eligible to play, they might have even had a chance to win the Conference.
On the other hand, the more time Penn State can have Watkins manning the paint down low, the better. He has combined with true freshmen Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens to form one of the most talented freshmen classes in the entire country and his not having played last season had allowed him to take college basketball by surprise, as we've seen so far this season.
The two players who often get overlooked are Josh Reaves and Nazeer Bostick.
Reaves has began to make more of a name for himself this year ever since starting a few games earlier this season but people forget that he was a big time recruit in his own right, and an ESPN Top 100 recruit at that. As we've seen this season, Reaves has turned into a very solid shooter and scorer for the Lions in addition to being the athletic energy player he was already.
Bostick would possibly be starting and at the very least playing major minutes had high school teammate Lamar Stevens not decided to join him and Tony Carr in Happy Valley after all.
I'm not sure anybody really expected Stevens to sign with Penn State considering the level of player he is but he did, and it's changed this team completely. Unfortunately that's left Bostick on the outside looking in this season but he's a very good player in his own right. Not only is he every bit as athletic as Josh Reaves, he's maybe a more natural scorer than Reaves was coming out of high school.
If there's a player who holds this team back, it's junior forward and Orange County native Payton Banks.
While Banks can flat out bomb from deep, score in a variety of ways when he actually comes to play, and grab rebounds and occasionally block shots, he is a liability on defense entirely because he doesn't even bother to try staying with his man half the time and gambles for steals or rebounds, which was a big part of why Penn State blew a double-digit lead and lost to Michigan and why they almost did the same against Michigan State on Saturday. Banks is a guy where you cross your fingers and hope he doesn't hurt you more than he helps you.
Getting back to Newbill, there's really no way you can possibly overstate the effect he's had on Penn State.
He basically was to that program what Jameer Nelson was to Phil Martelli and Saint Joseph's. Newbill was that big a player for Penn State, and he showed that you can be a big player from Philadelphia and yet not be too big for a program like Penn State -all while constantly recruiting for other Philly players to follow in his footsteps.
So how has this Philadelphia pipeline we all keep hearing about come to exist and why is it important?
In order to understand how Penn State was able to establish this pipeline, you first have to understand a few things about both Philly players and Philly hoops in general.
First of all, you need to understand why Penn State makes sense for kids from Philly and surrounding, aside from Coach Chambers.
Before DJ Newbill stepped foot in Happy Valley, the closest thing to a more rural campus Philly kids could find at the college level and still play very competitive basketball was at Villanova. That was literally it. While Villanova is very scenic and lovely, it's far too close to the city to be a genuine escape. Everything kids might want or need to get away from is still not very far at all -not that it's unavoidable or anything, as plenty from the city have blossomed at Villanova and become new men.
At Penn State though, kids are a few hours away from everything and everybody they know and just in a completely different world and genuine college town, and they can still play at one of the highest levels in all of college basketball. In this way, Penn State can be to Philadelphia what Syracuse is to New York.
While a standout player like Newbill transferring to Penn State to be closer to his family and friends in Philadelphia may be something that is shockingly new to Nittany Lion fans, it is a very on occurrance in the Big Five and at schools in the Philadelphia area in general. I could reel off name after name who have done this, as at least one transfer makes a huge impact for almost every local team every year.
Penn State now serving as an option in between playing ball way away from home and returning to Philadelphia to play is huge and the effects of that really haven't even remotely begun to be felt yet. Don't believe me? Ask LaSalle, Drexel, Saint Joseph's, Temple, and even Villanova what those transfers have done for their programs at times. In more than a few cases, they've been the difference between an NCAA Tournament appearance and an NIT/CBI appearance or no postseason at all.
So how has Coach Chambers been able to open up this pipeline? What put him in position to be able to do this?
What put Pat Chambers in position to do this is the fact that he is a member of the Big Five coaching family.
People who don't know local hoops think the Big Five coaching family is limited to just the head coaches at Big Five/City 6 schools. This is simply not true. The Big Five coaching family includes not just current and former head coaches but their assistant coaches and even former players.
It's entirely about relationships, and Pat Chambers has established many over the years, not only with college and high school coaches in the city but with people who run the biggest programs in Philadelphia and surrounding's exploding AAU scene. He's done everything he could to cultivate those relationships, and you're just now seeing the results.
So what's the big deal about a pipeline to Philadelphia anyway? Is it really that big a deal?
To put it simply, yes. You need to understand that what makes Philadelphia the major producer of elite talent is not the kids but the culture and tradition they come up in, starting with the Biddy Leagues.
The city's playgrounds -and those of surrounding gritty places like Norristown, Camden, Chester, Trenton, increasingly Wilmington, and to an extent Reading and Coatesville feature some of the toughest, most competitive pickup basketball games in the entire world, and they're all wars. If you can't play, if you're soft, you flat out won't be on the court very long.
It's something you really can't understand unless you experience it, and unfortunately most of the neighborhoods where this takes place are far too dangerous for people who aren't from somewhere similar. This results in Philly constantly being slept on as one of the best pickup basketball scenes in the world.
As is the case with other true hoops hotbeds like Chicago and New York, the Philly streetball scene is complemented by some of the most dedicated, most passionate, and most strict organized basketball figures both in the ultra-competitive and storied Philadelphia Public League and the slightly less competitive but still tough Philadelphia Catholic League.
This is supplemented even further by a ridiculous amount of great basketball programs with many coaches who have ties to the Big Five or the city's hoops tradition in some way. Chief among these is the Big Five/City 6, home to reigning National Champion Villanova and perennial NCAA Tournament bubble teams Temple, Saint Joseph's and LaSalle. Drexel, too, has made some Tournament appearances but hasn't quite gotten over the hump just yet to having consistent success.
There is literally no other city in this country that has anything close to the Big Five.
The closest thing is Los Angeles with UCLA and USC or Boston with Boston University, Boston College, and the UMass close by. None of them even come close.
Big Five players are by far the most prepared for professional basketball after college because they play in multiple games in a season that just can't be matched anywhere else, and all play in conferences that are exactly the same way. That is why Villanova is the reigning National Champion and not the much more hyped North Carolina. That intensity and competitiveness starts on those playgrounds and continues all the way to the highest levels of basketball a local kid can reach.
Local standouts have gotten much more exposure thanks to the area's embracing the AAU circuit but programs with connections to the city and area have been building winning teams with Philly kids for years now, decades even.
You've seen glimpses of why that is so far this season, as Philly freshmen are not your average freshmen. That's largely due to the things I mentioned above, which instill local players with a pride and a toughness that can be matched by players from very few areas in this country.
One thing that I think gets overlooked in Philly kids deciding to come to Penn State is the way the Big Ten has again climbed to among the top of the heap in college basketball.
Starting with Ohio State's 2006 recruiting class that included players like once-in-a-generation big man Greg Oden and future Memphis franchise point guard Mike Conley, the rest of the programs in the Conference were forced to step up, starting with Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans -who became a perennial contender just a few years after Ohio State.
What really changed things though was when Indiana put together a roster that included Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller among others. In between the two was Michigan, who had standout players like Trey Burke, Darius Adams, Glen Rice III and Tim Hardaway Jr. Next was Wisconsin a year or two later, with Nigel Hayes, Sam Dekker, and Frank Kaminski among others. Then Nebraska, Purdue, and eventually Iowa as well.
What you need to understand is that Penn State had one of the best recruiting classes out of Philadelphia in the history of not just the program's history but that of Philly hoops. That's right, one of the best out of any program that has ever seriously recruited Philadelphia.
What's more, this was only the first major one for Penn State. If they can even average so much as one impact player from Philly per recruiting class, the program can eventually be among the best in the Big Ten if not the country. I'd say that's definitely something that should make Happy Valley a whole lot happier.