Clemson must replace three starters, including All-ACC forward and NBA draft selection Jaron Blossomgame off last year's NIT team, but the Tigers do return seven lettermen, including five players who scored at least 200 points and averaged at least 7.5 points per game.\
Just as important, the Tigers have six promising new eligible scholarship players, two in the backcourt and four in the frontcourt. Two of the frontcourt players are transfers with considerable Division I experience, including one who has played in five NCAA Tournament games.
Blossomgame will be a big loss. The No. 5 scorer in Clemson history (1733 points) and No. 8 rebounder (831) was a mainstay of the program for four years, earning first-team All-ACC honors as a junior and third-team as a senior. The all-around player joins Elden Campbell and Trevor Booker as the only players in Clemson history with over 1700 points and 800 rebounds. He was a second round selection of the San Antonio Spurs.
“We are certainly going to miss Jaron. However, this year we will not be as one dimensional offensively. I think we have several players who are capable of scoring at the end of the clock or in end of game situations. I am hopeful that we will have multiple scorers who will make us tougher to guard this season.”
Clemson was tough to guard much of the 2016-17 season. The Tigers averaged 75 points per game, the program's highest team average in eight years, and ranked 18th in the nation in fewest turnovers per game (10.7). That led to a top 25 ranking in turnover margin.
“We were a good offensive team last year, and we valued the basketball and our overall efficiency numbers were good. I think we can be just as effective on offense this year. We should be good on the perimeter and have three-point shooters on the court at all times.”
The Tigers shot 73 percent from the foul line last year, fourth best in school history, and had three 40 percent three-point shooters for the first time since 1986-87, the first year of the three-point shot. Two of those players return in Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed.
Brownell will be the first to tell you that his team must improve on the defensive end of the court. “There is no question we need to be better defensively. We had too many key possessions at the end of games where we didn't get stops.” Clemson lost eight games by five points or less last year, including five by one or two points, games in which a couple more stops could have made the difference between an NIT bid and an NCAA bid.
Clemson returns three lettermen in the backcourt, but must compensate for the graduation of Avry Holmes, whose .531 three-point percentage in ACC games was the best by any Tiger player in league play since the 1986-87 season. Holmes started all 33 games a year ago when he averaged 10.3 points a game.
Shelton Mitchell will be the leader in the backcourt and perhaps the entire team in 2017-18. He showed great improvement over the second half of the season and averaged 14 points a game over the last 14 games. He was brilliant at Duke when he scored 23 points, and in the ACC Tournament win over NC State when he counted 22 points.
“Shelton had a very good first year for us,” said Brownell, who needs just one ACC win to become Clemson's career leader in victories vs. ACC foes. “He really worked hard on his shooting and the improvement showed. He also showed toughness by battling through injuries most of last season. He did a good job of running our system and I think he has a chance to be one of the better guards in our league next season.”
Mitchell, who began his career at Vanderbilt, is the top returning scorer on the team with a 10.8 average. He finished the year with a streak of 11 straight double figure scoring games. He shot 45.3 percent from three-point range, best on the team and fifth best in Clemson history. He connected on 80 percent of his free throws and his 103 assists led the team. Equally impressive was the fact that he had just 59 turnovers as the starting point guard.
Marcquise Reed was the first Clemson reserve to average in double figures since Terrence Oglesby in 2009. He finished with a 10.0 scoring average for 33 games and his .463 points per minute rating was second only to Blossomgame. He is one of the top shooters in the ACC as his 40 percent three-point accuracy and 90.6 percent from the foul line will attest. Sixteen times he scored in double figures off the bench.
“Marcquise is a dynamic scorer. Quite frankly, I would like to see him take a few more three-point shots, but he is good at driving to the basket, drawing fouls and hitting pull ups. He is good offensively in all areas. He led us in steals last year, but still needs to make an improvement on the defensive end.”
Gabe Devoe only started seven games last year, but averaged 24 minutes per game, fifth on the team. The Academic All-ACC selection averaged 7.1 points a game and handed out 62 assists, third on the team. The senior is a veteran of 83 games and is a capable outside shooter, as he showed at Notre Dame last year when he made four three-point goals in the first half. He has 83 career three-point goals, exactly one per game.
“Gabe is big and strong for a guard and he has experience. We would like to see him become a more consistent shooter. He has great strength, which allows him to have great range on his jump shot. He has improved his ability to go by people and finish at the rim. This season I expect him to do that even more consistently.”
Two newcomers, who both ranked among the top four players in South Carolina by 247 Sports, will have a chance to contribute significantly in the backcourt. One came to Clemson in January and red-shirted the 2016-17 season, while another arrived in the summer.
A.J. Oliver came to Clemson last January as a true freshman and sat out the second semester, a practice that has been common with the Clemson football program in recent years, but Oliver is the first to do it in basketball. He averaged over 20 points per game his last two seasons and shot over 40 percent on three-point shots at nearby Daniel High (where Pistol Pete Maravich once played). The second semester at Clemson allowed Oliver to work hard in the weight room and he is up to 190 pounds entering the year.
“It was a good move for A.J. to enter in January,” said Brownell. “He won't have to take time to learn the terminology and will be more comfortable when we start practice. A.J. is a hard worker with a good skill level. He shoots well, can handle the ball and just needs some strength. He is gaining confidence all the time.”
Oliver's father Anthony and mother Audra played college basketball at the University of Virginia in the 1990s. Audra is the head women's basketball coach at Clemson.
Clyde Trapp is a true freshman from Columbia, S.C. He has strong ties to Clemson through his AAU Coach Edward Scott, an All-ACC guard for the Tigers in 2003. Trapp led Scott's alma mater, Lower Richland High School, to the 4A State Championship last year.
“Clyde has good length and athleticism and seems to be pretty poised for a freshman. He is really a combo guard who should help us defensively on the perimeter. He could play point guard for us, but also will see a lot of time on the wing.”
Lyles Davis, 5-11 from Charleston, S.C, and Isaac Fields, 6-1 from Pewee Valley, Ky. are returning walk-ons who look to contribute from the backcourt.
Clemson returns two lettermen with starting experience in the frontcourt and must compensate for the graduation of 2017 seniors Blossomgame and Sidy Djitte. We have already documented Blossomgame's contributions, but Djitte was a main cog as well with a team best 7.7 rebounds per game to go with 6.5 points per game. He also shot 53 percent from the field, second best on the team, and led the squad in floor burns. His 116 offensive rebounds ranked ninth best in Clemson history for a season.
Donte Grantham and Elijah Thomas are the returning lettermen for Brownell in the frontcourt. Grantham has strong leadership qualities and the experience of having already played 95 games, 94 as a starter, and nearly 3000 career minutes.
“Donte is a versatile player who handles the ball very well for his size. He will benefit a great deal from Jaron's departure because he will be able to get more touches in the middle of the floor.
“Donte has worked hard in the weight room this off season and is a strong six-foot-eight and 220 pounds. He will be around the rim more this year and that will give him the opportunity to get more rebounds and score on the inside. He is capable of getting the ball off the defensive boards and bust out without an outlet. I think he can spark our offense by his rebounding ability and ball handling skills.”
Grantham, a native of West Virginia, averaged 7.3 points per game and 4.3 rebounds per contest. He added 51 assists, 21 blocks and 25 steals. He has 831 career points and 411 rebounds to go with a team best 135 three-point goals and 175 assists in three seasons.
Thomas is a transfer from Texas A&M who sat out the first nine games of last year. In his 24 games, nine as a starter, he showed some outstanding post moves, especially at Duke when he scored a season high 15 points. He finished the year averaging 7.5 points per game, fifth best on the team and had a team best .578 field goal percentage. He also had 28 blocked shots and averaged 4.2 rebounds per game.
“Elijah has had a good summer and worked hard to get in the best shape of his life. This summer he spent a lot of his own time running sprints up the hill in back of the South side of the football stadium.
“He is going to have the opportunity to be our top low post scorer. He has shown good hands and a good touch around the basket. We want him to get more touches. Defensively, he is a capable shot blocker and rebounder. This season he needs to stay out of foul trouble so he can help us more consistently on both ends of the floor.”
David Skara is a transfer from Valparaiso who will be eligible for the 2017-18 season. He averaged 5.4 points a game for the Crusaders team that advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2015, and 6.5 points a game the following year when Valparaiso reached the finals of the NIT.
“David is a versatile guy who can drive the ball, but also make some threes. I have been impressed with his ability to move laterally, which translates well to the defensive end of the floor. When he is in the game he gives us more length, especially when he plays the three spot.”
Scott Spencer is a third returning player from last year, but he played just 28 minutes in six games due to injury. He scored eight points and had three rebounds in his limited action when he received an injury red-shirt.
“Scott had a tough year due to a back injury that required surgery. He won't be able to practice until the end of September. He has some length and can create his own shot.”
Aamir Simms comes to Clemson with a prepackaged NBA physique at 6-8 and 235 pounds. He is the highest rated newcomer with multiple top 100 rankings.
“Aamir is a very mature young man who is physically ready for college basketball. He comes from an outstanding prep school program and brings a winning attitude and effort to our program.
“Aamir is developed physically for a young inside player, but he can also step out and hit the three-point shot as well. We are very optimistic that he is going to pick things up quickly and be able to help us in his first year.”
Simms is a consensus four-star player who played two years with current Tiger Scott Spencer at Blue Ridge Prep school in Virginia. He was ranked as the No. 89 prospect in the nation by Rivals, No. 104 by Scout.com and No. 107 by 247 Sports. He led Blue Ridge to the state championship last year.
Mark Donnal is a graduate transfer from Michigan who will play immediately. The 6-9 center comes with considerable experience, having seen significant time as a starter and key reserve on two Wolverine NCAA Tournament teams.
The native of Ohio has actually played more college games than anyone on the Clemson roster (101) and that includes 35 starts. Last year he played in 38 games for Michigan and shot 60 percent from the field, 78 percent from the line. He averaged 7.8 points a game, including 10.8 a game in Big Ten play, and made 25 starts in 2015-16. Video of his 26 points in 28 minutes performance at Illinois that year will get Clemson fans excited.
“Mark is a very experienced and physical player and we need that with the graduation of Sidy Djitte. Obviously the best thing about Mark is that he comes from a winning program at Michigan. I don't believe any moment will be too big for him. That is one of the reasons we wanted a fifth-year player because we needed someone who could play right away.
“Another plus with Mark is that he can make the three-point shot and stretch the defense. He has good hands and will be able to pick things up quickly offensively and defensively.”
Malik William is a 6-8 freshman from Orlando, Fla. A national top 200 performer, he had a triple double during his senior year and had another game in which he blocked 16 shots.
“Malik is a skilled 6-8 player with long arms. He needs to add some strength, but has a very good skill set for a player with his size. He is a terrific passer who will help get our perimeter players more open shots thanks to his skill and basketball IQ.”
In summary, Brownell feels good about his eighth Clemson team and its ability to compete in the toughest basketball conference in the nation. The ACC had 10 teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament, including National Champion North Carolina.
The home schedule is particularly attractive as the Tar Heels, ACC Champion Duke, Final Four participant South Carolina, Louisville, and a Notre Dame team that has won seven NCAA Tournament games the last three years, all will come to Littlejohn Coliseum.
“I really like our team,” said Brownell. “From a leadership standpoint, we've got good, experienced guys who are looking forward to having the opportunity to lead. That is especially the case with Donte, Gabe and Shelton. They have paid their dues and look forward to being leaders of this team.
“Our team has terrific camaraderie and enjoys being around each other. We have a good mix of veterans and six new (eligible) players. I think it is a good mix and it is a roster composition we haven't had in recent years. Four of the newcomers are freshmen and I think that infusion of young players will be good also.
“While we lost three starters, we have some older players who have played multiple seasons of experience at the Division I level. They have had some success against the better teams in this league and that confidence will be important this year.”
Clemson Quick Facts
2016-17 Record: 17-16 overall, 6-12 in ACC
Postseason: Played in NIT, lost in first round to Oakland
Final RPI: 75
Lettermen Returning: (7) Shelton Mitchell (G, Jr., 6-3, 10.8 PPG); Marcquise Reed (G,/F 6-3, Jr., 10.0 PPG); Elijah Thomas (C, 6-9, 7.5 PPG, Jr., 4.2 RPG); Donte Grantham (F, 6-8, Sr., 7.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG); Gave DeVoe (G, 6-3, Sr., 7.1 PPG); Isaac Fields (G, 6-2, 0.7 PPG); Lyles Davis (G, 5-11, 0.5 PPG)
Medical Red-shirt Returning Players: (1) Scott Spencer (F, 6-6, Fr., 1.3 PPG)
Lettermen Lost (6) Jaron Blossomgame (F, 6-7, 17.7 PPG); Avry Holmes (G, 6-0, 10.3 PPG); Sidy Djitte (C, 6-10, 6.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG); Legend Robertin (C, 7-0, 0.9 PPG, 0.9 RPG); Ty Hudson (G, 6-1, 0.6 PPG); Riley McGillan (G, 6-1, 0.3 PPG)
Starters Returning: (2) Shelton Mitchell (G, 6-3, 27 GS); Donte Grantham (F, 6-6, 32 GS);
Starters Lost: (3) Jaron Blossomgame (F, 6-7, 33 GS); Avry Holmes (G, 6-0, 33 GS); Sidy Djitte (C, 6-10, 24 GS)
Newcomers: (6) Clyde Trapp (G, 6-5, Fr., Columbia, SC); Anthony Oliver II (G, 6-5, Fr., Clemson, S.C); Mark Donnal (F/C, 6-9, Gr., Monclova, OH); Malik William (F, 6-7, Fr., Orlando, Fla.); David Skara (F, 6-8, Jr., Zadar, Croatia); Aamir Simms (F, 6-8, Fr., Palmyra, Va.)