After dropping road games to Clemson and Virginia Tech, NC State entered a stretch of must-win home games that included a matchup with Miami and a rematch with Clemson.
Luckily these would be the first two conference games that the Pack would be at full strength. Markell Johnson, DJ Funderburk, and CJ Bryce were all finally healthy, and Keatts could get a glimpse of what his team is really capable of. After taking care of Miami (80-63) State faced a Clemson team that had just swept the entire Triangle. After their home win over NC State, they went on to beat UNC in the Dean Dome, and then upset #3 Duke in Littlejohn.
Here is OUR TAKE on the Pack’s big 60-54 win over Clemson…
Defense, Defense, Defense
Since getting Bryce back, NC State is now at full strength and suddenly looks like one of the most potent defensive teams in the ACC. Keatts is deploying a large, yet versatile, lineup of Johnson, Daniels, Bryce, Funderburk, and Bates. This group isn’t just finding success because of size, they’re also really getting after it and showing the type of physicality and high-energy that State fans have expected from a Keatts group since his arrival in 2017.
So what’s changed?
Well, Funderburk and Bates are starting to get more comfortable playing together. Funderburk is learning to play alongside another big. He’s learning how to defend from the 4 spot and is showing what he’s capable of when he sustains his focus and energy throughout an entire game. Meanwhile, Bates is getting more and more accustomed to ACC play and the physicality that comes along with it.
However, against Clemson, Bates exited early with a head injury, so we had to see if they could keep up that type of physicality and intensity without him. The good news is, they did just that. Funderburk moved to the 5 and Hellems and Andree manned the 4. Andree got the minutes when State needed a little extra length and Hellems was in when they needed more energy and muscle. Against Clemson, it seemed like the biggest factor was State’s ability to really bother the guards. Markell, Bryce, and Daniels were relentless out top. Their combo of quickness, length, and strength can’t be matched by many teams in this conference and it really showed in this one. After shooting 34% from 3 point range and racking up 18 assists in their first meeting, the State guards only allowed them to shoot 24% from 3 and get 12 assists. The difference was the guard pressure, the lack of blowbys and length that Keatts had on the court at all times. Part of that is thanks to…
The emergence of Devon Daniels
Braxton Beverly’s prolonged shooting slump has opened the door for Daniels and it seems that it’s exactly what he needed to finally find his footing at NC State.
Daniels was a 4-star recruit who had a very impressive and efficient freshman year at Utah. However, since coming to NC State, he has struggled to really find his role. With his playing time being split up between him Beverly and Hellems, Daniels seemed to really press when he got his minutes. He rushed shots, forced passes, gambled on steals and just overall seemed out of rhythm trying to make a big play.
Over the past few weeks, as his playing time has increased, so has his confidence. Lately, Pack fans have just seen it in spurts, but things really started coming together against Miami where he went 7-11, scoring 15 points in the win. That carried over to Saturday where we saw what I believe was his most complete performance of the season. He didn’t shoot it exceptionally well (4-12), but his 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 block, and 2 steals were huge. Offensively, he also played within the system and didn’t force too many shots, mostly taking what the defense gave him.
This is the Devon Daniels this team needs. He doesn’t need to be a go-to scorer or a primary ball-handler. They need a physical, energy-guy who can rebound, defend and score if the opportunity presents itself. The more Daniels buys into the team concept, the further this team is going to go.
DJ Funderburk is an elite big
Last year Funderburk showed a lot of promise. He has good footwork, soft hands, and a nice stroke. The problem was that he was a little thin and a little soft. Fast-forward to this year and you’re seeing a different kid. Funderburk has bulked up, is playing physical and has recently started to show prolonged energy on the court.
Turning into a ‘high-motor’ player is not easy and is usually takes a combination of constant coaching and high player motivation. Credit both Funderburk and Keatts here, because we are seeing a whole new player. In 5 of the past 6 games, DJ has gone for at least 13 points and 8 boards. He’s really been the most consistent player on the court and has bailed the Pack out numerous times thanks to his relentlessness on the offensive glass.
If this new Funderburk is here to stay, and the Pack can stay healthy, then NC State is going to be a contender in the ACC without a doubt.
Beverly continues to struggle, starting to lose minutes
Braxton Beverly is going to work his way out of his slump. I don’t doubt that. But meanwhile, Keatts has been forced to shuffle things up a bit. That has allowed us to learn a few things.
For one, NC State’s defense looks a lot stronger without Beverly in there. Now, that’s no surprise knock. We always knew his defensive efficiency numbers were low, but he often made up for that with his ability to stretch the defense with his 3 point shooting and handle the ball when Markell needed a breather.
But Beverly has struggled lately. He’s in the midst of an 8 game shooting slump (9 for his last 37 = 24%). He’s only averaging 1.6 assists per game this year (after averaging 3.9 as a freshman), and he’s made a few glaringly bad decisions the last few games (fouling 3 point shooters in back to back games). During that time Keatts has had no choice but to run him out there because of the Bryce injury. However, since his return, they can now use CJ at the point when Markell goes out, allowing the Pack to keep a strong defensive lineup on the court.
Against Clemson, Beverly didn’t start and then got 2 quick fouls, putting him on the bench for an extended period. During that time State put together what looked like one of their best defensive games all season.
Surely Beverly is going to work his way back into this lineup, that’s just his makeup, but his role maybe a little more defined and his leash not quite as long as it once was. Beverly produces the most value for this team when he’s taking (and making) open 3s and is playing mistake-free basketball at the point. Once he gets back to that, he’ll start earning those minutes back. At the same time, I think it’s obvious that there are going to be times when NC State needs to focus on locking down their opponents, and when that’s the case, Daniels seems to be giving Keatts an option to make that possible without giving up a lot offensively.
Markell is starting to look comfortable
At times last year, Markell Johnson single-handedly took over basketball games for NC State. But was that ever really natural for him?
Sure, at times it may have seemed that way, but Markell has always been hesitant as a scorer. He can get anywhere he wants on the court and he’s a capable shooter, but Markell Johnson, by nature, is a distributor and he always will be. Now that NC State has Bryce back, Funderburk emerging and Daniels starting to pitch in as a scorer, he is finally starting to look comfortable again.
Markell is the type of PG who prides himself on his vision and he knows that the team is better when he creating for others. He’s not built to be a volume scorer. Part of it is that he’s wired to get the team good, open looks. But Markell himself can use his quickness and ball-handling skills to get good open looks at any point. So when should he do that?
That’s the hesitation Markell has struggled with the last two seasons under Keatts.
He’s a streaky scorer who wants to be able to play within the offense until he gets hot or until the team has no other option, then he’s willing to go into ‘take-over’ mode with confidence.
With Beverly struggling with his shot, Bryce/Funderbuerk/Hellems or someone else out almost every game, he was being asked to sore more. This meant forcing shots, dribbling down and immediately going into iso for himself and it just was not something he feels confident doing.
Against Miami and now Clemson, Johnson was able to play with fully health group. This has seemingly allowed him to play a lot freer. He’s not forcing shots, he’s picking his spots and he’s relying on his teammates. This is creating a Markell that is more consistent over the course of a game and not one that has so many ‘ups and downs.” I attribute this to him being more in his comfort zone.
When he’s in that zone, NC State is at it’s best. Johnson’s shot attempts are down (just a bit) these past two games, and while his assists are also down, so are his turnovers. Johnson will still have games where he gets hot and fills up the stat sheets, but I think you’re seeing him get back to his roots of relying on his teammates and creating for others first. Llike it or not, that’s the Wolfpack’s (and Markell Johnson’s) sweet-spot.