Preseason grades: How Pitt stacks up ahead of 2020 men’s basketball campaign

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Photo courtesy of Justin Pondexter | Pitt Athletics

In his last season with the Panthers, junior guard Xavier Johnson (1) averaged 11.7 points, making 37.3% of his shots from the field.

By Carson Zaremski, For The Pitt News

As Pitt approaches its men’s basketball season opener against Saint Francis (PA) next Wednesday, it’s time to break down the Panthers’ depth chart. 

Position by position, I will list players based on where they will likely play this season, providing  an outlook for Pitt’s rotation this season. Each position will receive an overall grade from F- to A+ based on depth, talent and past performance.

Point Guard, B

The obvious starter at the point this season is junior guard Xavier Johnson. Johnson, an explosive athlete with NBA-level quickness, has run Pitt’s offense the past two seasons. 

Johnson averaged 15.5 points and 4.5 assists in his first season with the Panthers, shooting 41.5% from the field. Johnson struggled to score this past season, averaging 11.7 points, and making just 37.3% of his shots from the field. A bounce-back season from Johnson looms with the added help around him.

First-year guard Femi Odukale will likely back Johnson at the point. Listed at 6-foot-5, Odukale appears monstrous based on his high school film. He can dribble, shoot and drive which makes his potential through the roof. He will emerge as a solid backup who can come in when Johnson needs a break, and can play shooting guard alongside Johnson when needed.

Expect minor contributions at the point when needed from walk-on junior guard Onyebuchi Ezeakudo, who played in 13 games last season. Ezeakudo put up very little on the stat sheet in just over three minutes a game last season, but his experience on a young team could prove vital. 

The point guard position might just be the toughest position to predict for the Panthers. Transfer senior guard Nike Sibande still awaits a decision on his appeal for an eligibility waiver this season. With approval, Sibande can change the outlook of the Panthers’ season, and without approval, they’ll rely heavily on Johnson’s production.

Shooting Guard, C+

Transfer redshirt sophomore guard Ithiel Horton should get the start at the shooting guard position. A terrific shooter, Horton averaged 13.2 points shooting 43.3% from the field and 40.9% from beyond the arc. Horton will contribute effectively from beyond the arc for the Panthers, who shot just 29.6% from deep last season.

Due to the overwhelming depth at small forward, sophomore wing Gerald Drumgoole Jr. could help out at the shooting guard position.

The lack of depth at shooting guard is certainly alarming, assuming that Sibande does not receive immediate eligibility. Running three players combined between the point guard and shooting guard position will boast a familiar sight, as the Panthers did this often last season.

Small Forward, B

Junior wing Au’Diese Toney will most likely start at small forward. Toney is an explosive athlete who can drive and finish at the basket. He has also developed his jump shot, improving his field goal percentage from 36% in his first season to 46.1% last season and his three-point percentage from 24.6% to 32.8%. 

Toney has had several break out games, including putting up 27 points against the No. 9-ranked Duke Blue Devils. Expect Toney to contribute more consistently this season as his game continues to develop.

First-year wing William Jeffress, listed at 6-foot-7, brings talent and versatility to the Panthers. Jeffress can play at the power forward position and potentially shooting guard as well, but expect him to play most of his time at small forward. Jeffress has great length, and must drive and shoot efficiently.

Drumgoole Jr. struggled in his first season with Pitt averaging just 1.2 points per game, shooting just 18.4% from the field and 12.5% from beyond the arc. Drumgoole Jr. shot efficiently from beyond the arc in high school and will improve his stats this season, and may contribute at the guard position due to the lack of depth.

Power Forward, A

Sophomore wing Justin Champagnie, who led the Panthers with 12.7 points per game last season, will start at power forward this year. Although Champagnie most likely belongs at small forward, he has the ability to guard other power forwards and plays well alongside Toney. Expect Champagnie to start right where he left off last season and to improve his shooting percentage from beyond the arc as he shot just 26.2% last season.

First-year power forward John Hugley headlined the Panthers 2020 recruiting class. Hugley’s big body makes him capable of playing both power forward and center. The Panthers need his ability to rebound and finish inside, and he can shoot efficiently from beyond the arc which skyrockets his value. Hugley will have an instant impact for the Panthers and may even compete for the starting spot at center.

First-year wing Noah Collier, another athletic addition, possesses an excellent and possibly next-level ability to finish at the rim. Expect Collier to get his fair share of playing time and emerge as one of the better first-year players on the Pitt roster.

Center, C

A three- or even four-way battle will likely occur for the starting position at center between Hugley, senior center Terrell Brown, sophomore forward Abdoul Karim Coulibaly and first-year center Max Amadasun.

Brown led the Panthers in field goal percentage last season, shooting 52.5% from the field. He also developed his mid-range shot last season, and became one of the conference’s best rim defenders, ranking 5th in the ACC for blocked shots. Scoring just 4.9 points per game, he lacks production on offense, though, putting his starting spot in jeopardy.

Coulibaly is a skilled post-scorer who struggled to produce last season behind Brown and former Panther forward Eric Hamilton. With the added time to develop this past summer, he’ll battle for the starting role at center.

Amadasun presents one of the biggest wild cards on the Pitt roster. A big body with tremendous physicality and finishing ability, Amadasun could get occasional minutes and battle for the backup spot, if not the starting role. While Pitt doesn’t have a standout star at the center position, they have plenty of depth that head coach Jeff Capel can showcase throughout the season.

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