Column | Players that Pitt men’s basketball should target in the transfer portal


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

A basketball at the Petersen Events Center.

By Frankie Richetti, Senior Staff Writer

After losing in the NCAA Tournament, Pitt head coach Jeff Capel said he would begin recruiting in the transfer portal as soon as he got back to the team hotel.

The portal played a massive role in the Panthers’ success this past season, with their entire starting lineup consisting of transfer players for the majority of the season. 

Capel will have his work cut out for him once again this offseason, as Nelly Cummings, Jamarius Burton, Greg Elliott and Nike Sibande are all out of eligibility. That’s a combined 45.1 points per game that needs replacing. That’s tough to do.

Coming off their best season in a decade, momentum is on Pitt’s side and Capel is sure to use that to his advantage. Headlined by a pair of four-star guards — Jaland Lowe and Carlton Carrington — the Panthers bring in the No. 26 recruiting class in the country, which will help fill the void left by the departures — but there are still holes to fill.

Capel has four open scholarships to work with after sophomore forward Nate Santos entered the transfer portal last week. 

Here are some realistic targets who could join next year’s roster.

Zack Austin (High Point)

Austin is high on the Panthers’ wish list this offseason. The Panthers contacted Austin before they contacted any other player in the portal and had him on an official visit last weekend. It’s easy to see why Austin is a priority for Pitt’s staff.

Austin is 6-foot-7 and one of the most athletic players in the portal. Austin would enter the starting lineup seamlessly at the small forward spot next to senior forward Blake Hinson. His versatility defensively would allow him to switch on to both bigger and smaller players. Austin averaged two blocks and a steal per game in each of his first two seasons. 

Outside of Austin, Pitt is clearly targeting scoring guards — some of which are not great defensively. Austin would bring a much needed defensive presence on the perimeter — instantly becoming the Panthers best on ball defender. But he also has a growing offensive game.

Austin has made 129 threes across his first two college seasons, shooting at a respectable 33% clip from three in his career. He averaged 14 points per game in each of his first two seasons and showed an impressive ability to not only get to the rim, but finish when he’s there. With two years of eligibility remaining, Austin is a player who Pitt can build around. 

Joe Girard (Syracuse)

While Austin is Pitt’s No. 1 target at forward, Girard feels like the priority at the shooting guard spot. He’s a polarizing player among Syracuse fans, but he would fill a lot of needs for the Panthers. Girard hosted Capel for an in-home visit last month.

Girard is testing the waters of the NBA Draft, but all signs are pointing to a return for a fifth year at the collegiate level. The New York native is coming off a career-best season, averaging 16.4 points a game. Girard shot 38% from three or better in each of the past two seasons.

Girard struggled as the initiator of Syracuse’s offense, but when he moved off the ball last season, he became unlocked, leading to better efficiency. Girard would play in a similar role at Pitt. He could play as the primary ball handler when needed as well.

Girard checks a lot of boxes for Pitt offensively, and adding him to a lineup that already features Hinson would create plenty of spacing.

Ishmael Leggett (Rhode Island)

Some of the players who the Panthers contacted will fall through after the roster begins to take shape — but Leggett is not one of those players. That’s because Leggett is a fit for the Panthers in the starting lineup or coming off the bench. If the Panthers do end up landing Girard, for example, Leggett could thrive in a similar role that Sibande played this past season — a spark plug off the bench.

Leggett checked in at No. 7 in scoring in the Atlantic 10, leading the Rams with 16.4 points per game. Leggett shot the ball well from two while being tasked with having to do so much for one of the worst offenses in the entire country. In his first year, Leggett shot 42% from three on low volume.

Being surrounded with better talent will help Leggett. There’s a lot of room to grow and he still has two years of eligibility remaining. 

Puff Johnson (North Carolina)

When Johnson entered the portal, it seemed like a given that Pitt would have interest. He obviously has Pittsburgh ties, as his brother Cam played at Pitt before transferring to UNC. He also played high school basketball at Moon High School and is from western Pennsylvania. 

Johnson played a limited role at North Carolina. He came off the bench in all but two games and averaged 16 minutes a game last season. Out of high school, Johnson’s shooting ability is why he was such a highly touted recruit, but he is shooting just 25% from deep in his three-year career.

Johnson’s shooting percentage is on a pretty small sample size though, and a change of scenery could help. Pitt is in the market for wing defenders, but Johnson is a project and the fit on the roster with junior forward Will Jeffress is redundant. Both players are valuable because of their defense, but neither have been good shooters up to this point.

There’s a lot of untapped potential with Johnson, but Pitt has prioritized other wings so far this offseason.