Staff Photo by: Brendan Sullivan North Gwinnett's TJ Howard (14) drives to the basket during the first round of AAAAA boys basketball playoff game last season.
North Gwinnett returns just three players from last season's boys basketball team that reached the Class AAAAA state tournament quarterfinals, but the Bulldogs aren't looking at this season as a rebuilding one.
As far as coach Zach Smith is concerned, it is just a matter of reloading.
"You're never going into a season thinking that you are a year away," he said. "We lost seven seniors and four are playing in college. We're an entirely different team, but we still have talent. We just have to have our sophomores play like seniors."
Two of the sophomores already have a year of experience as starters and they are battle-tested after the Bulldogs went 21-10 last season and matched North's longest state-tournament run ever.
Tobias Howard averaged 7.5 points to go with 3.1 assists as a freshman and had 12 points and a team-best seven rebounds in the quarterfinal loss to eventual state champion Milton. Kamaran Calhoun averaged 6.3 points and 4.1 rebounds.
The only other player back is senior Alex Boyd, but North's JV team was 16-2 a year ago and that young talent was added to when sophomore Jaye Stackhouse transferred from Greater Atlanta Christian. He is the son of longtime NBA player Jerry Stackhouse.
Other players competing for playing time include juniors Zaynah Robinson, Ahmad Caver and Owen Lewis, sophomores Malik Carter and Daniel Imatorbhebhe, and freshman Josh Imatorbhebhe.
North's biggest loss, of course, was Georgia Tech recruit Chris Bolden. He averaged 19.9 points last season en route to being a first-team all-state pick and Gwinnett Daily Post player of the year.
Smith, in his third season, will start getting a read on his young team when practice starts on Monday.
"There will be a lot of battles for spots," he said. "We'll see which players step up."
The Bulldogs' first game is on Nov. 17 against defending Class A state champion Whitefield Academy in the Jared Cook Tip-Off Classic.
The event will feature nine boys teams in a three-day, eight-game showcase. North will play Roswell on Nov. 20 in the finale.
North had hosted a Christmas break tournament for more than two decades and it was sponsored in recent years by Tennessee Titans tight end Jared Cook, a former Bulldogs football and basketball standout. But that won't be the case this year. Instead, Cook's sponsorship will move to the pre-Thanksgiving event.
Peachtree Ridge and Mill Creek are also participating, along with M.L. King, Alpharetta, Sequoyah and North Cobb. Alpharetta reached the Class AAAAA state semifinals last year.
"There should be some great games," Smith said. "We've got a lot of really good teams coming."