Tech begins basketball practice amidst much optimism

ATLANTA — Even with the NCAA allowing college basketball teams to begin preseason practice roughly two weeks earlier than usual, the beginning of preparation for the 2013-14 season couldn’t get here fast enough for Georgia Tech.

That goes for the players, as well as head coach Brian Gregory, who likes what he sees so far, albeit in very limited work.

“Four practices in — we started (last) Friday evening — and (I’m) pleased with the four practices,” Gregory said as he addressed the media for the first time this season Tuesday. “The competitive spirit has been really good — I think, much different than in the past, which is good to see. Guys are working extremely hard. A lot of bodies out there, which is good, especially at this time of year. And I think … even in the four practices, I see a nice steady increase in terms of decision-making (and) some other points of emphasis we’re trying to get done.”

And there’s plenty of reason for Gregory and his Yellow Jackets to be excited with four starters — senior Daniel Miller and sophomores Robert Carter Jr., Chris Bolden and Marcus Hunt-Georges — returning from a team that posted a winning record (16-15) after doing so just once the previous five campaigns.

Two of those returning starters are former Gwinnett high school standouts — Shiloh’s Carter and North Gwinnett’s Bolden — both of whom figure to see their roles increase further this season, though Bolden will sit out the first three games for a suspension stemming from his offseason DUI arrest.

“I’m just concentrating on getting better and doing what the coaches want us to do,” said Bolden, who averaged 7.3 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game as a freshman last season. “After (playing) a lot as a freshman last year, you’ve got to know what you can and can’t do.”

Also returning are four other players — seniors Kammeon Holsey and Jason Morris, junior Stacey Poole Jr. and sophomore Solomon Poole — who saw plenty of minutes last season, with newcomers like incoming freshmen Travis Jorgenson and Quinton Stephens, as well as Peachtree Ridge grad Corey Heyward.

But while the abundance of talent should give Gregory the most depth he’s had since taking over at Tech, he believes an even bigger asset this year’s group brings to the table may be its versatility.

“It’s going to be fun,” said the sophomore Georges-Hunt, who will share minutes at the two wing positions with the likes of Bolden, Stacey Poole and Morris after leading Tech in scoring at 10.8 points per game last season. “Sometimes Jason can play the four and the three. We’ll interchange. What gets us better is us pushing each other as one, playing against each other hard in practice, not letting up. Practice is just like war, but at the end of the day, we’re a team. That’s what makes us better.”

Versatility will be particularly important in looking to fill the one position in which does not return a starter from last season — point guard, where graduated senior M’fon Udofia must be replaced.

However, Gregory has plenty of options.

Solomon Poole got a half-season of experience after graduating high school and enrolling early last year, and should be improved.

Jorgenson comes with a strong resume from high school, while other guards like Bolden have shown the ability to run the offense on occasion.

Perhaps the biggest boost could come from the possible addition of Trae Golden, who is awaiting word from the NCAA if he will be eligible this session after transferring from Tennessee.

“I like our depth on the perimeter and the versatility we have out there,” Gregory said. “Obviously, when you had a kid like M’fon man that position the last two years for so many of the minutes — you have starters back at every other spot. … So, that’s a big question mark out there.

“We’re going to play multiple guards. I think that’s one area we’re going to dramatically improve in. In (the ACC), and against who we play in the non-conference (schedule), if you don’t have quality guards on the court, — and that means multiple guys that can handle the ball, break down the defense, reverse the ball and make solid plays — you’re in deep trouble. So hopefully, you’re going to see those guys progressing to the point where you’re playing those multiple guards together, and the offense is much more efficient and the defense can create more offense for you because of their ability on both sides of the ball.”

Heyward might eventually be part of the mix as well, but after sitting out last season after tearing ligaments in his left knee twice, it may take him a little time before he is able to contribute.

“He’s full go, obviously, by the doctors,” Gregory said of Heyward. “But I’m going to proceed with caution. We’ve got to make sure we’re doing things right and he’s comfortable with everything we’re doing. But so far so good.

“I still don’t think we’ll see the Corey Heyward that we recruited until probably January, I think. You think about it. He’s coming back from two tears, and he has not played since June of two summers ago. That’s a long time.”

The 6-foot-1 redshirt freshman agrees, and knows he has to be patient as he works himself back into basketball shape after not playing live competition for so long.

“It’s going to take time, but so far, so good,” Heyward said. “It’s not going to be easy, but a kid my age, you have to be able to understand that and accept that role and work your way in, and you’re time is going to come. So far, I’ve been handling it well.”