Everyone – UGA coaches and fans – knew that this year’s basketball team would feature a strong frontcourt led by preseason SEC Player of the Year selection Yante Maten. Complementing Maten on the block would be junior big Derek Ogbeide and highly-touted incoming freshman Rayshaun Hammonds. Even though Hammonds is just a freshman, he was such a big recruit that it was expected that he would start and contribute immediately, and so far he’s pretty much lived up to the billing: 9 ppg and 5.8 rpg.
The big unknown for this team heading into this season was how it would replace the seemingly irreplaceable J.J. Frazier, who led the Dawgs in scoring last year with nearly 19 points a night and served as the on-court leader of Georgia basketball for the past several seasons. While Frazier’s presence on the floor is certainly missed, Fox has had several players step up and assume key roles on this team, and those individuals’ play has enabled UGA to get out to a 7-1 start.
So without further ado, here are the three biggest surprises thus far for the UGA basketball team:
Anyone who tells you that they expected Turtle to play at the level he’s playing at this season is lying to your face. I’ll be the first to admit that I had my reservations as to whether Jackson would be capable enough to run this team, and I’ll also admit that I was completely wrong. The offense has a different feel to it when Turtle is on the court compared to when he is not; the Dawgs have more purpose when he is at the helm. Turtle’s numbers have been eye-popping when you look at what he’d done in Athens prior to this season. Through 8 games, Jackson is averaging 12.5 points and 4 assists (to just 2 turnovers); compare that to his first two years as a Dawg where he netted 1.6ppg and 4.1 ppg, respectively. Not only is Turtle this team’s floor general, but he’s also established himself as the most consistent outside weapon as he is hitting over 40% of his three-point attempts. With the amount of attention that Maten garners in the paint, he needs teammates to stretch the court from beyond the arc to open things up on the inside, and so far, Turtle is playing that role.
The 6’11” Claxton has seen his role on this team increase as the season has progressed, and now it’s to the point that he has become the first big off the bench for Coach Fox. Claxton is incredibly active defensively, where he consistently alters shots, as well as on the offensive glass. In only 12 minutes a game, the freshman has been extremely productive, netting nearly 4 points and 4 boards a night to go along with 1.5 blocks (he leads the team with 12 total). To say that Claxton is a step up from Houston Kessler off the bench is the understatement of the year.
Like Claxton, Hightower’s playing time has been mixed this year. He only played 3 minutes against Corpus Christi and did not leave the bench when the Dawgs played Cal State-Fullerton, but ever since the win over Saint Mary’s Hightower has logged double-digit minutes. Like Claxton, Teshaun has made the most of his time on the court where he’s getting 4 ppg, 1.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists in under 12 minutes a contest. His main strength seems to be his willingness and ability to attack the rim, something that Georgia desperately needs as that was definitely J.J.’s role last year. Hightower is also an aggressive defender, and if he maintains that mentality Fox will certainly find more minutes for him down the road.