By Chris Dokish
Is Khem Birch the best recruit that Pitt ever landed? As far as talent entering college then yes, he is. Brian Shorter and Charles Smith were the only other two players that even approached the same rarified air. Of course, that doesn't mean he will end up the best player Pitt player ever once he's in college. The reason for that is that he won't be at Pitt for long. Even though observers think he may need two seasons of seasoning before entering the NBA, Pitt expects him to only play for one season. He has ridiculous natural ability, more so than Charles Smith, more so than DeJuan Blair. Will he be as good of a player as those two in his limited time? That remains to be seen, but know this. He will start from day one and will likely dazzle often. His athleticism is not only topnotch, but his effort in his rebounding and shot blocking alone should make him an immediate force. My guess for his freshman season? I will play it safe and go with 12 ppg, 8 rpg, and 2 bpg, but even if he doesn't reach those numbers, he will make a huge difference for the team.
Many wonder if Steve Adams may prove to be an even better talent than Birch. Personally, I don't think he will be, but he won't be far off. He may share the center duties with Taylor during his freshman season, then I can see him being a potential star in his sophomore season. Like Birch, however, I don't see him being at Pitt for long, and hopefully he at least comes back for that sophomore season. Bottom line, he is being groomed to play in the NBA and with a true center with NBA potential, it's always best for them to enter the NBA before the NBA can see that they may may not be as good as their potential.
Many Pitt fans are upset that Pitt's future players are dropping in the recruiting rankings, and unfortunately I hear that is the correct call. According to those that have seen them, both John Johnson and Jaylen Bond have not progressed as expected, and Durand Johnson slumped at the end of the summer. My personal opinion? Screw the rankings, I think they will all be very good players at Pitt. J. Johnson is an athletic little player, Bond is an athletic big player, and D. Johnson can flat out shoot from anywhere on the court. I wouldn't be surprised if at least one of them ended up an all-conference player some day.
One player that Pat Skerry supposedly checked out recently was 6'11" center Malcolm Gilbert. According to sources close to the situation, Skerry came away highly impressed and thought that Gilbert will be a four year player who could be very good by the time he leaves Pitt. Reportedly, Skerry is also telling people that if Pitt ever gets Adams and Birch on the floor at the same time, then "look the hell out".
Speaking of Skerry, he is quickly becoming the BMOC at Pitt because of his recruitment of Birch. It couldn't have happened to a greater guy. A great recruiter because of his immense likability, Skerry is nonetheless the most humble coach in college basketball, and he doesn't understand what the big fuss is about. I've been lucky enough to talk to him a few times in the past and it's like talking to an extra from "The Departed" thanks to his colorful language and thick New England accent.
I'm sure many Pitt fans are hesitant about how well Birch will play immediately because of Dante Taylor's slow start, but while I still think Taylor will end up with around 12-15 ppg and 8-9 rpg by the time he leaves Pitt, he is not in the same league as Birch. Unfortunately, despite my many protestations last year, many fans still expect too much from Taylor. He has the potential to be an excellent rebounder and should be a pretty good player in his career. But talks of leaving for the NBA after one season was always insane. In fact, I'm not sure if he has the athletic ability to ever be drafted, period, let alone after one season. That's not to say he's not athletic enough to be successful in the Big East, but to be drafted as a power forward in the NBA you pretty much have to have something special about you athletically and I'm not sure that Taylor does.
As for Ashton Gibbs being drafted, I have similar doubts. For those who think he definitely will be (and amazingly some fans even tell me he will be a first rounder), then answer me this. Did Gerry McNamara get drafted? They are the same size, have similar productivity, and play almost exactly the same game, yet McNamara never even came close to hearing his name called on draft day.
Can Brad Wanamaker or Gary McGhee get drafted? I would be surprised if Wanamaker got drafted, but he could always have a big time year that catapults him into the draft. As for McGhee, he is 6'11", strong as an ox, can play defense, and is a surprisingly good athlete. On the downside, he has yet to be very productive offensively. In fact, here's a stat for those who think McGhee is a slam dunk draft pick. In the Big East tournament loss to Notre Dame and the NCAA tournament loss to Xavier, McGhee played a total of 40 minutes and did not score a single point. In 19 games against Big East opponents he averaged 6.6 ppg and 6.5 rpg. He would have to improve those stats a lot for NBA GMs to think he was worth taking a chance on.
I get a lot of questions asking me whether Adams or Birch are guaranteed to be at Pitt. Of course they aren't guaranteed, but I would be very surprised of Adams did not end up at Pitt. Jamie Dixon is just too entrenched there. As for Birch, well that could be a different story. The reason why Dixon stays away from top 10 prospects is because you often find some unscrupulous shenanigans surrounding them. Dixon, to his everlasting credit, just doesn't go down the road. And he didn't this time. The same could be said for Birch and his prep school head coach Ryan Hurd. Not everybody can say the same. I will stop there, but let's just say that it's not over until Birch puts his signature on that LOI, and Pitt will have many sleepless nights until then. And let me be clear that if he doesn't end up at Pitt, it won't be because of Birch himself, who is a superb kid.
My updated list for the Top 50 Big East basketball players will be on the NBE site within a few weeks, and I think Pitt fans will be surprised just high Dejuan Blair will be on that list. And before you doubt his place on the list, know this. The only other sophomores in league history to be named a consensus First Team All-American as a sophomore were Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, and Troy Murphy. Not Chris Mullin, Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Alonzo Mourning, Kerry Kittles, or any other legendary Big East player. And Blair did this when the Big East had arguably it's most difficult season ever, thanks to three top 5 teams and a 16 team league. Also, if Blair matched his rebound totals of his sophomore season in his junior and senior seasons, and there's no reason to think he wouldn't have, then he would have had over 1,600 rebounds, which would pass Tim Duncan for the best all-time in modern NCAA history. Chew on those facts for awhile.
Another thing I keep hearing repeated as fact by many Pitt fans is that this is the deepest Pitt team ever. That may prove to be true but that's certainly not the case yet. Even Dixon says he has his doubts about that. Let's look at it rationally. We know Gibbs, Wanamaker, McGhee, Taylor, Gilbert Brown, and Nasir Robinson range anywhere from "solid" to "very good". But the jury is still out right now
on Talib Zanna, Lamar Patterson, J.J. Richardson, Travon Woodall, J.J. Moore, Isaiah Epps, and Cameron Wright. Knowing Pitt's record of getting the most out their players, they will all at least be solid in their careers, and some may even be excellent. But many may not reach their potential this year, and the number of how many of them do will no doubt determine the success of the team this season. And even from the first group, we could see a wide disparity. Will McGhee average 12 and 8 or 7 and 7? Will Brown average 15 or 8? What about Taylor? He could go for 12 and 8 or 5 and 5. There's still too many questions, not about whether Pitt will be excellent or not, because we know they will be, but we all have to let it play until we really know just how excellent they are. Bottom line, at the beginning of the season sports fans always think of the best case scenario with every player, and that's natural, but reality says that not every player will turn out to be the best case scenario.
Omar Calhoun or Ricardo Ledo? That's the question. Ledo is better but I already established that with players of his ilk, there are potential problems. If Pitt can rise above the fray then he would be an excellent addition. A lot is made of Calhoun having Pitt as his leader, and while that may be the case, I think it's more likely that Pitt is one of a few leaders. Oh, and a word to the wise. Calhoun's dad is running the show in his recruitment and he loves to make sure every school knows that they are involved. So take what he says with a grain of salt. There's no doubt that Pitt has a really legit shot of landing Calhoun, but it's still cloudy as to how close Pitt is to landing him.