Bill Hass on the ACC: Booker Assumes Leadership Role in Front Court for Clemson
Jan. 15, 2009
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Ask Clemson’s Oliver Purnell about the importance of establishing a strong inside game, particularly with a player like Trevor Booker, and he changes from a basketball coach into a professor.
“It’s Basketball 101,” Purnell said. “If you have an inside player who’s very capable, you want to establish that. It gives you balance, it puts pressure on the opposing team’s front line, it allows you to score down inside and get Trevor going. They (opposing defenses) have got to make a decision whether they’re going to sag or double-down. If they do, you can play off of that.”
Most recently, James Mays held down that important role for the Tigers. Now it has been passed to Booker, a 6-7, 235-pound junior. Booker has started every game since he stepped on campus and provided solid, reliable play. This season he has embraced the role as the front line leader and gone from a complementary role to a dominant one.
“We want to establish him at the beginning of the game, we want to establish him at the beginning of the half, we want to establish him coming down the stretch,” Purnell said. “And certainly when there are big baskets to be had, we want him to have touches.”
So far Booker has delivered as the Tigers have bolted to a 16-0 start. He ranks 12th in the ACC in scoring at 15.4, third in rebounds at 9.1, first in shooting at 57.2 percent, and first in blocked shots at 2.8 per game.
Booker will be a key figure Saturday afternoon when the Tigers host Wake Forest (15-0) in a “clash of the titans” game featuring two of the three remaining unbeaten teams in the country. The Associated Press poll ranks Wake Forest No. 2 and Clemson No. 10. The coaches’ poll has the Deacons third and the Tigers ninth.
The Deacons can insert a variety of big post players into the game, including 7-0 Chas McFarland, 6-11 Tony Woods and 6-11 David Weaver. Not to mention 6-9 Al-Farouq Aminu and 6-8 James Johnson at the forward spots.
“It’s a big challenge because they have so many big men they can throw at you,” Booker said. “They will have fresh legs when I’m tired. But I’m always looking forward to a challenge like that. I’m not going to back down from it.
“They use so many big guys that it might be hard for them to get into a rhythm on offense. With me staying in the game, I can get into a pretty good rhythm. Once I get into a rhythm, I feel very confident.”
One thing Booker must do to combat the Deacons’ size is hit some jump shots, a point of emphasis for improvement during the summer.
“Each year I feel I’ve improved so much and I’ve added something else on to my game,” he said. “This summer it was my jump shot that I tried to work on. I think I’m doing a pretty good job in showing it off right now.
“If teams are going to leave me open, I’m going to take the jump shot. I’m not sure how many jumpers I shoot, but after every practice (assistant coach Frank Smith) passes the ball to me and I just shoot from five spots. I shoot a good bit.”
Booker has even ventured behind the 3-pont line and knocked in five of 11 attempts from there.
His improvement extends beyond his jump shot. Booker feels he is more mobile, drives to the basket stronger and handles the ball better. The latter is backed up by statistics – he has 31 assists and 29 turnovers compared to 89 assists and 140 turnovers in his first two seasons.
With all the attention he will draw, Booker will have plenty of help. Purnell pointed out opponents must “pick their poison” on defense – either double-team Booker inside or play him straight-up. If they do choose to double, that frees up perimeter shooters K.C. Rivers (14.7 points), Terrence Oglesby (12.8 points) and Demontez Stitt (8.3 points). If the defense moves out on the shooters, it gives Booker more room inside.
“(Booker is) an extremely talented player, a tough matchup because he’s so explosive and strong,” said Miami coach Frank Haith. “And then he’s got those shooters around him. You look at Clemson and they’re shooting the ball better than they ever have with Oglesby and Stitt and Rivers. Those guys are consistent 3-point shooters, which definitely opens up things for Trevor in the paint area.”
In Purnell’s scheme, the post player is not only crucial to the offense but just as important on defense. Mays was the primary offensive option inside and played at the top of Clemson’s press. Booker assumed both roles this season.
Moving to the top of the press, where his long frame makes it difficult to pass around him, has yielded an additional benefit – staying on the floor longer.
“He got in foul trouble a lot last year,” Purnell said. “One of the things that makes him dominant is his shot-blocking ability. That can also be a double-edged sword – you get in foul trouble if you are looking to block shots too much.
“We moved him to the front of our press a good deal of the time as opposed to the back. That keeps him out of some of those shot-blocking or foul situations. Thus far this year he’s been very good at that (staying out of foul trouble).”
Of course, blocking shots remains one of Booker’s favorite things about basketball. He’s adept at sliding over to block the shot of a teammate’s man or going up and blocking one from a taller opponent that he’s defending.
“I don’t think it’s a secret. In blocking shots,” he said. “You have to have, like, perfect timing and I think I have pretty good timing. I tell my teammates, ‘if somebody gets the ball in the post just square them up and I’m coming over for the block.’ That way I can get my teammates to trust me, so if their man gets the ball in the post, they know I’m coming and they won’t have to worry that much.
“It can change a game. You get an extra possession and the other team loses the ball. I know a lot of people would rather me keep the ball in bounds. But I like swatting it out of bounds just to get the crowd into it. If it goes out of bounds, the next time they’ll probably be intimidated to bring it back inside.”
As you can tell, Booker’s confidence is an important part of his game, something opposing ACC coaches have noticed.
“Booker has elevated his game,” said NC State coach Sidney Lowe. “He did something during the summer and decided he was going to be even a better basketball player, and he is. He’s doing it outside, he’s doing it inside, he’s always been active and he’s playing with such great confidence.”
Next season, Booker will add another element to his game. His brother Devin signed with Clemson in November, giving the Tigers, if you will, a pair of Booker-ends on the front line in 2009-10.
The brothers played together one season at Union High School in Whitmire, S.C. “I’d like to teach him some things,” Trevor Booker said. “He played with me one year on the same team in high school, but it’s different at the college level.”
But next season is far away at the moment. The Tigers have a lot of work to do the remainder of this one. One driving motivation is not only reaching the NCAA Tournament again, but going deeper into it. The Tigers made it last season, only to lose in the first round. Booker said that left a bad taste in the mouths of the returning players.
Fast starts are not new to Clemson, but the Tigers have often faded in the latter stages of the season. So their perfect record has been met with some skepticism and it wasn’t until this week that they finally cracked the Top 10. Purnell said the team shouldn’t be concerned about being under the radar, over the radar or their spot in the polls.
“I just think it’s real important for our team to recognize that we’re a work in progress no matter about the rankings,” he said. “We’ve still got a ways to go in certain areas. We’ve got to rebound the ball better, we need to execute better and clean up our screening game, we need to make sure we stay balanced offensively.”
Booker said the rankings do mean a lot to the players, although he believes this team still has a lot to prove. He would like to see the Tigers get off to faster starts and not have to come from behind so often. As for himself, he has only 11 rebounds in the last two games and knows he must hit the boards harder.
At any rate, history doesn’t matter to Booker.
“As a team we can’t think about what has happened in the past,” he said. “We’ve just got to play our game now. I feel like we’re a better team this year than we were last year. If we keep playing our game, good things will come.”
As long as the Tigers keep playing that Basketball 101.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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