RALEIGH — Lennard Freeman missed all of last season, recovering from a leg injury. This year, he can’t miss at all.
One of NC State’s big men, in his fifth year of college, Freeman has made nearly 70 percent of his shots — 75 of 110. He would lead the ACC in shooting accuracy by 40 points, if he had enough shots to qualify — he’s 15 made baskets short of the cutoff.
Assuming he qualifies and maintains his shooting, Freeman would post the second-highest field goal percentage in conference history.
“He’s big and strong and physical around the basket,” said Kevin Keatts, who has raved about Freeman’s work ethic and improvement since he was hired as NC State’s coach this past offseason. “From the time that I’ve taken the job, I’ve really concentrated on him scoring with his back to the basket. There are not a lot of guys that have the size he has. He’s becoming a really good post player for us. … He’s a guy we feel comfortable throwing the ball inside to.”
Freeman’s on-court rebirth under Keatts almost didn’t happen. After redshirting last season, he considered finding a new school for his final season of eligibility when the Wolfpack made a coaching change.
Then he did some research.
“I watched all the tape of UNCW,” Freeman said. “I feel like I got a good sense of it.”
“It’s going to benefit me the most,” he recalled thinking.
As Wolfpack fans and opponents have seen, Keatts plays an up-tempo style that is fed by an aggressive defense. A player that can pay attention and run the floor can pick up plenty of baskets in transition.
“This system is good for bigs if they duck in and rim run,” Keatts said in December. “They get easy buckets.”
A look at the types of shots Freeman is getting makes it clear just how much Keatts’ style has paid off for him.
Of Freeman’s 110 shots, 97 have been layups, dunks or tip-ins. His 13 jumpers have all been inside the paint as well.
The shot selection is typical of a Keatts big man. Last season, UNCW sophomore center Devontae Cacok led the nation with an .800 shooting percentage. He also set a school record with 82 dunks, out of 184 made shots. Prior to the Seahawks’ NCAA matchup with Virginia, he joked that he’d taken one jump shot — from the free-throw line — all season. “I’m one-for-one,” he said, adding that his shooting range was “about two-and-a-half feet.”
In a near upset of the Cavaliers, Cacok went 5-of-6 from the field, with two dunks, two layups, a tip-in and a missed jump hook near the basket.
With a new head coach this season, Cacok has an expanded role, which means the opportunity to shoot from farther out. In UNCW’s most recent game, he missed five jump shots, and just four of his 12 shots were dunks or layups. As a result, his shooting percentage has fallen 177 points from last season.
Including Cacok, the six holdover Seahawks from last year are shooting a combined .473 this year, down from .550 under Keatts last season.
Meanwhile, the seven holdover Wolfpack players (including since-transferred Sean Kirk) are shooting .569 under Keatts, after combining for a .488 accuracy last year. Freeman is up 156 percentage points — from .526 to .682. Omer Yurtseven went from .457 to .606. Torin Dorn is at .555, up from .500.
Of course, it’s easier to fatten a shooting percentage on dunks and layups against Bryant (Freeman went 8-of-11), Presbyterian (9-of-12) and South Carolina State (7-of-7) than against ACC competition. Through five conference games, Freeman has already seen it’s tougher to make shots. After shooting .744 in the nonconference schedule, he’s made just 17 of 32 ACC shots for a .531 percentage. On layups, he’s seen his accuracy fall from .762 in nonconference to .522 in ACC games.
Freeman has also found it more difficult to find layups against the ACC. He’s getting 10 percent fewer layups, dunks and tips per game and already has seven jump shots in ACC play, after shooting just six in the 13-game nonconference slate.
In the ACC, defenses are more physical, defenders more talented, and there are no secrets or surprises in the familiarity of the league.
Since the 2010 season, the ACC leaders in field goal percentage for each season has seen his accuracy fall from .591 in the nonconference slate to .570 in league games.
It remains to be seen whether Keatts and Freeman will be able to make the adjustment to the new season, or whether Freeman’s shooting will go from other-worldly to merely human.
Freeman doesn’t seem to be agonizing over it, however.
“After sitting out last year, everything is fun,” he said. “The bus ride here is fun. Warming up is fun. Everything is fun.”