WINSTON-SALEM — Danny Manning spent the past few weeks as an assistant to Kansas’ Bill Self working to transform a group of talented individuals into the U.S. national team that won a gold medal at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship in Canada.
That could prove to be a valuable experience considering the makeup of the team to which the Wake Forest basketball coach returned.
The Deacons’ roster includes six new scholarship players, a collection of freshmen and graduate transfers brought in to fill the void left by the departure of five underclassmen since the end of a disappointing 2017-18 season.
It’s a talented group, headlined by five-star recruit Jaylen Hoard, but one that will require a great deal of work to turn into a cohesive unit capable of competing in the ACC.
“I’m still piecing it together,” Manning said last week before beginning the process at a summer workout. “I knew what (the new players) were when I recruited them and what I thought they would bring to the table.
“Once you see them on the court and I try to piece things together defensively and offensively, there are a lot of different thoughts that run through my head when I’m in here with the guys in the gym. But I’m loving it, because we’re so versatile.”
The primary source of Manning’s enthusiasm is a nationally ranked recruiting class considered by many to be the best in program history.
The centerpiece of that group is Hoard, a sleek 6-foot-8, 210-pound wing who grew up in France but played his high school ball in High Point at Wesleyan Christian Academy. A consensus top-25 player, the five-star prospect is the Deacons’ highest-rated recruit since Al-Farouq Aminu in 2008.
Joining him among the Deacons’ new freshmen are a trio of four-star players — fellow forward Isaiah Mucius, shooting guard Sharone Wright Jr. and point guard Jamie Lewis.
“They are eager to learn … sponges,” Manning said of the four youngsters. “It’s been fun for me to be back in the gym. The time with USA Basketball was a great opportunity and a wonderful experience, but you kind of miss out on being with your guys a little bit. Being back in the gym with them has been refreshing to me, because this is the team we coach year round.”
As important as the young newcomers will be to whatever Wake achieves this season, they are still just freshman whose transition to the college game can vary wildly depending on the individual.
To hedge his bets, Manning has also brought in a pair of graduate transfers to add a veteran presence and provide insurance in case it takes some or all of the freshmen longer than expected to develop.
Ikenna Smart is a 6-10, 240-pound big man who started 25 games in helping Buffalo to the Mid-American Conference championship last season. Torry Johnson is a sharp-shooting guard who led Northern Arizona in scoring and steals a year ago.
“They will have a role, without question,” Manning said. “Ikenna is the biggest guy on the team and Torry is one of our most experienced guards.”
In addition to learning the basics of the Deacons’ offense and defense, the newcomers will spent a good portion of the summer working to bond with one another. They’ll also have to figure out how their talents fit together with guards Brandon Childress and Chaundee Brown, and bulked up big man Olivier Saar, the three returning regulars that didn’t jump ship after going 11-20 (4-14 ACC) a year ago.
According to Hoard, the process of building chemistry is already well underway.
“It’s a work in progress, but I feel like we’re jelling pretty well,” the freshman said. “We all get along off the court, so I feel that will help us on the court. Even when we pickup, we find each other pretty well.”
Wake’s dramatic roster shakeup was made necessary by the transfers of guard Keyshawn Woods, and forwards Donovan Mitchell and Rich Washington, along with the ill-advised decisions of center Doral Moore and guard Bryant Crawford to remain in the NBA draft.
Manning dismissed the mass exodus as simply a product of today’s college basketball culture. Whatever the reason, junior point guard Childress believes the turnover could end up being addition by subtraction.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s what we needed, but it’s definitely exciting because a lot of our fans have never seen the freshmen, they’ve never seen the post-grad players that we have and they’re pretty talented guys,” the son of former Deacons All-American and current assistant coach Randolph Childress said. “I’m not predicting anything. All I can really just say is we’re working.
“Even though we have two post-grad seniors, we’re still a young team. We’re still continuing the growth and every day we’re still trying to take another step forward to where we want to be at the end of the year.”