New faces highlight Wake Forest’s reboot

Coach Danny Manning returns only four scholarship players from last year but boasts a talented freshman class

Wake Forest guard Brandon Childress is taking on more of a leadership role with the overhauled Demon Deacons. (Chuck Burton / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — Brandon Childress has started only five games in his two seasons at Wake Forest. But because of graduation, transfers and two early departures to the NBA Draft, he’s already the team’s elder statesman.

It’s a realization that hit him this summer during a pickup game involving a group of current and former Deacons.

“Ishmael Smith came back and we were talking as guys were walking into the gym,” Childress said of the Wake alumnus, who is now a member of the Detroit Pistons. “He asked who’s returning.

“When Chaundee (Brown) and Olivier (Sarr) walked in, I pointed and said, ‘Those two guys.’ That’s when I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve got to lock in because we’ve got a new team and I’ve got to get these guys going.’”

There are actually four scholarship players back from last year, with seldom-used sophomore forward Sunday Okeke joining returning starter Brown and top reserve Sarr as the Deacons’ veteran “core.”

In all, there are seven new players on their roster this season. Two of them, big man Ikenna Smart and guard Torry Johnson, are graduate transfers. The rest are members of a nationally ranked recruiting class highlighted by five-star forward Jaylen Hoard.

It’s a turnover that has forced coach Danny Manning to restart virtually from scratch again after appearing to turn the corner with his program’s first NCAA tournament appearance two seasons ago.

Considering that last year’s team went just 11-20 (4-14 ACC), there’s a chance the housecleaning that saw Wake’s top three scorers leave with eligibility still remaining could turn out to be addition by subtraction.

“Obviously we don’t want to have the season we had last year,” Childress said. “It’s a new start for everybody, a new us. We’re just focusing on what we’re doing now and keep moving forward.”

Childress, the son of Deacon legend and current assistant coach Randolph Childress, averaged 9.1 points and was second on the team with 109 assists as a reserve last season. Despite his expected leadership role, the junior point guard was quick to dismiss the notion that this is “his team,” saying instead that Wake is, in fact, Manning’s team.

The fifth-year coach made that abundantly clear to his players early in preseason practice when he ran them through a rigorous “Boot Camp” designed to toughen them up both physically and mentally for the season that begins against NC A&T on Tuesday.

“Boot Camp is about fighting, struggling, attacking, because that’s what life is about,” Manning said last week at the ACC’s Operation Basketball media event in Charlotte. “Every day you have to bring your best. That’s what we want, because that’s the mentality you have to have.”

It’s a message that hit home for one Deacon in particular.

Brown, a talented 6-foot-5 shooting guard, had a wildly inconsistent freshman season in which he scored in double figures nine times — including four 20-point performances — but offset with 10 games in which he was held to three points or fewer. He said as difficult as Boot Camp might have been, it was something he needed to help him gain more consistency this season.

“I’m not going to lie, I get lazy sometimes. But Coach Manning is pushing me,” said Brown, who finished the season averaging 7.6 points and 3.0 rebounds per game.

“Boot Camp is a lot of running, conditioning, defensive slides and it’s all mental. It starts at 6:15 a.m. For two weeks they just kill you for like an hour every day. It makes a man out of you.

Considering the number of freshmen that will have to play key roles, all the Deacons are going to grow up in a hurry.

The centerpiece of that group is Hoard, Wake’s highest-rated recruit since Al-Farouq Aminu in 2008, The 6-foot-8 wing averaged 22.4 points for France at the 2016 FIBA U16 World Championships and was a standout at the Nike Hoop Summit this spring.

Like Hoard, Isaiah Mucius is a slender, athletic wing capable of playing multiple positions. The 2018 New Hampshire Player of the Year, he averaged 14.2 points and 4.3 rebounds as a senior at Brewster Academy.

Sharone Wright Jr. is the son of former Clemson star and first-round NBA Draft choice Sharone Wright Sr. He is a 6-foot-5 guard with a reputation for being a strong spot-up shooter who is also effective in transition. Jamie Lewis, meanwhile, is a pure point guard originally committed to NC State before signing with the Deacons.

“We feel like they’re a very talented group,” Manning said. “We feel like they have an opportunity or will have an opportunity to have a contribution throughout the course of the year. But they’re also freshmen. At some point in time all of them had really special moments in practice, then they’ve all had their freshman moments, as well.”