Steve Forbes is a realist. He understands that his rebuilding of Wake Forest’s downtrodden basketball program is going to take time.
Maybe even a full semester.
“I went through it at East Tennessee State,” said Forbes, who was hired to replace Danny Manning last spring. “We didn’t play well in my first semester there and it was my fault. I overcoached the team. I pulled back on some things we were trying to do in the second semester, and we won 19 games. I think growing pains is part of it. We have to get to know our team.”
The introductory process is a natural part of the transition from one coach to the next. But because the Deacons’ roster is such a patchwork of incoming freshmen, transfers and only four scholarship lettermen, the players have had to learn almost as much about each other as they have the new staff.
It’s a situation that has only been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, which limited the access Forbes was able to have with his team during the lead-up to preseason camp.
“We’ve had an interesting time during this pandemic,” Forbes said. “I didn’t meet the team until July 25, but we’ve been full bore ever since.”
As hard as Wake has worked to make up for lost time, there will still be an element of the unknown when it takes the court for the first time under its new coach Wednesday against Delaware State in the opening game of the Mako Medical Classic.
That’s because unlike most years, it will be forced to jump right into its regular season schedule without the benefit of a dry run.
In place of a formal exhibition or secret scrimmage, Forbes has done everything he can think of to try and simulate game conditions.
“We’ve had two full scrimmages on two Saturdays,” he said. “One was a game day simulation, where we played two halves and then two overtime periods, for a total of 48 minutes. Then last weekend we did 40 minutes. We piped in crowd noise, which gave me a headache. We’ll go again this weekend.
“For all coaches, not being able to play a scrimmage or exhibition is a little unsettling. So, we’ve tried to present game time situations by scrimmages these Saturdays.”
While Forbes has yet to settle on a starting lineup or even how his rotation will look once things get started for real, at least publicly, the mock games on the practice court have at least shown him he has no shortage of options from which to choose.
“We’ve got nine guys who will play some minutes. How those minutes will be distributed still remains to be seen,” he said. “There’s not a lot of separation between one through nine, and I’d like a little more of that.”
One player he knows better than the rest is Daivien Williamson, who started all 34 games for Forbes at ETSU last season and earned a spot on the Southern Conference all-tournament team for leading the team to a championship.
Williamson, a 6-foot-1 junior guard from Winston-Salem, was granted a waiver to play right away after averaging 10.4 points, 2.6 assists and 2.0 rebounds per game a year ago.
He is one of five veteran “free agents” picked up by the Deacons through the traditional transfer and graduate transfer route since the end of the 2019-20 season.
The others are:
- Ian DuBose, a 6-foot-4 graduate who averaged 19.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game last season in earning second-team All-Southland Conference honors at Houston Baptist.
- Jonah Antonio, a 6-foot-5 graduate from Australia who averaged 6.9 points and 2.6 rebounds per game last season at UNLV. Wake will be his fourth school in as many years after also playing a year at Mount St. Mary’s and South Plains Junior College.
- Jalen Johnson, a 6-foot-6 graduate who averaged 3.5 points and 2.0 rebounds per game at Tennessee in 2019-20.
- And Isaiah Wilkins, another Winston-Salem native who comes to Wake from Virginia Tech. The 6-foot-4 junior averaged 4.3 points and 2.6 rebounds for the Hokies.
None of the returners were among the team’s top-four scorers last year, with 6-foot-8 junior forward Isaiah Mucius leading the way in both experience and production at 7.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
The others are 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Jahcobi Neath (5.3 points, 1.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists), 6-foot-8 sophomore wing Ismael Massoud (4.8 points, 2.0 rebounds) and 6-foot-9 sophomore center Ody Oguama (2.9 points, 3.9 rebounds) — the latter of whom missed three weeks of the preseason with an injury.
There are also three freshmen on the roster: 6-foot-10 center Emmanuel Okpomo; 6-foot-3 guard Quadry Adams; and 6-foot-9 redshirt Tariq Ingraham, who spent 2019-20 rehabbing an Achilles tendon injury.
Forbes believes he has the pieces to form a winning team in his first season in the ACC. The trick is getting them all to fit together quickly.
“They have to understand what we want on a daily basis,” said Forbes, whose teams won 24 or more games in each of his five seasons at ETSU. “We are making the right steps in that direction. We’re not totally there yet. That’s part of the process.”