Since Aaron Rountree announced his intention to graduate early, Danny Manning and the coaching staff have worked tirelessly on the recruiting trail to fill the open scholarship slot. With Rountree's void, and depth at point guard and in the post, the Demon Deacons need to add another wing. Recognizing the glaring need, Coach Manning has fervently sought out perimeter players. But the question remains: do they target a graduate transfer or a high school senior?
The three players most linked to that final roster spot are 3-4 star recruit Malik Ellison out of Burlington, New Jersey, a 3-star recruit Shaun Kirk from Whiteville, North Carolina and graduate senior Sterling Smith from Coppin State University. Ellison and Smith have received a Wake Forest offer and have the Demon Deacons on their short list (Kirk hasn't received an offer yet but said Wake would be the favorite to land him). In a one-on-one interview with Manning, our own Robert Reinhard asked whether he preferred a graduate transfer or a high school senior. To which Manning responded, "Best player. Best fit."
This begs the question, if the coaching staff is given the choice between a veteran who contributes for one season versus a prospect who develops over four years, who should they pick?
Pro: Graduate Transfer, Con: Freshman Recruit
With graduate transfers, the Demon Deacons know exactly what they are getting: a proven shooter and a veteran leader who can contribute from Day One. And at the moment, Wake could use some experience on the perimeter. Wake's only true wings are sophomores Cornelius Hudson, Greg McClinton and Rondale Watson.
Sterling Smith, for example, looks like an ideal personnel fit. Smith, who visited Wake Forest last weekend and will visit Georgia Tech and Louisville this week, has produced for three years already and can come in right away and can contribute key minutes for a team that can smell the postseason next year. In general, 6'4" Smith looks like a taller, more athletic version of Coron Williams from the 2013-2014 team (statistical comparison below via KenPom). Like Williams, he is a prolific three-point shooter at 42 percent. However, Smith reels down more rebounds and is a better creator for his teammates than Williams (to be fair, Smith did play for a worse team in a worse conference). Also, his longer wingspan will allow him to match-up better against ACC athletes than Coron could. The biggest weakness for the Deacs last season was their consistency and inexperience on the wing. A three-year starter will stabilize the position and provide leadership in 2015-2016.
Junior Year Comparison: Sterling Smith vs Coron Williams
In addition to being an immediate contributor, a graduate transfer has only a one-year binding scholarship. This opens up the door for more highly-touted prospects down the road. Wake already has eight players on the roster/committed after the 2015-2016 season. Based on the success Manning and Co have had on the recruiting trail, there is absolutely no reason to reach for low-hanging fruits. Bringing in a graduate transfer allows the Demon Deacons to improve in 2015-2016, where they can be sneaky-good, and still have the flexibility to pursue elite recruits long-term.
Pro: High School Senior, Con: Graduate Transfer
When presented with an opportunity to bring in a player that can impact a program for four years, just say yes. When Coach Manning took over in Winston-Salem, he was explicitly clear that there are no shortcuts to winning. But in time, he said, Wake will win. A freshman like Malik Ellison, who also has offers from Minnesota, Cal and Maryland, may sacrifice on-court performance this upcoming season, but the goal is to compete for conference championships. And Wake is not capable of competing for ACC championships right now. In the meantime, the Deacs might as well give the younger Deacs, like Mitchell Wilbekin and Hudson more experience, while planting the seeds for a tournament-lock in two years.
On the court, a player like the 6'6" Ellison is a cookie cut-out fit for the type of wing that succeeds in Manning's system: a long, athletic shooter that spreads the floor. He would mesh perfectly with the 2015 recruiting class of point guard Bryant Crawford, power forward John Collins and center Doral Moore. This amalgamation of ball-handling, physicality and shooting will allow the class to establish their roles and develop cohesively for years to come. Wake will return to its glory days through talented, well-rounded four-year players. Not through one year fixes.
As seen in the chart below from RealGM, on average, three-four star players develop into valuable contributors. The son of former No. 1 pick Pervis Ellison possesses the genes and the ability to become a key role player for a really good Demon Deacon team.
Points Per Game
2 to 3 Stars
3 to 4 Stars
Over 4 Stars
Shaun Kirk, who holds offers from Baylor and Cal, is not as clear of a recruit as Ellison. Kirk displays great jumping ability and a good shot, but needs to learn to create off the dribble. All in all, the drop off from a 3-4 star to a 3-star is substantial, given that many 3-star recruits play in worse conferences. But overall, the coaching staff has a great reputation for finding the diamond in the rough that fits the system in place. Look at their 2014 recruiting class. Manning took the job in April, and still found three starters in Wilbekin, Hudson and Dinos Mitoglou by September. Trust the staff. They have proven their ability to find players who can help the Deacs long-term. The proof is in the pudding.
Between the experience of Devin Thomas and Codi Miller-McIntyre, the capable sophomore class, and the highly-touted freshman class, Wake Forest has a talented team that can contend for a postseason berth. They are much deeper than last year, but need upgrades on the wing. And instead of preparing for the future, the Deacs should play their cards to produce the best team next year. This means signing a graduate transfer like Sterling Smith. Smith's experience, leadership and shooting ability would be a perfect match.
In the long-term, with only five scholarships remaining for two years (given no transfers), Wake needs to be very selective over who they sign. The staff has proven their recruiting prowess, so why settle for less? Unless Wake can reel in a Top 100 talent this late in the game (like a decommit due to the coaching carousel), stick with the known commodity. Stick with incremental progress. In Manning's second year at Tulsa, the Golden Hurricanes made the NCAA Tournament. While a Big Dance bid might be far-fetched for Wake, an improved 2015-2016 season will foster momentum for the Manning Era in the long-term.