CLEMSON — Clemson forward Devin Booker knows he’s got some pressure on him to carry the Tigers this year. He also knows he’s got some help in that task with fellow senior Milton Jennings.
Booker and Jennings are Clemson’s only upperclassmen on a roster where the other 12 players are freshmen or sophomores. Booker, the 6-foot-8 younger brother of Washington forward Trevor Booker, thinks the two post players are ready to lead the Tigers.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Booker said. “We’re capable of doing really good things this season.”
They’d better be since Clemson coach Brad Brownell has few other proven players in the lineup. Guard Devin Coleman was expected to pick up much of the slack in the backcourt with last year’s top two scorers, Andre Young and Tanner Smith, gone. Instead, Coleman tore an Achilles’ tendon this summer and isn’t expected back until next fall.
That leaves a whole lot of question marks for Clemson heading into the season. Booker says he and Jennings can carry the load until their teammates find their footing.
Booker is a solid, 250-pound player who can battle inside and also has an elegant scoring touch around the basket. Jennings is a more slender, 6-9 forward able to glide in for baskets or stick jumpers from outside. The problem with both has been consistency where each disappears for long stretches or even multiple games.
Booker looked ready to follow his older brother’s starring legacy at Clemson in the middle of last season when he scored in double figures for four straight games, the last two getting double-digit rebounds as well.
But Booker had just three more games in double figure scoring in the Tigers last eight contests. He took only four shots in a 68-63 first-round loss to Virginia Tech at the ACC tournament.
Jennings was a prep school McDonald’s All-American who has also struggled to find his way at Clemson. He was suspended twice last season. The first time came after he yelled at Brownell at a tournament in Hawaii. Jennings apologized and was back in lineup after missing one game. He was also suspended for two games in the midst of ACC play because of academic reasons.
Still, the two forwards combined for 21 points and nearly 13 rebounds a game as the Tigers went 16-15 overall and 8-8 in the ACC. The Tigers missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time after a school record four straight trips.
Clemson won’t have a chance of starting a new NCAA streak unless Booker and Jennings pick up their games.
Brownell has talked extensively to both about the leadership roles they must assume and how consistent they need to be. The third-year coach thinks his senior class is up to the challenge.
“I think Milton and Book have gone the full gamut of not starting to be reserves to starting,” Brownell said. “They’ve had some really good games at times. Maybe they haven’t been quite as consistent at times as we’d all like. But I feel good about where they are.”
Brownell must count on his sophomores to contribute. K.J. McDaniels was the leading scorer among the Tigers’ five freshmen at just under 4 points a game. T.J. Sapp, a sophomore likely to start in the backcourt this season, hit the team’s third most 3-pointers at 24 last year, behind last year’s leaders Young (66) and Smith (40).
Clemson will also lean heavily on Demarcus Harrison, a transfer guard who helped BYU to the NCAA tournament last season. Harrison left BYU when plans for a two-year mission got delayed and the school did not have a scholarship for him. Clemson applied for and was granted an NCAA waiver on Harrison’s behalf so he could play immediately.
Clemson, though, will only go as far as Booker and Jennings can take them. That’s fine with them, who both think the Tigers will be dominant in the middle.
“We believe we have one of the best frontcourts in the conference,” Jennings said. “I can pull another big man out and take to the hole or go inside, and Book can his man outside or he can go inside.
“We hope it’s going to be a mismatch problem for most of the teams in our league,” Jennings added.