T.J. Bickerstaff (above, last year) is averaging double figures through Drexel's first four games. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
T.J. Bickerstaff’s college debut was the bar-setting type.
The Drexel sophomore’s first game last year saw him play 27 minutes against Temple, finishing with 16 points and seven rebounds. The lanky combo forward got open on several rolls to the hoop and found himself free in transition, getting to the hoop over and over and knocking down a mid-range jumper or two to boot.
“It was my first game of college basketball, I still didn’t really know what to expect,” Bickerstaff said. “I just enjoyed the moment, honestly.”
As it turned out, the bar was set a little too high, a little too fast.
Bickerstaff followed up that outing against Temple by scoring 10 points in his second collegiate game, then only hit double-figures once the rest of the season. He ended the year averaging 4.8 ppg and 3.5 rpg, and though his raw turnover numbers (1.3/game) weren’t outrageous, it was clear that opposing defenses quickly picked up on exactly how to defend the raw talent.
“A lot of times TJ was played to charge, or turn it over driving,” Drexel coach Zach Spiker said.
Though it wasn’t a shining freshman year overall, it was promising enough that Bickerstaff was clearly going to be in the running for the city’s breakout star this year, if he made the necessary improvements during the offseason. A 6-foot-9, 210-pound combo forward, Bickerstaff showed the potential to become a skilled two-way player with inside-out scoring abilities, even though he missed all 15 of his 3-point attempts as a freshman.
He spent the summer at his home in Georgia, benefitting from the state’s lax COVID restrictions as he was able to workout at various locations, including his high school (Sandy Spring) and at a gym in Marietta with former pro Chuck Person, who was most recently an assistant at Auburn until his removal in 2017 following his involvement in the well-publicized NCAA recruiting bribery scandal.
The nephew of Cleveland head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, T.J. Bickerstaff has been testing himself against NBA-level talent for a few years, and this summer saw the measuring stick getting a little closer when going up against guys like Jared Harper, who played at Auburn and is currently on a two-way contract with the Knicks.
“I just see myself growing and seeing myself being able to compete more and more, I like the workout and the competition,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s starting to click, you can see the change each year.”
Once again, Bickerstaff set the bar high with his season debut: 19 points and five rebounds against Pitt on Nov. 28, going 7-for-15 from the floor in 34 minutes, with his first collegiate start.
But this time around, that doesn’t seem to be an anomaly. Through four games for Drexel (3-1), Bickerstaff has hit double figures each time. He’s averaging 12.5 ppg and 5.8 rpg, shooting 51.4% overall and even hitting two of his five 3-point attempts. On a team that looks like it’s finally turned the corner, he’s emblematic of the jump from a year ago.
Though his raw turnover numbers are a tick higher (1.8/game), he’s doing it less often; after turning it over 3.5 times per 40 minutes last year, he’s got that down to 2.7 turnovers per 40 minutes this season.
“I think things are going great right now, honestly,” Bickerstaff said. “We’re getting better every game and you can tell through the film, you can just see it on the court. I like what we’re doing here.”
Spiker is the first to acknowledge that four games is a small sample size, that 160 minutes of basketball isn’t enough to determine the course of a program’s season. He also, however, knows that during this shortened, crazy, constantly-up-in-the-air COVID season, four games is a bigger sample size than usual.
And through four games, the signs—just as they point to a much-improved Bickerstaff—point to a much-improved Dragons. But the real tests are still to come, starting with a game against La Salle on Saturday (2 PM, NBC Sports Philadelphia).
“I think we’ve got a veteran presence and they understand what we need to do to be successful, they’re hungry,” Spiker said. “We want to get over the hump, move the needle here, have a chance to compete for a championship.”
Drexel rebounded nicely from a season-opening loss to Pittsburgh (83-74), knocking off Quinnipiac twice (66-48 and 70-58) last week before taking out Coppin State 69-54 Sunday in their home opener.
It’s the first time Drexel’s been at least two games over .500 at any point in the non-conference slate since the 2013-14 season, when they also started 3-1 and eventually got to 7-2 despite losing all-CAA guard Damion Lee to a torn ACL five games in.
What does it mean? That’s still to be determined, but besides Bickerstaff, there are other positive takeaways.
Preseason all-league first-team selections Cam Wynter (19.8 ppg/5.5 apg) and James Butler (11.8 ppg/9.3 rpg) have done their thing early on, showing why they’re two of the better all-around players in the conference. Grad student Zach Walton (11.3 ppg/5.5 rpg) has been a reliable third scorer and cut down on his turnovers. There’s been noticeable improvement on the defensive end.
As long as Bickerstaff and fellow sophomore Mate Okros — who had a slow first three games to the season but busted out for 14 in his last game out — continue to produce, the Dragons will be at least competitive in a CAA where they were picked third preseason.
They’ve also been getting quality bench minutes from a trio of freshmen: wing Lamar Oden Jr. (3.0 ppg/15.0 mpg), center Amari Williams (2.5 ppg/7.3 mpg) and guard Xavier Bell (2.3 ppg/5.5 mpg).
“They’re very nice, you can see them grow and get better, day by day,” Bickerstaff said. “They’re starting to surprise a lot of people with some talents that people might not have known that they have.”
After those three relatively easy wins against lower-tier opponents, the schedule gets tougher from here on out for the Dragons. After the Explorers, Drexel welcomes another Big 5 squad to the DAC in St. Joe’s (Dec. 16), followed by a trip to Fairleigh-Dickinson (Dec. 19) and visit from a tough Siena squad on Dec. 22 to close out the non-league schedule.
About those defensive improvements:
According to hoops statistician Ken Pomeroy, Drexel’s current adjusted defensive rating is 100.1, signifying they would let an average offensive team score almost exactly one point per possession, which puts them right in the middle of the Division I rankings. That’s a vast improvement from last year (106.7), which in itself was an improvement on the 113.2 number the Dragons put up in 2018-19, which was 327th nationally.
KenPom has them 17th in defensive rebound percentage (81.7%) and 12th in defensive 3-point field-goal percentage (21.1%), though it should be noted that none of the teams the Dragons have played so far are strong perimeter shooting teams, and that KenPom’s numbers don’t count games against non-Division I opponents.
The Dragons have also lowered their turnover numbers, going from coughing it up on 21.4% of possessions last year (319th nationally) to 17.6% this year (101st).
“I still think there’s some defensive things we can clean up, I still think that we can get in some gaps a little bit better defensively,” Spiker said. “I’ll watch those turnovers closely...we’ve just got to get better, it’s all about little things, little things are what make your program.”