Zach Spiker (above) is entering his third year as head coach at Drexel. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
2018-19 Drexel Dragons Primer
Coach: Zach Spiker, 3rd season (22-43, .338)
Last Year: 13-20 (6-12 CAA); lost in CAA quarterfinals (Charleston, 66-59)
After winning nine games in Spiker’s first season, the Dragons took a small step forward last year, with four more wins overall -- and three more in conference play -- despite would-be sophomore and starting guard Kari Jonsson deciding to head back to his native Iceland just weeks before the season began. But that wasn’t enough to take them out of the CAA basement, as they tied with three other programs (JMU, Delaware, Elon) for last in the 10-team league. Drexel especially struggled away from the Daskalakis Athletic Center, going 8-5 against D-I competition at home but 2-12 in true road games, including just 1-8 in conference play.
Key Losses: G Tramaine Isabell (21.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.4 apg), SG Sammy Mojica (11.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.5 spg), PF Austin Williams (9.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 3.0 bpg), SF Miles Overton (4.2 ppg, 1.1 rpg)
There’s no denying it’s a key group of players who departed the Dragons’ roster from last year, including three starters who accounted for 41.5 ppg, which was just over 55 percent of the team’s offensive production a year ago. Isabell, a 6-1 guard who began his college career at Mizzou, fulfilled the high expectations heaped upon him in his only year playing for DU after sitting out the 2016-17 season; the dynamic playmaker scored a season high of 40 and surpassed the 30-point mark four other times, with six double-digit rebounding efforts and coming one assist away from a triple-double against Delaware. Isabell then decided he’d rather take advantage of the graduate transfer rule and spend his final year of eligibility at Saint Louis.
Mojica, a four-year contributor who played in 120 games (88 starts) in four years at Drexel, finished his career with 1,153 points, though the 6-2 guard who was known as a 3-point specialist made fewer than one-third of his 3-point attempts in his final three seasons (169-of-525, .322). Williams, a 6-9 power forward, started 56 out of 62 games in his final two seasons after playing sparingly as a freshman and sophomore, and finished eighth in the country in blocks per game (2.97) as a senior while putting together seven double-doubles. The final member of the senior class, Overton only played in 32 games (7 starts) in two years at Drexel after transferring from Wake Forest, averaging 7.8 ppg though he only shot 28.6 percent from the floor.
Freshman Cam Wynter (above) is one of six new faces on the roster this year. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
New Faces: F James Butler (R-Soph./Navy), SG Trevor John (Grad./Cal Poly), PG Matey Juric (Fr./Lake Forest Ac., Ill.), SF Zach Walton (Jr./Edmonds CC, Wash.), SG Coletrane Washington (Fr./Quaker Valley, Pa.), G Camren Wynter (Fr./DME Academy, Fla.)
To balance out the sizeable gap in minutes and production left by those departed, Spiker and his staff welcome six new faces to the rotation, at least three or four of whom should factor into things significantly.
Butler is the only one of the group with a head start, as the native of Fairfax Station (Va.) is in his second year with the Dragons program following his transfer after one year at the Naval Academy. A 6-8, 230-pound power forward, Butler only played in four games in his freshman season at Navy but certainly looks like he’ll be able to help Drexel on the glass after a strong four games in Australia in August, grabbing as many as 17 rebounds in a game. He’s not the only one with collegiate experience, however -- the 6-6 Walton arrives in town after averaging over 20 ppg at the JUCO level, and John is a 6-3 son of a longtime Division I assistant who played in 55 games (1.7 ppg, .346 3PT%) spread over three seasons at Cal Poly.
Joining that trio are the three true freshmen, all guards. Washington, who hails from the western side of the Keystone State, is the tallest of the three at 6-4, with long arms and an accurate 3-point shot, though he’ll need to prove he’s strong enough to defend and rebound at this level before he earns significant minutes. The most game-ready of the three is Wynter, a 6-2 combo guard who also has above-average length, and a three-level scoring ability combined with playmaking skills that should see him getting into the mix right away. Juric is the strongest of the group, a 5-11 point guard from Toronto who went to high school at Lake Forest (Ill.), but it’s unclear at this point exactly what his role will be this season; he could earn some backup point guard minutes if he can limit his mistakes and defend.
Alihan Demir (above) is going to log a lot of minutes for the Dragons this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Starting Frontcourt: PF Alihan Demir (10.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.9 apg), PF James Butler (DNP)
Barring injury, there’s no way that Demir doesn’t start every game for the remainder of his collegiate career. The 6-8 Turkish forward came to West Philadelphia by way of Central Wyoming (Junior) College, where he averaged 13.6 ppg but only shot 25.7 percent from 3-point range (9-of-35); his shot was clearly much improved at Drexel, as he knocked down 36.5 percent from deep (23-of-63). Now that he’s a junior and one of the more experienced players on the roster, look for Demir to have the offense run through him more and more, as he can show off his versatility and passing in addition to inside-out scoring ability; he’s their most important player this season.
While the ‘5’ position is still up for grabs, and could very well be a rotating cast during the season, for the moment we’ll give the advantage to Butler, who’s the most physically adept of the big men. Though he’s a bit undersized for a center at 6-8, he’s got the muscles to bang around inside, and won’t be counted on to step out and shoot -- only to rebound, play tough inside and finish around the rim. Butler only played in four games as a true freshman at Navy, so he’s still very much an unproven product on the Division I level, but early returns from the Australia trip boded well.
Starting Backcourt: SG Troy Harper (10.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.4 apg), PG Kurk Lee Jr. (12.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.2 apg), SF Zach Walton (DNP)
Though there’s still some familiar faces, this is going to be a new-look Drexel backcourt without Mojica and Isabell taking north of 25 shots per game. Lee, a 5-8 point guard from Baltimore, has been the starter since the first day of the Spiker era, with 65 games (62 starts) and 886 career points heading into his junior year, but his offensive efficiency dropped off from freshman year to sophomore, as he went from shooting 41.5 percent from the floor to 38.5 percent, and from 40.0 percent from 3-point range down to 34.2 percent.
Even worse from deep last year was Harper, the 6-1 guard who connected on just 15.9 percent of his treys as he dealt with a lasting shoulder injury. But the Campbell transfer and product of Neumann-Goretti excelled at beating his man off the dribble and getting to the foul line, where he hit 81.6 percent from the stripe, helping him average double-figures. Harper might end up with the ball in his hands more than Lee, who’s much more useful than Harper as a spot-up shooter, but there’s no denying Lee is crafty with the ball as well.
While Lee and Harper are both adept at getting to the hoop, that leaves Walton as the team’s main spot-up threat, and the 6-6 wing looks like he’s plenty capable of knocking down shots; he’s got a simple, smooth release that hits with regularity. Who of this group has the ball in their hands at the end of the game still remains to be seen.
Bench: F Jarvis Doles (3.3 ppg, 2.1 rpg), SF Sam Green (4.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg), G Trevor John (DNP), PF Tadas Kararinas (1.6 ppg), C Timmy Perry Jr. (DNP), G Camren Wynter (DNP)
There’s a little bit of depth on the roster, and Spiker will have to go to his bench for some production -- but just how much run, and how much production he’ll get out of this group, very much still remains to be determined.
Green, a 6-6 wing forward, looked like he was ready to become a key reserve for the Dragons last year when he averaged seven points and nearly four rebounds in the team’s first four games a year ago, but then saw his season end just six games in when he injured his knee crashing into the bench in a game at NJIT. He’ll likely serve as the team’s sixth man this year, though that honor could also go to Wynter or Doles, a mobile 6-9 ‘4’ man who hit 14-of-39 (35.9 percent) from 3-point range last year and looked even more capable off the bounce in practice this preseason.
There’s still plenty of time for the center situation to shake out as well. Perry Jr., the son of the former Temple standout who went on to the NBA, got the start in Drexel’s first game in Australia after taking a redshirt season a year ago, and though he’s still very much a work in progress, he’s the most athletic and defensive-minded big man on the roster. Kararinas, a 6-10 stretch ‘5’, hit 38 percent from deep on limited attempts last year, and is still adjusting to the speed and physicality of the American game.
Kurk Lee Jr. (above) and the Dragons have been one of the worst teams in Division I defensively the last two years. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Three Keys to Success
1. Defensive improvement. The first two years of the Spiker era have seen the Dragons become more exciting offensively than they have been in quite some time. But a program that was routinely in the top 100 in the country in defense through the latter part of the 00s and early part of this decade has become more like a sieve, ranking in the bottom quarter of D-I in the last two years by averaging over 1.10 points allowed per possession, according to KenPom’s adjusted numbers. And aside from Spiker’s first season at Army (2009-10), he hasn’t been the head coach of a team better than 209th in KenPom’s defensive rankings. If Drexel can’t figure out how to start stringing together some stops more often, it won’t matter how good they are offensively.
2. Rotation development. As much as the Drexel coaches will learn from a summer and fall of practice, there’s certain questions that still won’t be answered until the season begins, on Nov. 9 at Eastern Michigan. With so many new pieces and other players adjusting to different roles, it’s likely going to take the Dragons a few games to find a groove. Part of that will be Spiker starting to settle into a rotation; the lineup might see some tinkering during the season, but if they can get defined roles with player acceptance early on, that’ll help set the ship in the right direction for a step up the CAA standings.
3. Outside shooting. It sounds obvious, but needs to be said anyways -- if you plan on having an offense that relies on dribble penetration and 3-point shooting ability, you need guys who can knock down treys. Last season, the Dragons were just 32.5 percent from deep, which was worst in the CAA and 304th in the NCAA; as a team, Drexel hasn’t shot better than 35 percent against Division I competition since 2011-12, when the Damion Lee/Frantz Massenat/Chris Fouch-led Dragons won 29 games, the last truly successful season in the program’s history. If Walton and one of the freshmen can be 37-percent-plus shooters, along with Demir, it could open things up for the rest of the offense.
Comments on the Dragons from other coaches in the City 6
“I think the advantage will be usually in year three of your program, you start to see your program being implemented. So even though I think they’re young and there’s a lot of new guys on the roster, I think Lee and Harper have to carry them early but I think their coaching staff, I’m sure, feels good because in Year Three I think everyone in the program understands the direction and how they run things. I think from the coaching perspective, they’ll be excited about the season because it’s finally theirs.”
“Their backcourt will be good, I think Kurk Lee’s terrific...I think he’s on pace to break a lot of records there, I think he’s going to be one of the best point guards in that league. I’m hoping Troy Harper can be a little more consistent with his play and his shooting. I love the Turkish kid that they’ve got, [Demir], he might be their best player, he can do a whole lot. The key will be him and how much he’s grown.”
It’s tough to say where exactly Drexel’s ceiling is at this point, with so many new pieces and uncertainty in terms of the rotation. But there does seem to be a different energy around the program with all of that new blood, though someone’s got to get them into a winning mentality. A reasonably friendly non-conference schedule could see Drexel finishing as well as 9-4 or even 10-3, though that would involve beating at least two of Temple, UConn, La Salle, Bowling Green and Rutgers, all of which are played on the road besides Temple. The Dragons are probably still a year away from truly contending for a CAA title, but 18 or 19 wins and a trip to at least the CAA semifinals, with so much talent slated to return in 2019-20, would certainly be considered a big step in the right direction.
After three straight seasons of staring up at the rest of the CAA, the Dragons’ dreaded scenario looks quite similar to recent memory. Incomplete games resulting in blown leads and missed opportunities, several early league losses further deflating morale and nobody stepping forward to push through the doldrums, resulting in yet another forgettable season.