For all the handwringing as of late — in this section included — about Tech’s backcourt woes, not enough has been said about the fear held by many at the end of last season: that the loss of Ben Lammers to graduation would doom the Jackets’ frontcourt for at least the 2018-19 campaign.
Lammers, a San Antonio, Tex. native, spent four years at Tech and improved from an interesting but not particularly capable bench player to an all-conference caliber defender. His peak was his junior year, his first under the tutelage of new head coach Josh Pastner. Lammers led the conference with an eye-popping 3.4 blocks per game, good for third nationally. His 5.8 win shares made him the fourth most valuable player in the ACC, inarguably basketball’s finest conference. In the 2017-18 campaign, severely hampered by injuries, Lammers production fell. But he remained one of the most important two-way player on a team that included future first-round draft pick Josh Okogie. In the last 35 years, only nine players have finished their careers at ACC schools with more blocks than Lammers. With names like Tim Duncan on that list, Lammers is in good company.
In April, they found the player who would be his replacement. Decatur, Ga. native James Banks III, a former four-star prospect who had tired of his limited playing time at Texas, announced that he was headed home to Atlanta. Banks was the second four-star prospect Pastner had brought to the flats, along with freshman guard Michael Devoe. And like Lammers, Banks was hoping that the move east would raise his profile and help him meet the lofty expectations set for a top-100 national prospect.
It certainly has. In Austin, Banks found himself trapped behind Jarrett Allen and Mo Bamba in consecutive seasons, both of whom are now prized NBA players. At Tech, Banks is not only the best option the Jackets have in the frontcourt but perhaps the team’s best offensive weapon, period. And for the most part he has shouldered that responsibility nicely in his first season in Pastner’s scheme.
Banks was not even expected to play for the Jackets during the 2018-19 season. Transfers are typically required by the NCAA to sit out a year when moving to a new school, a rule put in place to discourage athletes from rashly jumping ship at the prospect of immediate playing time elsewhere. Banks applied for a waiver, which was not ruled upon by the time Tech’s season opener came around. So he watched from the sideline as Tech beat Lamar 88-69 at McCamish Pavilion, knowing full well he might not get the chance to play until a year from then. But shortly before Tech’s next game, on the road against then-No. 5 Tennessee, Banks’ eligibility was granted. And though he fouled out after only 16 minutes, his contributions to the box score were significant. He accumulated seven rebounds — two of which came off the offensive glass — made three of his four free throws and added a field goal, all in his first real gameplay of the season. Banks fouled out again in the next game against Eastern Carolina, but has only fouled out once since: a recent game against Duke in which he was tasked with defending transcendent freshman Zion Williamson. His 56.2 percent shooting from the field leads the team, and his 10.4 points per game come second only to Jose Alvarado’s 12.4. For a team as offensively challenged as the Jacket, double-digit scoring is a sign of real importance.
Although the Jackets are nowhere near as good as they were in that 2016-17 campaign, which saw them reach the finals of the NIT primarily on the backs of Okogie and Lammers, it is worth asking how Banks stacks up to Lammers. The comparison is closer than one might expect.
By virtually every metric, Banks is better than Lammers was last season, a year that plagued him with injuries. In Player Efficiency Rating, a metric that holistically considers a player’s value, Banks’ 19.2 narrowly edges out Lammers’ 19.1. Banks has shot a higher rate from the field, scored more points and pulled down more rebounds on a per-forty-minute basis. And his box plus-minus score — the number of points a player contributes over 100 possessions relative to an average player — beats Lammers’. At the very least, Banks is a more than adequate replacement for the slowed-down but still formidable Lammers the Jackets put in the starting lineup last season.
Banks cannot yet touch Lammers’ 2016-17 season, an effort so impressive Lammers became a well-known name in the relatively sports-apathetic Tech student body. But for this season and next, he is perhaps the best thing Tech basketball has going for it. Pastner certainly expects Michael Devoe to show why he was such a highly-touted prospect and Jose Alvarado to continue his ascent, but this just may be Banks’ team.