On Nov. 10, 2010, the Tech men’s basketball team announced that forward Julian Royal had signed a letter of intent to join the Jackets the following season. Royal, who had been committed to Tech for months, was the 66th ranked player according to ESPN and the only player to commit to Tech last season.
He was supposed to be a centerpiece for Head Coach Paul Hewitt’s offense, but that plan fell through.
Hewitt was fired on March 12 of the following year, and new Head Coach Brian Gregory was hired two weeks later. Gregory preceded to shake-up the entire coaching staff, putting Royal’s four-month commitment in jeopardy. In the end, Royal stuck by his letter and is now a freshman on the Flats.
“I just valued staying in Atlanta—the city I grew up in. I liked Coach Hewitt and his staff, but Coach Gregory came in, and he is a great coach too. Coach Gregory came to my house after he got hired, and I felt comfortable with him,” Royal said.
Royal had scholarship offers from many different schools including Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Virginia and Wake Forest. Considering his circumstances, most players might have chosen to play for another school when the coach that recruited them got fired.
Gregory and his staff got lucky that Royal wanted to stay near home and play in Atlanta, a fact that Gregory does not take lightly considering the team’s lack of depth.
“The team needed another guy with size, length and versatility. He gave us all those things,” Gregory said.
Royal possessed all of those qualities when he stepped onto the court this season, but it took him awhile to adjust to the college game.
In his first eight games, Royal only scored 17 points and played less than 10 minutes in five of the matchups. Royal attributed part of his early season struggles to being the only scholarship freshman on this year’s team.
“You have to learn from the other players, and go live the freshman experience. Hopefully, you can pick up things fast,” Royal said.
Another reason for Royal’s inability to find quality minutes was because his body and skills were not quite ready for the next level. Even though Royal dominated the floor playing for his high school, Milton in Alpharetta, Ga., he found it hard to compete with players that were all just as good as him.
“In high school you didn’t have to defend everybody. Some players were good, but not everybody. Everybody is good and on scholarship at this level, so it was a big jump…I struggled with my conditioning, flexibility and strength when I came here, but now I think that I am getting better with all of those things,” Royal said.
Royal showed signs of strong play in performances against Alabama A&M and Alabama, but everything started coming together for Royal once ACC play started.
Royal scored a total of 37 points in a four-game stretch against Clemson, Miami, North Carolina and Florida State. He also led the team with six rebounds when the team faced the Tar Heels on the road.
“As a freshman, there is always a learning curve. Royal was in the background during that time. He wasn’t assertive and just wanted to feel his way. About midway through the season, he figured out how to help us, and he started doing that. You very rarely see a freshman play better in ACC play than they do out of conference, but that is exactly what Royal has done,” Gregory said.
Injuries to other players, along with Royal’s improved play, has led Gregory to give the freshman forward more minutes. In conference play, Royal has averaged 19.5 minutes per contest while hitting at least 50 percent of his shots in eight of the 13 games played so far this season.
The increased playing time has allowed Royal to grow from a freshman who was unsure of himself to a role-player who knows what part he plays on this year’s team.
“My role is to get the rebound, cut guys out, play solid defense. Everything else is just a bonus,” Royal said.
Royal said that he is comfortable in his role, for now. However, he knows that he will have to do more if he wants to be a key player for the Jackets, and Gregory knows where he can start.
“The physicality is always a challenge for a freshman, but if you give Royal a spring and summer in our weight room then that won’t be an issue. The guys that really want to be good figure out that you have to play hard every day. Like every young player, he has to be serious in his approach to the game,” Gregory said.
Royal will never be the centerpiece for Hewitt’s offense at Tech like he originally planned. However, if he can improve upon his play this season, become more physical and play hard every day, then Royal could very well become a centerpiece in Gregory’s offense one day.