Regardless of your opinions on Kevin Keatts, and regardless of where you choose to place blame for this, it's an unavoidable fact that the Wolfpack has suffered a rather frustrating stretch of high-level talent departing, missing time, or never even arriving in Raleigh. As a result, Keatts has been trying to mitigate significant holes in his roster for much of his tenure.
At a reductively high level, Kevin Keatts came to State looking to operate a high volume spread pick and roll offense and a man-to-man defense that switches aggressively and attacks passing lanes to generate turnovers. An ideal spread pick-and-roll offense will be staffed by dynamic point guard play, a skilled, mobile big who can stretch the floor, and some 3&D guys.
Realistically, you're rarely going to have all of that. Bigs like that don't grow on trees. Most are draft picks. Keatts did have something pretty close to this his first year, and it was the ACC's best offense, but he has not really been able to put that together since. From elite point guards to small-ball fours to defensive centers, State has had a lot of talent in the queue that never arrived. Here, we're looking at the top five examples of players that could have changed NC State's fortunes.
5. Josh Hall and Jalen Lecque
Yes, this is two guys. With neither ever actually playing a minute of college basketball, it's hard to say with certainty what their presence would have amounted to, but both had potential to change a lot about the teams they would have been on. I always had questions about Lecque's fit given he would have played with Markell Johnson and he wasn't much of a shooter. He was a freak athlete though, and he could get in the paint. The team he would have been on was lacking this. Daniels hadn't really come into his own as a scorer yet, and the other guards were Bryce and Beverly. Lecque has spent five years in the G League and has averaged over 13 PPG and at least 3 assists every year. It's a safe bet that amounts to a good college guard.
Hall played 16 games for the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he was really bad. He is no longer in the league. Entering college, though, he had the makings of a versatile matchup problem. Hall could handle the ball and score all the way out past the perimeter. He could operate pick-and-roll and serve as a screener with a real pick-and-pop threat.
4. Manny Bates
Manny Bates played a single minute of the 2020-21 season. Ideally, you want your most important defensive piece to play more than a minute of the season. Alas, shoulders are evil.
This was the worst defensive team in Kevin Keatts’ tenure. It ranked an absolutely putrid 313th nationally in defensive efficiency, and it saw its block percentage fall from 41st nationally the year before to 111th. Bates was sorely missed on a roster that didn’t have much to offer in terms of frontcourt depth, and while Bates was never an excellent offensive player, he could do some stuff, which was more than the rotational bigs offered.
This State team had the makings of a solid offense too. Seabron could break down defenses like nobody else in college basketball, and State had shooting around him in Terquavion Smith, Casey Morsell, and Jericole Hellems. Seabron had definite shortcomings as a point guard because he wasn’t really a point guard, but they started to piece this thing together after finally putting him on the ball.
It amounted to nothing. State couldn’t stop a house plant, a lizard, and three rakes from scoring that year. This team had some chemistry issues and started to spiral later in the year, but it made it to January 29 with just two double-digit losses. It was in every game. How many extra defensive stops do you think Manny Bates would have been worth?
3. Saddiq Bey
Saddiq Bey signed with NC State as part of a five-man recruiting class that included DJ Funderburk, Jericole Hellems, Manny Bates, and Ian Steere. Bey never arrived though, instead ending up at Villanova where he proceeded to shoot 45% from three and average 16 points. He’s now posting 13 and 6 nightly for the Atlanta Hawks.
Bey would have been a phenomenal four-man for State. He was a capable rebounder with excellent range as a shooter, and he could handle the ball as a bonus. State could run 4-5 pick-and-roll with him, 1-4 pick-and-pop, put him in the corner to space the floor, etc. Imagine just for a second a State team with Omer Yurtseven at the five and Saddiq Bey at the four. Okay, now stop crying.
2. Omer Yurtseven
The Markell Johnson/Omer Yurtseven pick and roll was lethal in Keatts’ first season. State had the highest-scoring offense in the ACC, and it was no fluke. Yurtseven’s shooting made this nearly impossible to guard. His ability to pop off a screen and shoot made it difficult to play any kind of aggressive ball screen defense, and there are five or six different games that season that stand out where teams tried to ice or hedge ball screens and Yurt absolutely punished them for it.
As a 6’10 center with a high release point on his shot, it was basically impossible to recover to him if he slipped a screen into open space. He shot 50% from three for the season and was strong in the mid-range game also.
It was reasonable as a fan to think you were getting two more years of Johnson/Yurtseven pick-and-roll, but you didn’t. Johnson stayed but Yurt transferred out, and State’s five spot the next two years was occupied by Wyatt Walker, DJ Funderburk, and Manny Bates. Walker didn’t do much well offensively and while Bates and Funderburk were defensive upgrades over Yurtseven, both were very raw players without a particularly deep scoring package. Most importantly, all were non-shooters.
1. Robert Dillingham
5-star guard Robert Dillingham committed to NC State in December of 2021 for the 2023-24 season. Keatts had nabbed one of the best true point guards in America to run his offense in 2023, until he didn’t. Dillingham ended up flipping that commitment to Kentucky, further lengthening the trail of elite talent to commit to but never play for Kevin Keatts.
Losing out on a great player like this is a gut punch no matter what, but when you look at the Robert Dillingham-sized hole currently residing in the middle of NC State’s offense, well it’ll leave you yearning. This was a monster blow.
Dillingham is averaging 16 and 4 for the Wildcats while shooting over 48% from the field and over 43% from three, all while playing less than 24 minutes per game. If he was on this team, Horne would be in his natural position as a two, Morsell would be a pure 3&D guy, a role he thrived in a year ago, and the pick-and-roll sets would be hitting at an exorbitantly higher rate. This is probably the best defensive team of Keatts’ tenure. If you could plug Dillingham in at point guard, he is playing 35 minutes per game and State is probably right there at the top of the conference. He makes that big of a difference, or he would have anyway.
Andree was the kind of pick-and-pop big that can throw a complete wrench in your team's pick-and-roll defense. He was a huge defensive liability but he could really stretch some defenses thin in some pop actions with his combination of size and perimeter shooting. Andrew started the year 24 for 58 from three, but then got hurt and made a total of 5 threes in 13 ACC games.
Moore was a budding three-level scoring point guard. He was far from a finished product, but you could see it. He was quick enough to get into the paint with dribble penetration, he had a floater game, and while he wasn't a great shooter, he was far from a hapless one. Moore made things happen. His usage made little sense though, and then he left for Starkville.
How would you change this list? Let us know in the comments.