CLEMSON -- Brad Brownell knows he will never have his choice of high school All-Americans, a luxury afforded to programs like those in Chapel Hill and Durham, N.C. But the second-year Clemson basketball coach does have one former high school All-American on his roster in Pinewood Prep product Milton Jennings, whose combination of 6-9 size, athleticism and promising perimeter skills made him a five-star prospect in 2009. Clemson has another forward in Devin Booker, whose overall skill set offers a reasonable facsimile to that of his older brother Trevor Booker, one of the program's all-time greats. Talk to people around the basketball program and the message is clear: It is Jennings' and Booker's year. Clemson needs the junior forwards to turn projection into production for Clemson to reach the NCAA tournament for a fifth straight year. Clemson begins its season today, hosting Gardner-Webb at 8 p.m.
"Devin and Milt have shown they can be good players. Now it's time to prove it," Brownell said. "(Jennings) and Devin certainly have the potential to take the next step and become more consistent players and, quite frankly, I think they need to. If they don't, it's going to be hard for us to be consistently good." Jennings and Booker each must shoulder a greater load as Clemson graduated its top scorer, Demontez Stitt, and top rebounder, Jerai Grant.
Stitt and Grant combined to score 26.9 points and grab 11 rebounds per game last season. The senior duo accounted for 42 percent of Clemson's scoring and 33 percent of the team's rebounding in conference play. Jennings and Booker each averaged eight points and five rebounds. Jennings averaged 20 minutes per game, while Booker averaged 24. "Last year, they were in a great spot," Brownell said. "If they played well, then great. If they didn't play well, we could still win. I don't know that that's going to be the case this year." The skill has always been there for Booker, who can knock down 3-point shots with a smooth shooting stroke and also convert emphatic slam dunks. Booker told reporters the large contingent of freshmen on the team -- six first-year players are on the roster -- has accelerated his own maturation and dedication. "It basically made me take some ownership in this team," Booker said. Jennings has always wanted to be great. He was involved in more intense workouts this offseason -- some of them coach-driven -- to add strength to his wiry frame. Jennings shot below 50 percent inside the arc last year, a testament to his lack of low-post offensive game and a lack of strength. In one drill, the coaching staff had players overturn an oversized tire numerous times and tug a light truck around Littlejohn Coliseum. Jennings said he's also become a more explosive leaper. "I probably only weigh two or three pounds more, but I'm so much stronger," the 230-pound Jennings said. "Playing near the basket, grabbing rebounds, I've stepped up in that aspect. Jerai was always around the rim getting those and-ones, getting the crowd excited." Jennings and Booker have flashed the ability to play on the perimeter as forwards, hitting 3s and making deft passes. It's the sort of versatility that fits well with Brownell's motion offense. But there's been too much doubt and hesitation-driven error in Jennings' game. In addition to physical strength, Jennings said he is mentally tougher this year. "It's the time in your career (as a junior) where you're supposed to be a productive, consistent player," Brownell said. "That's what you hope those guys are in position to do."