Clemson’s key to success rests in the hands of its guards

Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame dunks against Wake Forest in a game played at Littlejohn Coliseum last season. AP Photo/The Independent-Mail/File

The venue will be different, but Clemson’s strategy will not.

With three returning starters at forward and center who can make plays from the perimeter, Clemson figures to be fine on that front. Defense never rests under head coach Brad Brownell, whose team will be playing its home games away from Littlejohn Coliseum this season.

But guard play remains a question mark. Senior Jordan Roper is still around, but out with Rod Hall and Damarcus Harrison, in with Avry Holmes and Gabe DeVoe, and up with the emphasis on scoring from long range.

“Offensively, the most frustrating thing for me to date — we have to shoot the ball better,” Brownell said. “I’m confident we will, but we haven’t yet. In a scrimmage and exhibition, we haven’t shot the ball like we need to shoot the ball if we’re going to be good.”

Clemson ranked dead-last in the ACC in scoring (62.7 points per game), second-to-last in field-goal percentage (40.9 percent, a hair above Georgia Tech’s 40.8) and second-to-last in 3-point percentage (29.9 percent) last season, thus foiling the conference’s third-stingiest overall defense.

Even two years ago when the Tigers produced a 23-win, NIT-semifinal campaign, they ranked in the bottom three in the ACC in all three of those categories.

“A recipe for disaster is us not making shots again this year,” Brownell said. “We’re not going to be as dominant as we need to be inside — we’ll be solid, we’ll find ways to score inside — but our guards are going to have to make 3s for us to have a good year.”

Junior forward Jaron Blossomgame is the face of the program, a versatile and athletic yet undersized power forward who produced eight double-doubles last year, tied for third among returning ACC players.

“I think the next part of my game is being able to get my teammates shots and seeing the next guy,” Blossomgame said. “Last year, I did prove that I could score with the ball, but in order for us to be successful I have to be able to get my teammates shots, see my teammates better.”

Senior center Landry Nnoko (97 career games, 64 starts) brings experience, and sophomore Donte Grantham (8.8 points per game) adds range and explosiveness. Whether Holmes, who sat out last year after transferring from San Francisco, meshes with those forwards as he adds more speed from the point guard position likely holds the key to Clemson’s fortunes.

“Avry is a lot different from Rod. He plays a lot faster and he’s really talkative,” Nnoko said. “He’s not afraid to tell guys what to do and point out the mistakes, which is kind of what we lacked last year. He’s going to be a really good leader for us this year, and he plays hard as hell.”

While center Sidy Djitte recovers from a knee injury and freshman Legend Robertin awaits an academic green light from the NCAA clearinghouse, the Tigers will roll with an eight-man rotation starting with their season opener Friday against North Carolina Central.

“The early part of the season, that’s something we’ll have to deal with,” Blossomgame said. “We’ll have to stay conditioned and be ready for our time.”

While Littlejohn Coliseum undergoes a $63.5 million renovation, the Tigers will play home games at Greenville’s Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

“They have the Clemson logos everywhere you see, and outside the arena in downtown they have billboards of players and everything, so it gives us a sense of home court,” Blossomgame said. “It’ll be really good. I think a lot of people will come out and they’re really excited to see us play.”

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