Every year we say to not draw too many conclusions from VCU’s Black & Gold game, yet every year we fall back into the same trap of getting TOO EXCITED about a MEANINGLESS exhibition game. Let’s do it again with my top-10 most exciting signs following VCU’s Black & Gold scrimmage this past weekend!
1. A healthy Jamir Watkins – Just over three years ago Jamir Watkins announced his commitment to VCU, the then 4-star wing choosing the Rams over West Virginia, Virginia Tech, St. John’s and Seton Hall. His first season he showed a tremendous amount of promise for the black and gold, averaging 7.2 points per contest as a freshman in his 18.4 minutes of action. A torn ACL the following offseason ended what was to be a breakout sophomore year before it even began. Needless to say Watkins was back for the first time in what felt like a long time and VERY looked impressive in the gold team’s win. In his 24 minutes of action on Saturday, the NJ native posted 10 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks in the most Vince Williams stat line since Vince left for the NBA. Watkins hit threes and made drives to the basket look effortless and looked very much like the pro prospect I expected him to be before he went down to injury last offseason. The Rams’ largest hole to fill this year is that void left from Williams’ graduation. Watkins looks up to the task and then some so far.
2. The versatility of Brandon Johns Jr. – One of the other, if not THE most talked about player from this weekend’s action (at least in my phone calls), is Michigan transfer, Brandon Johns Jr. The 6’8 stretch four scored 13 points to lead the gold team and added a game-high +9 box +/-. He opened Gold’s scoring up with a made corner three, used that same threat to drive for other easy buckets and just flashed a versatility which combined with his size is something Ram fans haven’t seen here since perhaps Jamie Skeen. Johns had a down year this past year at Michigan, but in the season prior was a STARTER on a Michigan Elite 8 team that came up just three points shy of a Final 4. He has a career 56% true shooting percentage and will now play an Atlantic 10 schedule that statistically should be easier to navigate than his days in the Big 10. Foster Loyer was a breakout Big 10 transfer for Davidson this past season. Could Johns be the same for VCU this year?
3a. JJ’s breakout – Gone from last year’s team are big men Hason Ward, Levi Stockard and Mikeal Brown-Jones and the name “Jaylen” DeLoach from the public address announcements. That has created a massive amount of room for “JJ” DeLoach to take over. Ram fans heard a lot from the new nickname, the Georgia native scoring a game-high 18 points on 80% shooting for team black, most of his scoring coming from one quick post move and a dunk. Through much of last year, DeLoach looked like the Rams most complete big man, but due to his freshman status perhaps, found himself the third most played on the year. This year looks to be his time to shine and I love that.
3b. Ace is that dude – Albeit in a losing effort, Ace Baldwin was, as expected, one of the best players on the floor on the night. Baldwin scored 15 points on a 73.5% true shooting percentage and dished out five assists and plundered a game-high four steals. Had his team hit some open threes (Black was 3-15 from deep, Ace accounting for two makes and one miss of that total), his assist rate would’ve been even better and black would’ve won. The long and short of it though being that Ace very much looks like the preseason all-conference player he was just announced to be. Throw him into a lineup of VCU’s top players and I can’t wait to see what he does this year.
5. Sneaky Zeb needs more discussion – Ace Baldwin is a preseason first team player and Jayden Nunn is seeing his name on draft boards (yes, for following this season). So that’s a great backcourt to begin with. And again, it was just one game, but it felt nice to see a THIRD guard show he might just as well be as good as the other two. A former top-100 recruit to Michigan, Zeb Jackson found his way to VCU this offseason following limited playing time with the Wolverines. His exhibition debut saw him post 10 points on a 72.7% true shooting percentage (scored inside and out), tie his fellow Michigan transfer with a game-high +9 box +/- and added a very-VCU three steals in the win. There could be zero letup for the Rams backcourt this season with the talent that seems to be available this year at the one and two positions. The depth there is beyond promising, particularly with the addition of Jackson.
6. The black walls! – For years we bitched on the vcuramnation.com forums about the boring gray walls of the Siegel Center concourse, which makes me so excited to report that they painted them black! Sure, it doesn’t really effect the team, but I do think it’s one step in the right direction for VCU to get away from the “Costco Center” and “Cafenasium” nicknames I’ve seen other fan bases put on VCU’s home arena.
7. The kids are alright – VCU brought in the Atlantic 10’s top rated recruiting class and they flashed a good bit of potential in Saturday’s exhibition. Perhaps what was most surprising is the biggest breakout star of the group might be the one that flew under the radar, London native, Tobi Lawal. The 6’8 diamond VCU might have dug up has perhaps one of the best combinations of size and athletic ability we’ve seen make its way VCU. Add him to previous top-100 recruits, Fats Billups (who I LOVE) and Christian Fermin and all signs point to another successful recruiting class for the black and gold.
8. Ryan – Most love him, some hate him, but I’m in the love him crowd, so it was just great to see after a multi-year absence the return of Ryan Kopasci to the Siegel Center. In my opinion he’s like one of the infinity stones VCU needs to collect to maximize it’s power. Mission accomplished. Now we just need to figure out what the other stones are.
9. We can’t shoot this well from the foul line all year, can we? – I just don’t see this trend continuing, but combined all VCU players hit 25 out of 27 free throws in this game including a perfect 12-12 from bigs Johns, DeLoach and Lawal. Now, when the game matters and there is a real loss possibility at the end of 40 minutes, I think the degree of difficulty clearly ramps up there, but a positive sign just the same (helps me sorta forget that we shot just 29.6% from three).
10. Might be my favorite/most promising starting/core group in a while – Starting roles are overrated, it’s really more about minutes (ask Brandon Rozzell), but just looking at the talent and capabilities of what I could see as VCU’s core group, this miiiight be one of the more promising groups I think VCU has had in a while. This is as deep of a Rams team as I’ve probably seen, but I think depth CAN be overrated if your key 5 or 6 can’t punch the top of the A-10 in the teeth. I think this year’s main crunch time group could have the ability to do just that, which is something I’m very excited about and gives me more confidence than perhaps I knew I’d have heading into the season following the transfers we saw this offseason.