I’m back from China after a nine-day, eight-night trip to Hangzhou and Shanghai with the Georgia Tech basketball team. I think as much as the actual trip was a great experience – I’d never been to China before and suspect I’ll never go again – the time abroad was additionally valuable thanks to the access provided the AJC by Josh Pastner, who permitted me to be around the team and coaches virtually the entire stay.
Before jumping back into the home stretch of the football season, a few things I took home with me from China.
1. My perception of the team is that it’s a pretty good group character-wise. In talking with assistant coach Eric Reveno and center Ben Lammers, both had similar reactions to the police questioning players on the team in connection with the shoplifting. Before the investigation was concluded, both felt confident that no one on the team would have lacked the wisdom to commit a crime like that.
But, beyond that, the group largely behaves in public, doesn’t act entitled and represents the team and school well. I suppose part of that stems from the fact that none of the players were big-time recruits coming out of high school, but also that Pastner, as Brian Gregory did before him, has done a pretty good job of recruiting players who are team-first people. They have flaws, certainly, but handle themselves well.
2. Most of the time, I sat at the front of the bus with coaches and staff on rides to and from practice and to other events. One thing that’s easy to notice is the easy camaraderie that Pastner’s three assistants, Tavaras Hardy, Darryl LaBarrie and Reveno, share. I don’t know if I’d call it unusual, but the three have a good dynamic together, which is particularly significant given that they had never worked before together, and none had been with Pastner, either.
They can laugh with each other and they seem to work well as a team. For instance, when LaBarrie led a video review of UCLA, it was nothing for Hardy or Reveno (or Pastner) to interject his own thoughts without it being seen as an encroachment or interruption.
Given how ambitious coaches can be in this profession and how big egos can get, and, again, that none had worked together previously or with Pastner, I don’t know that it’s a given that they would have the sort of chemistry they seem to enjoy. It’s to their credit and to Pastner’s, who, you might recall, took a long time to put the staff together.
3. Perhaps the two most striking features of Shanghai are, perhaps not surprisingly for a city of 24 million, are its density and size. Driving around, skyscrapers and tall apartment buildings just go on for mile after mile (or, kilometer, after kilometer, as the case may be).
The city measures 2,500 square miles. By comparison, Fulton, Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties are a combined 1,587 square miles. Parts of the city, as best I could tell, aren’t completely urban in feel, but the vastness of high-density dwellings is difficult to appreciate without seeing it in person.
According to Wikipedia, the city has 82 buildings that are 558 feet or taller. That’s about the height of the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Midtown. The Marquis is one of 15 buildings in Atlanta that height or taller.
Actually, the other characteristic of the city is how bad the air quality is. There were days you probably couldn’t see five miles. It’s not the ideal city to run a marathon. Coincidentally enough, the Shanghai International Marathon was held this past Sunday. There was actually a marathon in Hangzhou the previous Sunday.
4. Watching this team practice and interact off the court, it was hard not to notice the leadership roles that point guards Jose Alvarado and Justin Moore have with the team. Both are engaging and outgoing and I think Alvarado in particular seems to have the skill for communicating and encouraging on the floor. It’s to Tech’s benefit that they have players who are comfortable taking on that role at that position. They both have plenty of room for improvement, but there’s a lot of potential for the two as a point guard duo. Helpfully, Moore and Alvarado have become close friends in the few months since Alvarado joined the team over the summer.
Alvarado seems always in control on the court, delivering accurate passes and having the trust of his teammates. Against UCLA, he hit two big 3-pointers late in the game to keep Tech alive. He should be fun to watch improve this season.
5. Pastner has been trying to be more encouraging with this team than he was last year, in no small part because he has four scholarship freshmen and also because he recognized he was probably harder on the team last year than was helpful, from his perspective.
In practice, you can see it in the way that he tries to build players up, particularly younger players, praising them when they execute plays and techniques the right way. Before one practice, he told forward Moses Wright, sort of out of the blue, that he can be an elite shot blocker like Lammers.
It’s clear he likes the talent on the team, but recognizes that it’s going to take time. The non-conference schedule is really, really weak after the four power-conference games, and it’s probably to this team’s benefit for it to be that way. I think having games where they can learn and still ideally win could prove beneficial.
6. One part of the trip I won’t forget was the morning that police showed up at the Hyatt Regency in Hangzhou. I was in the lobby waiting to go with the team to practice, and a lot of unusual things were happening, none more conspicuous and alarming than the sight of a police officer looking in the cargo compartment of the UCLA team bus.
The UCLA players, who were on their bus headed to practice and then off to Shanghai, then got off their bus and returned to the hotel and Tech players, who had already gathered in the lobby to head to practice, instead stayed at the hotel in a team meeting room but without Alvarado, Moore and Jon Brown.
Meanwhile, up on the teams’ floors, players were being questioned about their possible roles in a shoplifting case that eventually resulted in the arrests of three UCLA players (and the clearing of Alvarado, Brown and Moore).
It was a tense and stressful morning for those involved. The Tech team bus, on the way to the Hangzhou East Railway Station to go to Shanghai, nearly got in an accident going through an intersection. Reveno, typically an even-keeled sort, remarked, “We can’t catch a break,” and his voice reflected his weariness.
The day ended, improbably, with the tour guide for the Shanghai portion of the trip, singing Rihanna’s “Umbrella” on the ride from the train station to the hotel. It had an unmistakable effect on the mood of the bus, gave the group a needed lift and set the stage for an enjoyable stay for the final four days of the trip. A really strange day.
7. It’s only one game, but I came away from the loss to UCLA thinking this team could be in good shape.
Lammers looks like his offensive game has improved. Alvarado looks like he’ll be, at least, a competent game manager and possibly more. The other three freshmen, forwards Evan Cole and Moses Wright and guard Curtis Haywood, could be, at the least, players who can contribute at least off and on. Saturday was Cole’s turn, as he chipped in six points and got on the floor for two loose balls. Haywood hit a 3-pointer. Wright, who started, didn’t do much (no points and two rebounds in 16 minutes), but he’s shown enough to give the impression that he’ll have better games.
Graduate transfer guard Brandon Alston had kind of a rough game – six turnovers, 2-for-9 from the field – but he has the potential to be a perimeter threat. I think he’s having to learn the style of play that Pastner wants, but he also shows a dedication to improvement (he stayed after practice Thursday and Friday to work on his shot) that could benefit the Jackets down the road.
And it was a three-point loss without guards Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson. UCLA was without its three players, but I imagine Pastner would have preferred to play the game at full strength for both teams rather than the depleted rosters both teams used.
What Tech really needs is for Haywood or Alston (or Okogie, Alvarado or Jackson) to develop into a dependable threat from 3-point range. (You may have read this before.) The freshmen will get better as the season goes on, and the floor they’re starting at is a little higher than I thought it might be.
To put itself in position to challenge for an NCAA Tournament bid going into ACC play, the challenge in the nonconference will be to win every game they should and ideally pick off two of the three power-conference opponents – Northwestern, Tennessee and Georgia. That would put Tech at 10-2 with one more nonconference game against Yale in January.
8. Personally, it was a really fun, if exhausting, trip. The UCLA arrests and the CBS Sports article about Ron Bell kind of threw me off schedule for the next couple days.
I didn’t get to do a whole lot – to my regret and shame, I don’t think I ate a meal outside of the hotel, except for Disneyland, which is probably even worse than eating at the hotel – and I didn’t really get out of the hotel in a non-work capacity until the final night in Shanghai. (Not complaining or asking for sympathy, just providing information.)
Still, I saw a lot (I’m still amazed that Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai, who is worth about $10 billion, gave both teams an hour of his time during their visit to the company’s campus.) and spent a lot of time around the team, which was valuable from a work standpoint and entertaining on top of it. There are a lot of bright and funny people in that group and I laughed and learned a lot. Hopefully my reporting this season will reflect that.