UT trio of NBA first-rounders will be missed, but not impossible to replace

Christian Corona

For the Longhorns, watching three former players being picked in the NBA Draft’s first round can be both exciting and troubling — exciting because of the bright futures that await them, but troubling because they leave Texas a bit short-handed.

But there’s no reason to worry. Texas head coach Rick Barnes has established a program consistently successful enough that it doesn’t rebuild — it reloads. His squad returns some solid players, including sharp-shooter J’Covan Brown, along with big men Clint Chapman and Alexis Wangmene. There are also several promising newcomers, such as lightning-quick point guard Myck Kabongo, top-100 prospects guard Sheldon McClellan, forward Jonathan Holmes and guard Julien Lewis.

The Longhorns may not start Big 12 play 11-0 like Thompson, Hamilton and Joseph helped them do. They may not climb as high as No. 2 in the polls. And they may not have anyone contend for the Big 12 player of the year award like Hamilton did last season. But next year should see Texas go farther in the NCAA Tournament than last year’s team did.

The biggest reason Texas can improve from last year’s second-round exit is Brown. In the Longhorns’ biggest win, a 74-63 triumph over Kansas in their first ever win in Lawrence, Brown was brilliant. He was the catalyst of the second-half surge that put Texas on top, scoring 16 of his 23 points in the final 11:36 including consecutive three-pointers that gave the Longhorns their first lead, 45-44, at the 10:41 mark. Brown saved his best basketball for last, averaging 17.4 points in the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments, shooting 46.2 percent from the floor, 96.8 percent from the free throw line, and 42.9 percent from beyond the arc.

Chapman, who redshirted all of last season for the opportunity to start his senior year, and Wangmene will be serviceable big men who may not be dangerous scoring threats but can still pull down rebounds in bunches, as well as alter (and maybe even block) a few shots.

But Texas has always relied on freshmen — from Kevin Durant to D.J. Augustin to Avery Bradley to Thompson and Joseph. This year will be no different. Kabongo, a McDonald’s All-American from the same Findlay Prep school that Thompson, Joseph and 2009 graduate Avery Bradley went to, will likely take over as point guard next season. Next season figures to be the first since 2008, when Augustin was here, that the Longhorns will have a true point guard. Three others from the high school class of 2011 ­— McClellan, Holmes, Lewis ­— should get shots at playing time as well.

This is not to say that Texas won’t miss the trio of first-rounders. Hamilton was the team’s leading scorer, Thompson its top rebounder and Joseph had the most assists. They were three of four Longhorns to average 30 minutes per game, with the other being Gary Johnson, who just finished his senior season. Those are not easy holes to fill.
But with players such as Brown coming back and players such as Kabongo coming in, Texas has a good shot at making it back to the Sweet 16, or further.