It's safe to say that Alabama was not an imposing team when it came to their inside game a year ago, even before Carl Engstrom was lost for the season with a knee injury. At its healthiest, Alabama's front line last season consisted of two 7 foot projects and a "below the rim" power forward who came into the season out of shape (by his own admission) and already struggling with ankle and back concerns that would persist through the season.
Despite the size of Moussa Gueye and Engstrom, Alabama struggled to rebound the ball on a consistent basis. To lend some perspective, Alabama's leading rebounder last season was Rodney Cooper, a G/F playing out of position at the 4, who pulled down 4.5 boards per game. The combined total for Bama's two 7 footers - 6.6 per game. That isn't completely fair to Engstrom, who only played in seven games, but through those seven games he was only averaging 2.7 rebounds per game. Not exactly channeling Bill Russell. Alabama must improve its rebounding numbers this season if it is going to have a chance at returning to the NCAA tournament.
PF - Nick Jacobs - We'll start with Nick since he's the subject of an injury rumor. Last week, Nick posted a photo on Instagram showing his arm in a sling. I do not have an Instagram account so I did not see the photo. The rumor began as a dislocated shoulder and quickly escalated, as rumors tend to do, to a torn labrum and will probably end with some form of demonic possession. Since that time, I've heard conflicting reports from he's out to 3-6 months to the injury isn't that serious and we can expect to see him on the court when Bama tips off the season against Oklahoma on November 8th. Hopefully, the latter rumor is true as Nick is a very important piece for the team this season.
The 2012-13 season probably won't find a permanent place in Nick's scrap book. With the exception of the last month or so of the season, Jacobs struggled with his conditioning, ankle issues, back issues, and, as a result, his consistency on the court. For a team that was light on post players, particularly post players that could score, the lack of production didn't do Nick or the team any favors.
He began to improve once the conference schedule began. By the end of the season he was performing at a much higher level. The numbers speak for themselves. Nick averaged 5.0 ppg and 2.9 rpg in the non-conference portion of the schedule compared to an average of 9.0 ppg and 4.6 rpg in the remaining games. Despite the slow start, Jacobs finished with final stat lines that were higher than his stats as a freshman.
The biggest question concerning Nick before this rumored shoulder injury was could he enter the 2013-14 season healthy and in better shape than he did a year ago? The trip to Europe seemed to provide a positive answer to this question as Nick was in shape and played extremely well in the games. One thing that stood out was his improved rebounding numbers and the video evidence that he was apparently improving using his off hand. The shoulder injury certainly tempers that excitement if Nick misses any extended time.
If he's healthy to start the season, the return of Engstrom and the arrival of Taylor should allow Jacobs to move to the 4, the more natural spot for him. However, playing his natural position and being healthy is only half the battle for Nick to become the player he's capable of. His offensive game, while effective to this point, has plenty of room to grow (finishing with his off hand, developing a mid-range game), and it goes without saying that there is much room for improvement on the defensive end. Assuming the shoulder injury is a minor bump in the road, I believe Nick can be a much better player than what we've seen to date. He's definitely an x-factor this season.
C - Carl Engstrom - He only played in seven games a year ago before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the Cincinnati game. While Carl's numbers were modest at that point, he had been showing some improvement and broke into the starting line-up just prior to his injury. If not for that injury, I believe Carl would have continued his improvement and could have proven to be the difference between Bama playing in the NCAA instead of the NIT.
Carl is 7-1, 285 lbs and is a better athlete than his size would suggest. He will definitely offer the team a better offensive presence in the low post than Moussa did, though it remains to be seen if he can defend as well as Moussa was capable of. The arrival of Jimmie Taylor will put pressure on Carl to continue to improve and it won't surprise me if we see Grant split the minutes down the middle for both. One thing on Carl's side is his experience. Three years in the program will certainly serve him well.
C - Jimmie Taylor - A four star recruit, Taylor was rated the top player in the state of Alabama for the 2013 class. He brings some much needed size and athleticism to the frontcourt, but how ready will he be to contribute as a freshman? Some have described him as a sort of poor man's Nerlens Noel, capable of impacting a game defensively, but raw and in need of development on the offensive end. With only three true post players available to play this season, Taylor will be forced to learn on the job. While he may not bring much to the table offensively in the beginning, his ability to provide rebounding and defend the rim will be gladly accepted.
PF - Shannon Hale - He's listed as a power forward, but there's little I've seen to suggest that Hale is your typical power forward. At the very least, he's a stretch four. To me, he looks more like a small forward due to his skill set and body type. Regardless of what position he plays, I'm very excited about the long term prospects of Hale. Like Taylor, the question is how much can he contribute as a freshman? While Taylor may have been the higher rated player, Hale may be the more "college ready" of the two. I think Hale has the potential to become a star player before he leaves Tuscaloosa.
Hale probably won't be a starter this year, but his ability to knock down shots from the mid-range should help him secure a place in the rotation. Unfortunately, questions remain about how well other aspects of the game (defending, passing, rebounding, hustle, etc) will come to him as he transitions to the college level. It might take a season of coaching for him to truly embrace his potential. Let's hope it's sooner rather than later.