ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Fox proved he isn’t afraid to play freshmen by giving heavy minutes to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Nemanja Djurisic last season. Georgia’s basketball coach all but guaranteed on Tuesday that he will do more of the same this season with newcomers Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann and Brandon Morris.
“If they’ll play to their ability and do what they’re told, [they] can compete for starting positions -- all three of them, to be honest with you,” Fox said. “I think we have great competition for playing time on this team, and that’s something we’ve never had here since I came here.”
Georgia lost guards Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware -- two of the top three Bulldogs in minutes played -- from last season’s 15-17 club, but otherwise returns the bulk of a team that was youthful and streaky in 2011-12.
Whether they start or come off the bench, point guard Mann and shooting guard Gaines know there is considerable playing time available in Robinson and Ware’s absence. Now they must prove to Georgia’s coaches that they deserve the opportunity.
“Any decision he makes, to start me or bring me off the bench, I just need to lead the team, handle the ball, get command on the court and just help my team score and to win,” Mann said.
Together with small forward Morris, they have generated enthusiasm about the athleticism they will inject into Georgia’s lineup.
“[Fox] should talk about them because they’re very talented,” Djurisic said. “I haven’t seen athletes like that at shooting guard like Kenny. He’s an incredible athlete. And Brandon is an incredible athlete and Charles is very, very strong for a point guard. I haven’t seen that kind of body for a point guard in a while.”
ESPN.com rated all three players as three-star prospects, ranking Gaines (Atlanta/Whitefield Academy) as the No. 11 prospect in Georgia, followed by Morris (Lithonia/Miller Grove) at No. 13 and Mann (Alpharetta/Milton) at 14.
But all of them bring something to the table that could help them become SEC-level contributors in a hurry. As Djurisic mentioned, at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, Mann is big for a freshman point guard. Gaines’ strength and versatile all-around game will be an asset at the two-guard spot. And the 6-7 Morris has rebounding and defensive skills that reminded an ESPN recruiting analyst of former NBA forward Stacey Augmon.
But a freshman stepping in immediately is often easier said than done.
“They obviously have to learn what they’re doing,” Fox said. “They’re playing a system that’s new to them. They’re making adjustments in every part of their life, even to where they sleep at night, so I think it’s unfair to expect that they will start, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they do.
“Kentavious started and had a pretty good year as a freshman. I’ve had a lot of freshmen in my career that have started for me. They would have to earn that and they’ve got some guys ahead of them that don’t want to be beat out, either, so it will be fun to watch.”
Caldwell-Pope, ESPN’s No. 1-rated prospect in Georgia in the 2011 signing class, arrived at UGA with a great deal of fanfare and was expected to contribute heavily starting in Game 1. This season’s freshmen have it a bit easier -- not just because the expectations are more modest, but because they can share the pressure of playing early between the three of them.
“We do all play different positions, so since we do, we kind of have pressure on the position that we’re playing,” Gaines said. “But since we’re all young and we’re getting here together, it’s kind of a relief that the responsibility is distributed among us evenly. I feel like we’ll be able to lean on each other. We’re the youngest ones on the team and we’ll be able to lean on each other to succeed.”
As he did last season with Caldwell-Pope, Fox is trying to alleviate the pressure on the newcomers by playing them at only one position to start the season -- a philosophy passed down from mentor Roy Williams, who learned it from North Carolina coaching legend Dean Smith.
“Later in the year as they get more comfortable, similar to what maybe we did with Kentavious, they might get a little bit of time at another position” Fox said. “But with the depth that we have, our plan is to keep those guys just in those spots so they can learn them well.”
Thanks to the team’s 10-day tour to Italy, the newcomers are further along in their adaptation to their new roles than they typically would be by this point. That’s another reason Fox has confidence that they will be ready to contribute early.
“The trip we took was a great experience,” Mann said. “It just gave us a feel for the game and how to play with each other and what our strengths and weaknesses are. It helped me out a lot, being an incoming freshman, just to know how my teammates play.”
Now they simply need to settle into their roles as college players -- and they have players to guide them who were in the same position not too long ago.
Caldwell-Pope -- an SEC All-Freshman honoree last season after averaging 13.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game -- said their key to making a successful transition will be to play with confidence.
“It wasn’t that difficult, but it was hard for me to just come in and play as many minutes as I did,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I was nervous and I didn’t know what to expect coming in, but being around my teammates last year and being under their leadership, my teammates helped me through it.
“When they get their time to play, just stay calm and don’t get frustrated or get nervous. Just let the system be your advantage.”