The Kids are Alright: With Three Big East All-Freshman Selections, Men’s Basketball is on the Rise

March 15, 2019

When Georgetown men’s basketball coach Patrick Ewing announced his first starting five this season, fans were both bewildered and excited. The Hoyas were taking on Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES), and Ewing, about to begin his second season at the helm of Georgetown’s program, had decided to insert not one, but two freshmen into the lineup.

James Akinjo, a four-star recruit out of Richmond, California, was an obvious choice. Ewing brought in Akinjo to jolt the Hoyas’ offense as the starting point guard. For a team that had lacked an electrifying playmaker in the position for several years, it was a given that he would take that spot from the outset.

The more questionable freshman insert was Mac McClung. Ewing had an array of veteran options at his disposal, including Jagan Mosely, Jahvon Blair, and Greg Malinowski, to fill that second starting guard position, but he chose to go with another freshman.

“That’s my starting lineup,” Ewing said of his decision after the game. “They’re two terrific players. Nothing against Blair or Mosely, but that’s who I want to start.”

Georgetown fans were well aware of McClung’s talents before the season began. The Gate City, Virginia, native rose to national prominence last year for his high-flying dunks and prodigious scoring ability. McClung broke former Hoya Allen Iverson’s Virginia High School League single-season scoring record in five fewer games. Yet McClung was rated as just a three-star recruit and many questioned the 6-foot-2-inch guard’s ability to translate his scoring to the college level.

But both guards shined early in the UMES game. Within the first 30 seconds of play, McClung pulled up from the left side and hit a jumper for Georgetown’s first points of the season. Three minutes later, Akinjo made a flashy inside pass to sophomore forward Jamorko Pickett for his first career assist. On the first UMES possession out of the halftime break, McClung intercepted a pass and threw down one of his signature reverse, double-pump dunks, made famous on YouTube and Instagram. With solid all-around performances, both freshmen lived up to much of the hype surrounding them going into the game.

“It was a nice dunk,” Ewing said with a grin when asked about McClung’s highlight-reel play. “He’s very athletic.”

Despite all the fanfare surrounding Akinjo and McClung, neither guard had the most impressive freshman performance of the day. Josh LeBlanc, a forward from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, filled the stat sheet with an opening line of 11 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks, and two steals. LeBlanc was a three-star recruit like McClung but was the least heralded of the freshman trio coming into the season. For a player who spends most of his time inside the paint, LeBlanc is undersized at just 6-foot-7-inch, but quickly proved detractors wrong with his tenacious defense and elite athleticism.

“He was great,” Trey Mourning, a graduate student forward, said of LeBlanc’s game against UMES. “Eleven and 11 off the bench. That kid is special. He can definitely do a lot and help us out this season.”

LeBlanc has continued to be a vital part of the team, starting in every game since Dec. 22. He has notched seven double-doubles on the season and ranks sixth in the Big East in rebounding with 7.5 per game. On the defensive side, he is second on the team in both blocks and steals. On offense, he averages 9.4 points per game. Meanwhile, McClung and Akinjo rank first and second among freshmen in the Big East in scoring and 16th and 17th overall, respectively. Akinjo has also been an effective distributor, averaging a conference-best 5.4 assists per game.

Since that opener, Akinjo, LeBlanc, and McClung have solidified their starting roles and continued to exceed expectations. However, the freshmen have also had their troubles. After all, the Hoyas finished the season without an assured spot in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight season. All three have had difficulties with decision-making on the court, perhaps none more so than Akinjo.

Late in a crucial Jan. 15 matchup against Marquette at Capital One Arena, Akinjo handled the ball for the Hoyas, down one with 19 seconds remaining. He chose to push the ball in transition and had his shot blocked out of bounds. After Ewing called a timeout to set up their final offensive play, Akinjo again received the ball. He elected to drive directly at the Big East’s leading shot blocker, Golden Eagles sophomore forward Theo John, who again denied him at the rim. Ewing was visibly frustrated as the Hoyas blew a prime opportunity against one of the top teams in the conference. Akinjo acknowledges that being overly aggressive on offense is something he will need to address as his game continues to progress.

“That’s something I’m still working on as you can see,” he told reporters when discussing his tendency to over-dribble on offense. “My teammates are helping me point out stuff I need to work on, so I’m just trying to get better.”

For Georgetown’s following game, a matchup against Creighton at home, Akinjo did not start for the first and only time this season. He would still play 30 minutes and rack up a season-high 11 assists, but he continued to misfire, shooting just 2 for 11 from the field. After the game, Ewing had a positive take on Akinjo’s performance.

“I thought he did a very good job,” he said. “He didn’t shoot the ball well, but he distributed the ball. He took his shots when he had his shots. He made great plays.”

At the same time, sitting at 2-4 in the conference, Ewing made it clear he expected more from his young players.

“We have to grow up fast. The freshmen have to grow up faster than they’re growing up.”

A week and a half later, Akinjo put on one of his best performances of the season against Xavier, notching 23 points on 6 of 10 from the field to go along with five rebounds, four assists, and five steals. Since then, his shooting has continued to be erratic, but his decisions as the team’s floor general have markedly improved.

His backcourt mate, McClung, has also experienced shooting woes. McClung missed his first sixteen 3-point attempts of the season, leading media and fans to wonder if his offensive repertoire was restricted to hard drives at the rim. He quickly put those doubts to rest, though, as he made nine of his next 26 attempts from beyond the arc. Despite shooting just 29 percent from deep on the season, McClung has shown deep range and the ability to catch fire, hitting four 3s in four different games.

On Dec. 22 against Little Rock, McClung had his best game of the season, scoring 38 points on four of nine 3-point attempts, but suffered a leg injury which forced him to miss the next four games, including the start of Big East play. He did not miss a beat in his first conference action. During his first two games against Providence and then-No. 15 Marquette, McClung was an efficient 14-of-24 from the field and 6 of 12 from deep. In the Providence matchup, McClung had one of the plays of the season. Down three points with three seconds remaining, McClung received the ball near the half-court line. After a pump fake, he took a dribble and fired from over 30 feet. The shot went off the glass and in to send the game to overtime. The Hoyas would eventually win after two extra periods.

McClung continued to impress early on in Big East play, and on Jan. 27, he scored 25 points against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden. After McClung notched 11 points in a Jan. 31 matchup against Xavier, Musketeers head coach Travis Steele praised the freshman guard.

“McClung’s talented,” Steele said. “He’s always putting you on your heels. He’s in attack mode from the very first time he catches the ball to the end of the game. I think he’s got a chance to be a really good player.”

In Georgetown’s final game of the regular season on March 9, the freshmen led the way and showed just how bright the future could be for men’s basketball on the Hilltop. After a blowout loss to DePaul in Chicago, the Hoyas stood at 8-9 in conference play, with any hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid fading fast, especially considering they were taking on No. 16 Marquette in Milwaukee. To make matters worse, star senior center Jessie Govan got into foul trouble and was limited to playing just 20 minutes of the game.

It was up to the freshmen to guide the team to victory. Akinjo redeemed himself after his error-prone display earlier in the season against the Golden Eagles, leading the Hoyas with 25 points, to go along with five rebounds and five assists. McClung finished just behind him with 23 points. LeBlanc was also limited by foul trouble but managed eight points and six rebounds, even extending his range beyond the arc for his fifth 3-pointer of the season. The Hoyas grabbed a shocking 86-84 road win over the ranked Golden Eagles and breathed new life into their hopes of reaching the tournament for the first time since 2015. A day later, all three freshmen were named to the Big East All-Freshman team, marking the first time one team has had three players earn the honor since Pittsburgh in 1988.

It is impossible to say for sure how this team will develop over the next three years. But Ewing’s second-ever recruiting class is clearly a core of talent capable of taking the Hoyas to new heights. At the same time, Ewing wants to keep everything in perspective.

“I believe in these guys, and they’re starting to show that all the belief I have in them is starting to pay off,” he said. “We’re growing. We’re all growing. Everyone is growing. And that’s basketball. You’re going to have highs. You’re going to have lows.”

For now, the Hoyas have secured their best season finish in four years. With this freshman group, there is no telling how far they can go.

Aaron Wolf
Former Sports Executive and 2020 Georgetown College graduate. Enjoyer of OPS.

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