GREENSBORO, N.C. – While the rest of Clemson’s starting lineup has essentially been etched in stone this season, the shooting guard spot has been a much more fluid situation.
That may not have been exactly how Brad Brownell would have drawn it up, but he admits it’s turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“We’ve had a little bit of a merry-go-round at times at the two,” the Tiger head coach said. “But the other thing that does is it has kept our guys very involved. Everybody has felt a part of it. It hasn’t just felt like there are seven or eight guys who play all the minutes all year, and it’s hard to manage your roster.
“Especially since Christmas, guys have felt like their minutes, whatever they get, are valuable. Because of that, guys come to practice and practice hard, so we continue to get better.”
Now, not only has a regular starter emerged, but with the Tigers set to begin play at the ACC Tournament on Thursday, there are signs the rest of the stable of shooting guards is rounding into form, as well.
Damarcus Harrison started the last seven games of the regular season at the two-guard for the Tigers, and his 6-foot-4 frame and defensive prowess have created a matchup problem for opponents on both ends of the floor.
“Damarcus is a guy with more size who has good versatility in terms of being able to handle the ball and rebound it and guard bigger players,” Brownell said. “When he’s shooting the ball well, he’s an excellent guard.”
And that’s exactly what he’s been lately. The junior from Greenwood is averaging 7.1 points per game, third best on the team, but has posted double-digit efforts in five of Clemson’s last six games, including consecutive 15-point performances at Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.
While Harrison might be the Tigers’ best two-way option at the two, Jordan Roper is probably the most dangerous offensive weapon, especially when he’s feeling it from long distance.
“Jordan has had some very good games for us through his career, and he’s a guy who can run around and make shots quickly,” Brownell said. “He’s probably our best and fastest cutter coming off screens to shoot.”
The sophomore averaged in double figures for much of the season, as late as Jan. 4, when he was averaging 10.2 points per game after scoring 15 against Boston College.
But the southpaw suffered through a prolonged shooting slump that saw him go eight games without reaching double figures – including scoring just four total points across a six-game span.
He admits it was a frustrating stretch, but the fact the team was winning helped ease the pain.
“We were playing well, playing good basketball, and it was good to see Damarcus get into a rhythm because we definitely need him,” Roper said. “I’m for the team, so it’s not all about me.”
Roper finished with a flourish, however, as he scored 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting, including 3-of-6 from distance, as the Tigers nearly pulled an upset of Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale.
“It was a good confidence-builder,” Roper said. “Hopefully it will give me more minutes on the floor, but we have a good rotation. Damarcus is playing really well.”
And Roper has set a precedent for delivering in the ACC Tournament. He was the Tigers’ leading scorer in last season’s first-round loss to Florida State, when he scored 18 points, including a 3-for-3 effort from three-point range.
“It’s just another positive thing that you take into consideration just to build your confidence,” Roper said. “I want to win, and that’s our goal.”
With first-team All-ACC wing K.J. McDaniels commanding the lion’s share of the minutes at the three, freshman Austin Ajukwa has found his way into the rotation at the two-guard.
“Austin is kind of a combination guy who’s pretty athletic and bouncy and has some speed,” Brownell said. “As he gets stronger, we think he’s got a chance to be a good guard position player for us, whether that’s the two or three or whatever it is.”
Ajukwa scored six points against Virginia, five against Maryland and six against Pitt – giving him three of his four best scoring efforts within his final five appearances of the season.
While his 6-foot-5 frame and athleticism make him a fit for the small forward spot, Ajukwa believes his future is actually at the two-guard.
“I want to end up being a shooting guard, so I work a lot at that position,” Ajukwa said. “I think it’s good because I’m getting good reps at that spot.”
And he’s been getting even more of those reps of late, as three of the six games he’s logged double-digit minutes have come since Feb. 15.
“I was just keeping my head up and getting better every day,” Ajukwa said of the early season stretch when his playing time was limited. “And then when my name was called, I was more than ready.”
Brownell has often said he makes little differentiation between the guard positions, but with Rod Hall locking down the minutes at the point, Adonis Filer – himself a point guard by trade – has found minutes at the two-guard, as well.
Filer started alongside Hall four straight games from Feb. 1 to Feb. 11 and continued to see minutes there even after Harrison emerged as the regular starter.
The sophomore from Chicago suffered a strained hamstring against Pittsburgh, but Brownell said Filer should be available Thursday after he practiced well at UNC Greensboro on Wednesday.
“Adonis is one of our best, if not our best, on-ball defender, so it will be good to have another athletic guard in the lineup,” Brownell said.
And with Filer back in the fold, the Tigers are definitely not short on options in their backcourt.
“I think it’s one of our strengths – just being able to rotate guys,” Roper said. “Guys have different strengths and are able to bring energy at different times. Because it may not be me, it may not be Damarcus, it may not be Ajukwa, but one of us has to get going. I think it’s good just to have that depth.”
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