It's never too early to start to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: the NC State Wolfpack.
And that, folks, is why we call it the Way Too Early Top 25.
On April 7, we assumed that star Wolfpack guard Trevor Lacey would be back for another season. After all, despite a second-team All-ACC campaign (15.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game), a key role in the Wolfpack's upending of No. 1 seed Villanova (and Sweet 16 near miss against Louisville), and great perimeter shooting and isolation scoring (more on that below), Lacey was widely regarded as a second-round stretch. No one was murmuring about the possibility Lacey might declare, at least not in earshot. We casually assumed he would return, and star once more, for a team whose postseason success would preface far greater expectations in 2015-16.
We shouldn't have. Last week, Lacey said in a statement that "the toughest decision of his life" had ended in the conclusion that pursuing an NBA future "is what is best for me." Predictably, disagreement was widespread; Lacey still isn't seen as likely to be drafted at all. But it's hard to begrudge Lacey his decision (and not just because it's weird to begrudge a stranger's lifelong aspirations) all the same. Why? He'll be 24 in October. That's ancient for the NBA draft. The likely top guard in the 2015 lottery, Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell, turned 19 in February. By now, scouts know what Lacey is, and the cost of burning another year wasn't worth the putative benefits.
NC State fans weren't happy, of course, but fans aren't logical. As surprising as his decision may have been at first glance, and as much as it seemed to fit the meme of deluded, starry-eyed prospects getting bad information and leaving too early, Lacey's logic was sound.
What the immediate future holds:
Of course, State fans were upset for a reason; losing Lacey is a blow. Beyond his age, experience and 39 percent 3-point shooting, Lacey was one of the nation's very best pure isolation scorers in 2014-15. Only 32 players in all of Division I recorded more than 100 isolation plays last season, according to Synergy Scouting data. Only two -- Penn State's D.J. Newbill and Murray State's Cameron Payne -- were more efficient than Lacey. The Wolfpack guard kept defenses stretched with his long- and midrange shooting, and his improved ballhandling and wise pick-and-roll reads made him borderline unstoppable -- and opened things up for fellow departee Ralston Turner -- when he put the ball on the floor.
But even without Lacey and Turner, all hope need not be lost. The prime beneficiary of Lacey's unguardability might have been Anthony "Cat" Barber, who led in assist rate and flashed some promising shooting numbers (45 percent from 2, 38 percent from 3) as a sophomore. Rising freshman big man Abdul-Malik Abu flew under the radar for most of the season, but his raw strength overwhelmed Villanova in that round of 32 triumph. Fellow forward Beejay Anya finished ranked fifth in the nation in block rate (13.4 percent). And Mark Gottfried has a deep crew of emergent wings and forwards, one of whom, Lennard Freeman, was a rate-rebounding beast in limited minutes. There is talent here.
There are also questions. The 2014-15 Wolfpack were probably the best defensive team of Gottfried's tenure, which isn't saying a whole lot. How much different will designed sets have to be without the cushion of Lacey's isolations? Will losing so much experience in the backcourt make an already bizarrely inconsistent team more so? With Lacey's spot available, will any of NC State's targets -- three of the very best players in the 2015 class -- make it to Raleigh, North Carolina?
Some of these questions existed already. Lacey's decision introduced more. The story of the 2014-15 Wolfpack was one of a talented team with persistently high potential that only occasionally realized it. NC State die-hards were likely hoping for genuine, sustained success in the season to come -- a less jagged, more assured season, one that started and finished strong. With Lacey gone, the ceiling need not be lowered, necessarily. But the chances of a consistently great -- or even just consistent -- campaign look far less likely than before.
Then again, what do we know? It's still way too early.