‘Chaotic’ is probably the best word I can think of to describe the roster situation Steve Prohm walked into four seasons ago. The immense talent on that roster, including six future NBA players and arguably two of the program’s five greatest players of all time, concealed an albatross of a scholarship chart that would undoubtedly plague the team a few years down the road.
The 2016 Sweet Sixteen team featured exactly two underclassmen on the entire roster, Hallice Cooke and Simeon Carter, neither of which would finish their careers in Ames. The 2017 team was a slight improvement, featuring a whopping three underclassmen in Solomon Young, Nick Weiler-Babb, and Jakolby Long, who transferred last season. While those teams both had plenty of high-end talent that could comprise basically the entire regular rotation, both had an enormous inherent flaw: there wasn’t a plan for the future.
While we were enjoying two seasons with a core group of players that could win games by double digits virtually on auto-pilot, Steve Prohm was worrying about how he was going to find enough capable players to replace an entire roster in the matter of two seasons. However, Cyclone fans had become accustomed to winning, so enduring a couple bad seasons in a row in the name of recruiting and developing a batch of young players was never an option. Unfortunately, this became startlingly, sickeningly true just a few years later, but we’ll touch on that later.
The eventual manifestation of those latent issues showed up in 2018, as the explosive, but inconsistent duo of Lindell Wigginton and Cameron Lard led the team to an ultimately disappointing season. Without looking it up, how many players from the 2018 squad are still on the team?
Two. Terrence Lewis and Solomon Young.
Blue bloods that can land multiple top-twenty recruits every year have to replace large portions of the roster all the time, but they do so by inserting the best players from the talent pool every year. Iowa State can and has landed guys like those in past, but is far from a program that can plan on landing a five-star recruit (let alone multiple) on a year-in, year-out basis. Instead, the Cyclones tend to rely on under-the-radar guys that fit the scheme, and can be utilized to their full potential.
So how does a coach approach the task of replacing well over half the team every season, while trying to remain competitive and build a stable foundation for the program to build on? To put it simply, you have to take risks.
The first major risk(s) Prohm took on in an effort to maintain the high level of play in the face of completely overhauling the roster were Lindell Wigginton and Cam Lard. Both are undeniably talented players, but were far from natural scheme fits. Lard was an athletic rim runner in the mold of Jameel McKay, but didn’t posses any sort of ability to score outside of the paint, and often fell victim to his emotions (on and off the court), producing wildly inconsistent performances, even on a minute-to-minute basis.
Lard came in with some academics-related red flags, but Prohm wanted to take a chance on a player that had the potential to become a cornerstone of the program for the next four years. Steve Prohm is an absolutely fabulous person by all accounts, and certainly believed he could help Cam become the player and man he could eventually become. We’ll never know exactly why Cameron Lard never became who he could have been, or why Prom wasn’t able to get the light switch to come, but it became clear as the season went on that the only person that could turn Cam around was Cam himself.
Lindell Wigginton’s story is a bit different, but ultimately ended with similar results. The Nova Scotia-native arrived in Ames an undeniably talented and athletic player, but was unpolished, and his isolation-style game contrasted sharply with the Cyclone’s high-paced, ball movement offense. However, he also represented Prohm’s best hope for staying near the top of the Big 12 while he attempted to completely rebuild the structure of the roster to fit his vision for the program going forward.
Wigginton’s talent and athleticism carried Iowa State to the few Big 12 wins they did pick up in 2018, and led to some really incredible moments like his poster dunk at Oklahoma, but he ultimately never showed that he was going to be able to lead a team when he wasn’t the alpha. It was easy to see that he had his mind on the NBA from day one (which is completely fine, by the way), but that’s not what Iowa State needed to be a successful team.
Prohm’s 2018 recruiting class of Tyrese Haliburton, Zion Griffin, George Conditt, and Talen Horton-Tucker was highly-regarded even on the national level, and deservedly so. Not only are all four players extremely talented, but this class represents the program finally transitioning to some sense of stability. Talen Horton-Tucker was the one-and-done talent the Cyclones hoped would spearhead the 2018-2019 season while the other three developed into four-year players that Iowa State could build around for the future.
The 2018-2019 roster still relied on upperclassman and players that were expected to leave after the season to fill most of the minutes, and was an offensive juggernaut...except when it wasn’t. When the ball was flying around, the Cyclones were virtually impossible to guard, but with THT, Lindell Wigginton, and grad transfer Marial Shayok all playing with one eye on the NBA, and Cameron Lard continuing to be unreliable at best, the team was likely snake-bitten from the start, as egos were destined to prevail over ball movement and team play.
Fans largely directed their frustrations toward Prohm. After all, he was the one that built the roster, and it was his job to have the team ready to play and compete. However, those exclamations of malice and anger were at least a bit shortsighted, as even the best coaching can fall victim to a player or ego unwilling to listen. Steve took the full brunt of the blame, as any coach worth their salt would (and because he’s a better person than pretty much anyone reading or writing this article), but reasonable heads understood that he was far from the only party deserving of blame.
To the disgust of myself and most anybody watching, a vocal member of the malcontents yelled “You can say that again!” when Prohm made a comment about the team enduring some tough times during Senior Day presentations after a loss to Texas Tech. The fan later apologized and owned up to his mistake, but it was an unfortunate vocalization of sentiment that had been creeping up comment sections, forums, and tweets for weeks, and an embarrassing one at that.
The upcoming 2019-2020 basketball season presents the next step in Steve Prohm’s vision for the Iowa State basketball program going forward. Just two seniors populate the roster in Prentiss Nixon and Michael Jacobson, but both are expected to be significant contributors, and have personalities and play styles that will ultimately accelerate the growth of the talented group of underclassmen Prohm has stockpiled over the past few seasons.
Returning to that impressive 2018 class, Zion Griffin and George Conditt are both expected to have much larger roles this season after showing flashes of their potential last season. However, the gem of that group has obviously turned out to be Tyrese Haliburton, who’s skyrocketed from an unknown 6’5” point guard with a goofy jumper, to an exciting pass-first point guard with a goofy jumper and the shortest shorts this side of 1990 that’s already garnering hype as a potential 2020 NBA lottery pick.
Nobody really knows what might happen with Haliburton after the season. After all, he didn’t even test the NBA waters after last season, which would make sense to do if he was planning on potentially leaving after this season, but things change in a hurry. Even if Tyrese retains his lottery pick projection and leaves in 2020, the cupboard is already stocked with capable potential replacements.
None of those young players have a game exactly like Haliburton’s, but they don’t necessarily need to, because they fit in Prohm’s system, and should be around long enough to develop into high-level players that a program can be built around. However, that development will take time.
For all the talent this team has on the roster, most of it is still young, and will need time to mesh and grow. This means that while the offense may look like another high-powered Cyclone offense at times, it also means that we’ll likely see some inconsistency while players like Tre Jackson, Rasir Bolton, Marcedus Leech, Caleb Grill, and Zion Griffin get more comfortable and grow within the program.
The same goes on the other end of the floor. Fortunately, Cyclone fans have dealt with bad defense for long enough that there will probably be more patience on that front, but we’re still likely to see some inconsistency on defense, especially from the young guys, as the team gets more comfortable playing together.
This brings us back to the keys for the 2019-2020 Cyclones, both the players and fans: patience and growth.
After a couple years of turmoil and turnover, a foundation has finally been laid for Iowa State basketball to be successful on a timeline longer than the one season. But, much like a real concrete foundation, it will take time to cure and build strength before a home can be built on top.