Georgetown basketball ready to cope with life without Otto Porter Jr.

The Hoyas men's and women's basketball tipped off the start of basketball season with festivities including special guest Otto Porter Jr. and a performance by hip-hop artist B.O.B. (Nick Plum/Nick Plum/Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)
Jason Reid
Columnist November 5, 2013

The biggest question facing the Georgetown basketball team this season has been on Coach John Thompson III’s mind for months: How does he replace all-American forward Otto Porter Jr.?

The Hoyas will begin to answer that when they tip off Friday against No.19 Oregon in South Korea.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

As a do-it-all sophomore last season, he led Georgetown to a share of the Big East regular season title and emerged as one of the greatest players in school history. Porter was so impressive on and off the court (“Otto isn’t low-maintenance — he’s no-maintenance,” Thompson says) that the NBA’s Washington Wizards selected the 2012-13 Big East player of the year third overall in the June draft. Porter’s former team has become part of an old story.

In college sports, coaches hope the athletes they recruit will develop into iconic players. But great players leave huge holes when their school days are done. How coaches handle their stars’ departures often separate programs that continue to roll from those that get steamrolled.

Thompson has experienced both extremes of the season-after-stars-leave experience.

Post Sports Live's Jonathan Forsythe chats with Wizards forward and 2013 first-round draft pick Otto Porter Jr. about his hip flexor injury, his mentors on the team and whether the Wizards can make the playoffs. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

During the 2006-07 season, versatile forward Jeff Green was the catalyst for the best season of Thompson’s coaching career. The Hoyas won the Big East regular season and tournament titles, advanced to the Final Four and finished 30-7. After Green was a lottery pick in the 2007 NBA draft, the Hoyas were a much different team but still a good one: Georgetown went 28-6 and again finished atop the conference regular season standings. Thompson positioned center Roy Hibbert to take the lead, and Hibbert delivered.

The road got bumpy after Hibbert left for the NBA. The 2008-09 team finished 7-11 in the Big East and lost in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. Although the Hoyas had a talented roster — standout big man Greg Monroe was a freshman that season — they didn’t have anyone ready to step out front. Whenever possible, having a long-standing plan in place to replace stars is preferable, Thompson said.

“In some years you say, ‘Well, Billy is leaving, but Bobby is ready to step up and do everything Billy did,’ ” Thompson told me Monday after practice at McDonough Arena. “Obviously, that makes it easier. But we don’t have Billy this year.”

Or Greg Whittington, either. The physically gifted forward, a potential successor to Porter, could be sidelined the entire season because of a knee injury.

As a sophomore last season, Whittington played in just two conference games after being ruled academically ineligible. He isn’t as polished on offense as Porter or as efficient overall. “They’re very different players,” Thompson said.

Whittington, though, is a tenacious defender. He would have been Thompson’s first choice to draw the toughest assignments on defense, which usually went to Porter last season.

“When you looked at Otto — and I get it — a lot of people started talking about points,” Thompson said. “Obviously, Otto could score . . . but he did so many different things. He was the one getting a deflection on defense, he was the one helping [on double-teams] and the one who would run down the long rebound.

“Defense and hustle plays . . . that’s what we’re going to miss much more than his scoring. That’s what we’ve got to find somewhere. And the only way we’re going to get it with the group we have is that everybody has to be a little bit better. Everyone has to do a little bit more. We’ll have to rely more on everyone.”

Thompson will lean on some more than others. Senior point guard Markel Starks has not encountered a challenge he considered too big. Although Starks won’t diminish Porter’s importance the past two years, he’s quick to point out Porter wasn’t a solo artist.

“We won a lot of games based on playing a team concept,” Starks said. “Otto was a stat stuffer, and we counted on him for a lot. We counted on him for probably more than a lot of teams counted on one guy.

“We just can’t put a guy in his position and say, ‘Okay, you go do everything Otto Porter did.’ It doesn’t work that way. But we have guys who can contribute in a team concept, which will add up. Will it be the same? No. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be what we need.”

Look for either Starks or sophomore guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera to occupy the top spot in the offense. Senior forward Nate Lubick is capable of doing some of the intangible things — making the right pass, grabbing a timely rebound, instructing less experienced players on defense, etc. — Porter did instinctively.

Center Josh Smith is the wild card. Immensely talented offensively, Smith is eligible after transferring from UCLA.

If the 6-foot-10 Smith is motivated, he could be a difference-maker. But at UCLA, Smith rarely was motivated or in shape. He has a lot to prove.

If Porter had returned for his junior year, Georgetown would have been considered one of the nation’s strongest teams. But college stars move on quickly these days. The programs they leave behind must as well.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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