ATHENS — I called James Banks Thursday morning. You’d have thought I was talking to a kid on Christmas morning about the awesome gift he’d just opened under the tree.
“Oh, man, I’m excited. I’m ecstatic. I’m beyond ecstatic,” said Banks, star of Georgia’s 1983 Final Four basketball team. “I’m as excited as I was when we went to the Final Four, and I’m not being facetious about that.”
I’d barely gotten my question out of my mouth — what’d you think about the Bulldogs landing The Antman? — when Banks launched into this enlivened soliloquy.
“Great player. Great kid. The real deal,” Banks said of the nation’s No. 2-rated overall prospect, also known as Anthony Edwards. “Can get to the rim anytime he wants to. He’s a pro for sure.”
Banks went on. He said he wasn’t excited just about Antman. It was about the 2019 recruiting class overall. It was about second-year coach Tom Crean.
“I really think he’s got this program heading in the right direction,” Banks said.
It would appear so. Georgia’s 2019 class is currently ranked No. 7 nationally. Edwards, a 6-foot-4 guard who’s considered the No. 1 overall recruit in America by a 247Sports.com, is obviously cream of the crop. But the Bulldogs also signed three other Top 100 players.
On Wednesday, the first day of the spring signing period for basketball, they added No. 62-ranked Christian Brown, a 6-foot-6 forward from Oak Hill Academy. They’re added to a list that already included Jaykwon Walton and Toumani Camara, who signed with the Bulldogs during the early signing period in November. Both 6-6 wings, they’re ranked 69th and 96th, respectively, in 247Sports’ composite.
It’s sum total of that group that has Banks pumped. It reminds him of what the Bulldogs did in the early 1980s under coach Hugh Durham.
Everybody remembers that Georgia signed Dominique Wilkins during that time. The man who would become known as “The Human Highlight Film remains the greatest recruit the Bulldogs have ever signed, Antman included (for now at least).
But that was not the greatest recruiting class Georgia would sign. That would be the 1980 group that Durham landed the year after Wilkins’ arrival that catapulted the Bulldogs to that incredible run in 1983.
“Derrick Floyd was an All-American; Lamar Heard was an All-American; Terry Fair was the No. 1 player in the state,” said Banks, who was also a McDonald’s All-American coming out of Atlanta that year. “So that was the nucleus of that team. Of course, Dominique had gotten there the year before us. But Coach Durham sold us on starting a tradition instead of being part of a tradition. We all bought into that, and that gave us a nucleus of good guys, good people first, but outstanding players. Coach Crean is following that same formula.”
Banks said he’s trying not to get ahead himself, but he sees similar potential in this group. The Bulldogs expect to have 6-11 forward Nicolas Claxton back next year, as well as 6-8 Rayshaun Hammonds and 6-9 Amanze Ngumezi. Add this class of multi-skilled, outside-shooting, ball-handling, rim-rattling prospects led by Edwards, and Banks sees Georgia becoming immediately competitive on national level.
And not just for a minute, mind you, but for a while.
“I really like Coach Crean,” said Banks, a 14-year European pro who now coaches girls’ basketball at Athens Academy. “I really like what he’s doing and how he’s doing it. I like his spirit, his energy, his passion about what he’s doing. He’s just really doing things the right way. He’s doing a wonderful job of recruiting this state and recruiting period. You could say I’m a Tom Crean fan.”
Banks said Crean has reached out to and embraced former lettermen like himself, past players who experienced great basketball success at Georgia. Crean is the keynote speaker tonight at The Classic Center for the annual Steak & Steak Dinner to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Athens. Floyd, also of that ’83 team, is the director of operations for that organization. The event is sold out.
Banks said he made an impromptu visit to one of the Bulldogs’ practices earlier this year. He said Crean stopped the workout and had the entire team come over to shake his hand and thank him for what he did for Georgia basketball.
“That’s why I’m so excited, to be honest with you,” Banks said. “I think Coach Crean and his staff are committed to making this program great and embracing anything and everything he can to make that happen.”
Of course, that starts and ends with getting great players. And while Georgia has always signed talented basketball players, like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Trey Thompkins and Jarvis Hayes, it’s the ability to land several at a time and get them to blend together and play well as a team that translates into winning on a high level and competing for championships
That’s what Georgia has done whenever it has had its pockets of success over the years. The run to the Sweet 16 under Tubby Smith in 1996 started with the core group of Shandon Anderson, Terrell Bell, Pertha Robinson and Carlos Strong. Same for the 1990 SEC Championship team, led by Rod Cole, Litterial Green, Alec Kessler and Marshall Wilson.
A cynic might point out that even the great Wilkins didn’t lift the Bulldogs to a championship. It was only the year after Wilkins left early for the pros that Georgia won the SEC Tournament and made the run to the Final Four.
Edwards is, of course, the closest the Bulldogs have had to Wilkins in terms of can’t miss pro potential. Right now, before he has even stepped foot the UGA campus, Edwards projects to be an NBA lottery pick in 2020. Sometimes such expectations can overshadow a team and/or throw it out of balance. To some degree that happened with Wilkins, who might take 20 or 25 shots a game.
But Banks said he has spent a lot of time studying and watching Edwards, and he thinks he different.
“From everything I’ve seen, (Edwards is) a great team player,” Banks said. “He obviously can shoot and score, but he handles the ball so well and passes so well and can do a lot of other things to make everybody on the team better.”
The biggest key to success, Banks said, is going to be the coaching and leadership of Crean. And in Crean, Banks believes.
“That’s all about the coach, and Crean knows how to handle that,” Banks said. “He did a wonderful job with Dwayne Wade and Victor Oladipo. He’s coached guys who could flat out play the game. He knows how to coach them into being a great teammate and making their teammates better. That will help Antman become a great pro. I have the utmost confidence in coach Crean getting it done in that aspect. He’s done that before.”
Meshing together is what Georgia did so well that magical season of 1982-83. With the point guard named Vern Fleming from New York City leading the way with 16.9 points per game, the Bulldogs had four players average in double figures and they pretty much beat all comers on the backboards. That got landed them an SEC Tournament championship and got them past the likes of St. Johns and North Carolina on the way to the 1983 Final Four in Albuquerque, N.M.
With Antman out front and Crean on the sideline Banks thinks such heights are possible again. The key, he said, is in the blending.
“Players in the locker room, they always know who’s that dude,” Banks said. “We were some dudes, but we knew who the dude really was. You practice with those guys every day, so there’s no mistaking that. Antman is that dude. But it’s got to be about the team and playing for one another and that’s where leadership comes in.”
Banks said he thinks Georgia now has “the dude” and “the coach.”
“So I can’t wait,” Banks said, almost giddy now. “I’m excited. I hope I don’t have to miss a game this year ’cause I really think this is gonna be a lot of fun.”
Take a look at this “Day in the Life of Anthony Edwards” video below and you’ll get an idea of the kind of player Georgia is getting.