CLEMSON — Last fall, T.J. Sapp looked like the best of Clemson’s five freshmen.
The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native started the Tigers’ season opener against Gardner-Webb and scored 11 points. He scored in 13 of Clemson’s first 16 games, and looked comfortable at shooting guard.
But as the ACC season began, Sapp’s shot and confidence disappeared. He scored in only four of his final 15 games, and didn’t even get into the ACC Tournament loss to Virginia Tech. His scoring average slipped from 5.7 to 3.6 points per game, and fellow freshmen like Devin Coleman and K.J. McDaniels looked far more impressive.
With Clemson set to begin practice for the 2012-13 season Friday, Sapp is ready to prove his slump was an anomaly. He has added 10 pounds to his 6-foot-2, 190 pound frame and with graduated seniors Tanner Smith and Andre Young gone, he should be a factor, alongside McDaniels, at the shooting guard spot.
Few on Clemson’s roster are happier than Sapp to welcome the new season.
“The best thing I can take from last year to this year is give it your all as much as you possibly can,” he said this week. “There are going to be times when the going gets tough and not all the balls are going to roll your way.
“You can’t fall into all that. That’s adversity. You have to get through it. At the end of the day, all that hard work is going to pay off. You’re going to see the difference. I learned from last year, when things started going bad, I can’t let that get to me. I still have the rest of the season to go through and the rest of the team to be playing for. I can’t just be thinking about myself.”
Over an 11-game stretch from Jan. 18 to Feb. 21, Sapp made only two of 16 3-pointers and only three of 29 total shots. He had four double-figure nights in Clemson’s first 16 games and none afterward.
Did frustration creep in? Absolutely.
“We’re human,” he said. “ Little things like that will touch us in a way it shouldn’t allow to touch us. I tried my hardest not to let it get to me. I wasn’t playing for myself. I was playing for a whole team. As all that was going on, tried my hardest to block it out. I didn’t want my personal failure to mess up the whole team. We’re all going to go through some adversity. I had to get past it as much as I possibly could.”
Clemson coach Brad Brownell says Sapp “wore down” late last season and believes his problems were more physical than technical.
“I think a lot of it was just being fatigued. He wasn’t an overly strong kid when he (got) here, he was 180 pounds and he’s up to 190,” Brownell said. “I just think the added strength will help.”
Especially in the paint and at the rim.
“We hope the added strength will allow him to get into the paint and make some more plays. Finish layups against contact,” Brownell said. “Then hopefully some of the experiences he gained as a freshman will help him relax more at times. He needs to be relaxed, he needs to knock down open shots.”
Sapp stayed on campus this summer, working on his shooting, his ballhandling, but most importantly, his decision-making.
“(Brownell’s) key point for me was that he wants me to make sound, smart decisions with the ball,” Sapp said. “Making sure by the time season the hits and is here, I’ll be ready to make the right decisions with the ball. I’ll make mistakes but I have to learn from them.”
Clemson still has a dearth of half-court playmakers. If Sapp can make smarter choices, it’ll be the key to a sophomore surge – and success for a young roster.
“It’s doing the right play at the time,” he said. “There were times when I was passing the ball when I should have been taking shots. There are going to be times I don’t see a man open, or didn’t make that pass quite as well. Those little decisions he wants me to get better at. See the play before it happens.”