Alabama basketball roster takes shape. Here's what we know for 2021-22

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Nate Oats understood that there might be storm clouds ahead for the roster.

Alabama was in perfect balance on April 7 with four signees coming in to replace four departing seniors. But in the college basketball off-season, things don’t stand still for long.

By April 11, Alabama had two more additions and a 15-man roster that was two above the NCAA limit. There were two players, Josh Primo and Jaden Shackelford, from the 2021 SEC Championship team who had declared for the NBA Draft. Both, however, had kept the option to return available and neither one was being mentioned prominently in any of the various NBA mock drafts.

The two transfer additions were both players that Alabama’s staff knew well: Nimari Burnett, a McDonald’s All-America that the Crimson Tide had recruited fiercely before he chose Texas Tech, and Noah Gurley, who had strong numbers against Alabama in his career at Furman.

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This wasn’t simply “portal chasing.” These were additions that Oats and staff knew would fit the system, and were too good to pass up.

But suddenly Alabama was at 15 players on scholarship, and the speculation began about who would have to go in order to make room if Primo and Shackelford came back.

The next day junior college signee Langston Wilson was released from his scholarship, a decision that may have been mutual or not. (Things worked out for Wilson, who found another Power Five opportunity with Washington.) Now Alabama was back to one player over.

Speculation continued. 

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The Alabama coach made no sudden moves at that point. He seemed firmly committed to the roster that he had built. There had been transfers after the 2020 season but those were players recruited by the previous staff for a different style of play. 

“We feel like we handled it right last year, and we’ve earned the right to let it play out,” Oats said at the time. “It’s not fun all the time. Sometimes those are tough conversations to have. But we feel like last year, we were honest with our guys, and some of them ended up in better situations in terms of playing time.”

So the waiting began.

There were various options on the table but no need to rush or to abandon loyalty to players that he had recruited or those holdovers (Juwan Gary and Shackelford) who had found roles in Oats’ uptempo style. In the meantime, Primo’s NBA stock kept rising as he headed to the draft combine in Chicago.

Primo performed well at the Combine and thus no one was surprised when, despite being only 18, he announced he would remain in the draft, ending his Alabama career. That seemed to pave the way for Shackelford to return as he withdrew from the draft but there is always a twist.

He simultaneously announced that he would enter the transfer portal, leaving Alabama coaches with a decision to make.

While Shackelford tweeted on social media that he had four choices — Alabama, Illinois, Oklahoma and Texas Tech along with persistent reports that UCLA and USC, nearer to his California home, were also options — the staff had to decide whether to hedge their bets, take another player and let Shackelford transfer or continue to recruit him.

For three weeks, they close the latter, recognizing that a second-team All-SEC player who averaged 14 points a game on a Sweet 16 team and was familiar with the system was the best option.

We will never know the answer to what might have happened had Primo returned, but the point was moot.

So Alabama aggressively recruited Shackelford to return to Tuscaloosa. Oats and assistants Bryan Hodgson and Antoine Pettway all visited California to meet with the Shackelford family. The attention worked and Shackelford chose to return. 

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That left Oats with the roster that he and his staff had built almost entirely intact, except for the departure of Primo. (If he is taken in the first round on Thursday, that becomes a prime Alabama recruiting tool.) 

The 2021-22 Alabama team will be a variation on the 2020-21 theme, recognizable in style but with different talents in some places. There may not be the SEC’s best defensive player (Herbert Jones) or a streak shooter quite as explosive as John Petty Jr.

Alex Reese and Jordan Bruner were versatile bigs who could shoot, especially Reese. That’s also a good deal of length and defensive disruption moving on.

The team will be built starting in the backcourt, a potentially lethal combination of speed and athleticism with Jahvon Quinerly and five-star freshman J.D. Davison pushing the ball upcourt while Shackelford and senior Keon Ellis provide firepower on the wing.

Alabama guard Jahvon Quinerly (13) against Arkansas during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Fayetteville, Ark. Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

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There will be an assortment of mid-size talent as well: Burnett (who could also be a shooting guard), freshman Jasuan Holt, sophomore Darius Miles, Gurley as an inside-outside scorer and Gary as a threat to rebound and perhaps stuff an opponent through the rim in the process. James Rojas, if he can return from knee surgery in time for at least some SEC play, can mix it up as well.

Alabama Head Coach Nate Oats gives some instructions to Alabama forward Keon Ambrose-Hylton (22) in Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2001.[Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Perhaps most interesting will be watching the young but promising big men, long and lean in the mold Oats prefers. Sophomore Keon Ambrose-Hylton showed promise in limited duty but two first-year players will attract eager attention: 7-foot freshman Charles Bediako and 6-11 Alex Tchikou, essentially a freshman after missing last season with a torn Achilles’ tendon.

Ideally, they can protect the rim defensively and bring opposing centers out to the perimeter on offense.

Overall, there will be less experience but that should come quickly. With no players lost in the transfer portal, remarkable in these times, this is the roster Oats has wanted to build.

It just took a little patience.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt.