From their seats at Madison Square Garden, Tyson Etienne and Noah Fernandes watched Wichita State battle Lipscomb in the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament last week.
The Shockers lost the game, 71-64, but ended the season winning 14 of 18 games and playing into April for the second time in program history. With only two seniors on this year’s team, many of the players the pair of 2019 WSU signees watched last Tuesday will be their teammates come June.
Both players felt so connected to the Shockers that they were discussing the team as if they were already on it.
“I was really excited to see how our team turned around our season,” Etienne told The Eagle. “It shows that we have resolve and we’re able to persevere and I’m excited to play with a group like that and play for our coaches. I’m encouraged and motivated for next season.”
“We think how they finished will carry over into the next season,” Fernandes said.
That’s certainly the hope for WSU coach Gregg Marshall, who signed Etienne and Fernandes to reinforce the guard positions for WSU for years to come. Marshall knew WSU would need guards who can create for themselves and others, especially following the graduation of Samajae Haynes-Jones, the team’s go-to creator this past season.
Etienne is a 6-foot-1 scoring guard who operates along the same lines as Haynes-Jones: WSU can put the ball in his hands and let him create in the pick-and-roll, or he’s a good enough shooter to spot up on the perimeter and be a threat without the ball. Etienne is rated as the No. 121 prospect in the 2019 class by Rivals, which makes him the second-highest rated recruit Marshall has signed, behind only Landry Shamet (No. 88 in 2015) and just ahead of Fred VanVleet (No. 138 in 2012) and Markis McDuffie (No. 145 in 2015).
“He’s a dead-eye shooter and body-ready to compete for major minutes walking in the door,” Marshall said on signing day.
Fernandes (6 foot) offers the same kind of versatility. He’s been a scorer for most of the teams he’s played on, but Fernandes possesses the vision and feel to be a distributor for an offense. He just missed a top-150 designation by 247 Sports, but WSU is confident it has two high-level, play-making guards on the way this summer.
“I loved his ability to be the consummate floor general at point guard,” Marshall said. “He’s very cerebral and tough. Noah makes winning plays and is a great communicator. People are drawn to his leadership skills. He can score, as well as run the team, and he guards the basketball with tenacity.”
Marshall believes a team can never have enough ball handlers and his switch to a ball-screen offense in the postseason showed how multiple ball handlers can operate on the floor at the same time. One guard would run a pick-and-roll, and if nothing opened, he’d pass to the other guard — who would do the same thing.
Etienne and Fernandes were both enamored with the possibilities.
“Watching the game (at Madison Square Garden), I actually told my dad, ‘I’m going to be in heaven next year’ because of all of the ball screens and the options they have off the ball screens,” Fernandes said.
WSU is set to return sophomore Jamarius Burton, who just set the program record for most assists by a freshman, and senior Ricky Torres at point guard. Each proved capable of running the offense, but neither shot well enough (Burton at 26% and Torres at 9) from beyond the arc to provide ideal spacing if they play off the ball.
The Shockers shot 31% on three-pointers, the 319th-best mark in college basketball, and they’re losing more than half of their made three-pointers to graduation. There’s a good chance this is where Etienne and Fernandes can help the Shockers most, at least in their freshman seasons.
No returner other than sophomore Erik Stevenson has the chops to play shooting guard, so the opportunity for major minutes right away is there for Etienne and Fernandes. Essentially, Marshall will have 80 minutes at the two guard positions to split between Burton, Torres, Stevenson and the two newcomers.
The sophomore core of Burton, Stevenson, Dexter Dennis, Teddy Allen, Morris Udeze and Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler combined with the arrival of incoming freshman DeAntoni Gordon, a 6-8 forward, has the Shockers excited about what’s to come in the future.
“That’s part of the reason why I committed, because I knew how good it was going to be having all those young guys play so early,” Fernandes said. “Having a team together for a few years is special. You watch the NCAA tournament and you see most of these teams have teams like that.”
Etienne and Fernandes have both spent the past five months preparing to play for WSU at the next level.
Etienne was the leading scorer for Putnam Academy and helped lead the team to a 35-2 record and a semifinal appearance in the National Prep championships. Etienne told the Eagle he worked on improving his leadership skills this past season and learning how to handle different personalities. He is set to arrive in Wichita in June to begin offseason work.
Fernandes guided Woodstock Academy to a 38-2 record and the top seed in the National Prep championships. He arrived for his post-graduate year at 150 pounds, but has since bulked up to 165. Gaining strength will continue to be his focus this summer. He doesn’t graduate until June 15 and expects to arrive in Wichita in early July.
“I’m excited to play in front of all of the Wichita State fans,” Etienne said. “I can’t wait to meet them.”