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Isaac Copeland’s Transfer and the Arc of Georgetown Basketball

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NCAA Basketball: Butler at Georgetown
Happier times.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Sad news came down Monday evening when it was announced that junior Isaac Copeland would transfer from Georgetown at semester’s end. Once the crown jewel of Georgetown’s 2014 recruiting class, Copeland will leave the Hilltop a diminished player, lacking both the promise he brought as a freshman and the development that never arrived.

Copeland’s career as a Hoya, and the circumstances of his transfer, are awfully hard to separate from the trajectory of Georgetown basketball over the past several years. Copeland committed in the early months of 2013, when he was a high-school prospect on the rise. At the time, Hoya forward Otto Porter was turning in a virtuoso performance as the conference player of the year, leading Georgetown to a regular-season conference championship, a 25-victory season, and a Big-East-closing rout of Syracuse on the very day that Copeland visited campus. Copeland, another smooth, skilled forward, was a natural successor to the mantle previously worn by Jeff Green, DaJuan Summers (to a degree), and then Porter. These days were long ago—before Florida Gulf-Coast and the demise that has ensued.

A disappointing 2014 season for Georgetown—when Porter had departed for the NBA, Greg Whittington left the team, and Georgetown missed the tournament thanks in part to a paper-thin wing rotation, but Copeland thrived during a post-graduate season at Brewster Academy—only seemed to solidify Copeland’s role as heir apparent.

The hype surrounding Copeland’s arrival continued to grow as his arrival drew closer. He earned a five-star rating during his year at Brewster, making him the highest-rated Georgetown recruit since Greg Monroe six years earlier. And Copeland wasn’t alone, as his commitment was followed by those of Tre Campbell, LJ Peak, Paul White, and Trey Mourning. A new staff at Georgetown had assembled the deep, talented class that would return the Hoyas to glory — like the 2011 Porter-Whittington class, only without the failed promise.

For a season, Copeland and his classmates made good on that potential. Ike first made himself known by putting in a 16-point game in a losing effort against Butler in Atlantis. Copeland was all energy and activity on the offensive boards and in the mid-range, busting zones and making unscripted plays. Two months later, he took a step forward: three straight double-figure games in January, beginning with a last-minute corner 3 to complete a comeback revenge win over that same Butler team at home, continuing with a beatdown of Villanova, and then finishing with an overtime thriller at Marquette. We liked Ike. Even if another Round of 32 exit left us a bit unsatisfied in March, Copeland, White, and Peak appeared to be indispensable and compatible parts of a core that would carry Georgetown in the following season.

But Copeland, his class, and Georgetown didn’t arrive at those heights last season. Quite the opposite. Ike stagnated and then regressed as a sophomore. Despite overall increases in his averages, Copeland didn’t fulfill his promise. He plummeted from 39 percent from 3 as a freshman to 27 percent as a sophomore, including a dispiriting 5-of-32 stretch to finish the season. Apart from the shooting numbers, Copeland failed to develop as a defender, rebounder, or passer. There were some glimpses here and there—21 points and a near miss against Duke, 32 points in lost-cause loss at Marquette—but Copeland failed to lead the team as might have been expected after his freshman season. Otto, he wasn’t, however unfair that initial parallel may have been.

Of course, Copeland wasn’t alone in suffering a sophomore slump, as Paul White missed most of the year with a hip injury and Tre Campbell didn’t develop into a starting-caliber guard. Apart from Peak’s impressive development as a reliable scorer, the class of 2014 had withered in its second year. That lack of performance manifested itself in the team’s record, which was under .500 for the first time under John Thompson III and included three embarrassing home losses to mid-major squads.

Those struggles have continued—for player, class, and team—into this year. Ike lost his shooting touch from the field generally this year, barely hitting 1 out of every 3 shots and missing everything from deep. His rebounding remained subpar and his defense was less than enthusiastic. Copeland put up barely any defensive resistance during Arkansas State’s embarrassing rout of the Hoyas in McDonough, and then grabbed just 3 rebounds in 44 minutes in Maui, with just 3 minutes coming during a dispiriting beatdown by Oklahoma State. He was a shell of that energetic freshman we’d seen bouncing around the rim in Atlantis two years beforehand. Returning to the mainland, Ike saw just 5 minutes in 4 remaining games before today’s announcement.

It’s unclear how much Georgetown will miss Copeland going forward. Marcus Derrickson and Akoy Agau have gobbled up many of the minutes at power forward, while Copeland never displayed enough of the defensive agility or offensive skill to hold down many minutes on the wing. Next season, he could have taken some of the minutes currently played by Rodney Pryor and Peak, but it’s hard to say what good he could have done given his recent level of production.

Copeland’s disappointing career at Georgetown parallels, in many ways unhappily, the Hoyas’ performance as a team during that time. The team has struggled without NBA-caliber talent like Porter. Wing depth and perimeter defense remain real issues, as does the absence of a versatile, skilled forward to facilitate Georgetown’s offense. The recruiting class of 2014 collectively has failed to fulfill its potential—instead of redeeming the seeming misfortune of the 2011 Otto-Whit-Bril-Hop-Tyler class, this year’s juniors have fallen short once again, apart from Peak’s continued improvement.

Unfortunately, these days it all seems to come back to What This All Means. I’d caution anyone on team #FireJT3 from attributing too much to Copeland’s transfer. Ike’s loss of confidence and failure to develop over the past two-plus years aren’t solely on Thompson—that is, unless the coach also gets the credit for Peak’s sophomore and junior leap, Otto rising from well-rounded role player to third overall pick in the NBA Draft, the emergence of Senior Year Henry Sims, the miracle of Roy Hibbert, and other development stories. There were too many worrying signs that Copeland had lost touch on and confidence in his shot and never had the feel elsewhere to put all of the blame on Thompson.

However, Copeland has become the latest brick in a wall of failures under Thompson’s administration. Even after JT3 stopped winning in March, he could point to a regular season record of success and top-ten rankings. When 20-win seasons were no longer guaranteed, Thompson could offer the promise of future victories in the form of talented recruits. Now, another promising wave of those recruits has broken short. So, what hope is left for the program?

Regardless, as is tradition in these parts, Isaac Copeland is a good kid, and we wish him will.