Friedlander: 'Portal Whisperer' Steve Forbes working his magic again at Wake Forest
“Adapt or get run over.”
It’s more than just another colorful phrase turned by the ACC’s resident quotemeister, Steve Forbes. It’s the philosophy that has guided the Wake Forest basketball coach throughout a career that has taken more detours than a Boomer still trying to crack the code of his GPS.
And it’s the reason Forbes has so rapidly transformed the Deacons from an ACC doormat into a team nobody wants to see on their upcoming schedule.
Or their tournament bracket.
Forbes isn’t the first or only forward-thinking coach that has embraced the NCAA’s transfer portal as a means of expediting a building process that used to take multiple recruiting classes to complete.
He’s just done a better job of taking advantage of it than most.
His 2021-22 haul of 5 veteran transfers included ACC Player of the Year Alondes Williams and 1st-round NBA Draft pick Jake LaRavia and helped lead Wake to a remarkable 19-win improvement over the previous year.
When the bulk of that group moved on to the professional ranks or ran out of eligibility, Forbes never flinched.
The Portal Whisperer simply went back out and worked his magic again, amassing a new class of free agents whose pieces have meshed together into a unit just as good – if not better – than the one before it.
This one, consisting of high-scoring point guard Tyree Appleby from Florida, stretch 4 Andrew Carr from Delaware and big man Davion Bradford from Kansas State, has the Deacons sitting just 1 game out of the ACC lead at 6-2 in the conference (14-5).
After Tuesday’s convincing 87-77 victory against league-leading Clemson, their 4th win in a row, they’ve moved up to No. 69 with a bullet in the NET rankings in their quest to accomplish the NCAA Tournament goal that barely eluded last year’s team.
If there’s a secret to his portal success, Forbes isn’t sharing it.
“Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” he said when asked about his approach to transfers earlier this week on the ACC’s weekly Zoom conference. “I mean, my wife married me for some reason.
“There’s just certain things I like. I think you’ve got to do a lot of work behind the scenes on character, how good a teammate they are, how hard they work. It takes a little bit of luck sometimes, too.”
As important as identifying the right players is, it’s still only half the battle. Once they’re in the program, the new transfers have to quickly adjust to new surroundings, new teammates and a new system.
That’s where Forbes would figure to have a decided advantage over many of his coaching counterparts. But the reigning ACC Coach of the Year is quick to downplay his 7 years of experience at the junior college level, even though it taught him how to piece together a virtually new roster every season.
The way he tells it, the secret to success with the transfer portal isn’t really a secret at all.
“A lot of people think if you have transfers, you can’t have chemistry,” Forbes said. “I just don’t believe that, because you have 8 weeks in the summer and about 16 weeks in the fall before you ever play a game. If you can’t develop chemistry by then, you’re not going to develop it.”
This year’s Deacons had the added bonus of a 10-day summer tour of Europe together. More important than the 2 exhibition games they played on the trip was the opportunity it gave them to bond off the court.
Forbes said he could tell right away that Appleby would emerge as a leader because of the way his teammates, both new and old, gravitated toward him while they were abroad.
He’s been even more of a leader on the stat sheet.
The 6-foot, 175-pound graduate student is tops on the team in scoring (18.1 ppg), assists (115), steals (61) and 3-point percentage (.470) – numbers comparable to those put up by last season’s Player of the Year Williams.
And he’s not the only one that has excelled.
Carr, whose buzzer-beating 3-pointer saved Wake against Appalachian State earlier in the season, is averaging 11.9 points and 6 assists. Damari Monsanto, who came over from East Tennessee State as part of the 2021-22 transfer class is also averaging in double figures while homegrown – at least from a recruiting standpoint – sophomore Cam Hildreth is among the ACC’s most improved and most complete players.
“Obviously we’ve done well,” Forbes said, understating the impact transfers have had on his program’s meteoric rise. “It’s not a perfect science by any means. But high school recruiting ain’t either.
“A lot of traditionalists are like ‘You’ve got to recruit just high school players.’ But that’s not the world we live in now.”
It’s either adapt or get run over.
And there aren’t any tire marks on Forbes.