Shawn Lester’s announcement Thursday that he was leaving the Charlotte 49ers’ basketball program three weeks before the season begins came as a surprise.
He’s turning pro with an eye on playing overseas.
Unexpected departures have become somewhat of an offseason routine for Charlotte: players leaving the 49ers’ program prematurely. Lester joined two other players from last season’s 17-14 team who were already out the door – guard Denzel Ingram and forward Marcus Bryan, both of whom transferred to UNC Wilmington. A year earlier, two others transferred, months after another was thrown out of school.
The departures aren’t a good look for coach Alan Major and the 49ers’ program, which has had two consecutive winning seasons but hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2005.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
But is this a trend Major can reverse, or has the program been a victim of a series of unrelated events?
The 49ers have not been immune to a recent increased national trend in transfers. ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman keeps an annual list of transfers, and the number has spiked the past three years, from 291 in 2011 to 450 in 2014.
Charlotte has had four players transfer the past two years – forwards E. Victor Nickerson (to Valparaiso) and Darion Clark (Southern California) in 2013, as well as Ingram and Bryan this year.
The 49ers are no different from most other Conference USA programs. According to Goodman’s lists, 28 players transferred from C-USA schools this year – including mid-season transfers and not including graduate students who go elsewhere to play a final season – an average of 2.0 per school, slightly higher than the 1.8 mark (25 total) from 2013.
And the 49ers have benefited from the trend. Guard Braxton Ogbueze, a transfer from Florida, and forward Bernard Sullivan, from Clemson, are expected to contribute significantly to the 49ers this season.
There were transfers early in Major’s time at Charlotte. Guard Jamar Briscoe and forward K.J. Sherrill, recruits of former coach Bobby Lutz, were told they didn’t fit in Major’s plans, a common occurrence with a new coach.
There have also been non-transfer departures before Lester. Two came in 2010-11, Major’s first season, as Shamari Spears was dismissed from the team; Phil Jones flunked out. Their departures are the direct result of the 49ers receiving a practice-time penalty this season for a low NCAA Academic Progress Rate.
A year later, guard Luka Voncina returned to his home in Slovenia because of a family crisis.
Major’s first recruit, guard Demario Mayfield, who had transferred from Georgia, was thrown out of school in 2013 for violating athletic department rules. He was later charged with armed robbery in Atlanta.
As Major has molded the program into his own, he’s been burned by Mayfield and caught off guard by Lester, who had already missed a season because of academic ineligibility. I’ve been told Lester’s decision to leave was “personal,” not related to academics or basketball.
The four transfers over the past two seasons?
• Clark told me his decision was based on playing time.
• An AAU coach apparently played a role in Nickerson’s move.
• Ingram, one of C-USA’s top 3-point shooters last season, undoubtedly saw the writing on the wall with Charlotte’s glut of backcourt players.
• Bryan, a late signee in 2013 (after the unexpected departures of Clark and Nickerson), was never going to see much court time with newcomers like Sullivan ahead of him.
They wanted more playing time than Major was willing to give them. Rather than stay and work at it, they elected to go elsewhere.
Could Major have done a more effective job managing the expectations of players who would eventually transfer?
Possibly, but he’s not alone in facing that challenge.