George Brooks sat on the bench with two D.J.s in front of him and one choice to make.
In a frantic chase for a loose ball during the 2021 NIT championship game on March 28 in Frisco, Texas, two players sprawled on the Comerica Center court in front of the Mississippi State assistant coach. Bulldogs guard D.J. Stewart Jr. landed on one side of Brooks; Tigers forward D.J. Jeffries occupied the other.
Brooks had heard the rumors: Jeffries, an Olive Branch native, wanted out of Memphis. With NCAA tampering rules prohibiting Brooks from speaking to Jeffries or any other active player about a possible transfer, Brooks did the only thing he could do.
“I went and got D.J. Jeffries off that floor,” Brooks told the Starkville Rotary Club on Monday, “and he ended up in Starkville.”
Three days later, Jeffries entered the transfer portal. On April 19, he committed to Mississippi State.
By doing so, he became the second in a group of four major additions for the Bulldogs via the transfer market this offseason alone.
“We’re happy with our transfers,” Brooks said. “We did a really good job with that portal.”
They’re not the only ones. Over 1,500 Division I players entered the transfer portal this offseason, and Brooks knows the way to success in modern college basketball is to find talent on the NCAA equivalent of the free-agent market.
“That’s the model way of coaching right now,” the 12th-year Mississippi State assistant said.
For the Bulldogs, who lost Stewart to the professional ranks this offseason, it was simply necessary. The guard entered the NBA draft after averaging 16 points per game in his sophomore season; he wasn’t selected, but the Miami Heat picked him up as an undrafted free agent.
Stewart signed with an agent in May, removing further college eligibility, despite having a chance for a re-evaluation by NBA teams after the late June draft combine. Brooks admitted Monday the guard from Grace was “nowhere near” a first-round grade but remained in the draft anyway.
It’s not the first time Mississippi State has had that happen, Brooks said. Guard Nick Weatherspoon declared for the 2020 draft last April, forgoing his senior season, and he consequently went undrafted.
“We’ve gotten burned with that a couple times,” Brooks said. “Nick should have stayed, and if you look back — hindsight is 20/20 — D.J. probably should have stayed.”
If he had, though, the Bulldogs might not have had a chance to add several of their other key transfers this offseason.
Brooks’ son — former North Carolina forward Garrison Brooks — was already in the fold, committing to Mississippi State four days before Jeffries’ pledge. Brooks played 133 games with 108 starts over the past four seasons for the Tar Heels, averaging 10.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game in 2020-21.
Now the 6-foot-10 forward and former UNC team captain will be playing under his father in Starkville.
“He’s a way more mature player than a lot of guys,” George Brooks said.
Garrison Brooks’ addition will help Mississippi State replace the production of Abdul Ado, the center who transferred to Cincinnati, but it’s the pair of guards the Bulldogs added in May who will be tasked with filling Stewart’s shoes.
Former Michigan State guard Rocket Watts, a highly touted prospect out of high school in Ohio, committed to play under Ben Howland on May 22. Watts averaged 7.7 points per game as a sophomore for the Spartans but is capable of more; Brooks mentioned the dynamic 6-foot-2 guard’s 21-point output in a road win at then-No. 1 Michigan this past season.
And while North Carolina State transfer guard Shakeel Moore doesn’t have the “status” of the Bulldogs’ other three additions, he can be just as potent. Moore averaged 6.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game, but he’s capable of explosive plays, such as the dunk he unleashed against the Wolfpack’s in-state rivals over “some guy with Brooks on his back.”
“I made sure I reminded him of that when we got him,” George Brooks said.
The four transfers will join three freshmen — Camryn Carter, KeShawn Murphy and Alden Applewhite — as well as two established starters on the floor.
Junior Iverson Molinar, who led the Bulldogs in scoring at 16.6 points per game, is set to start at point guard, Brooks said, and the Panama native has improved so much in the offseason he seems set to be an NBA draft pick in roughly eight months.
“We’ll be fortunate to have him back for his senior year,” Brooks said. “That’s how good he’s looking.”
Forward Tolu Smith is recovering from a September procedure on his foot but led the Southeastern Conference in rebounding at 8.5 boards per game. Smith also averaged 12.7 points per contest and led the SEC in double-doubles.
“When you’ve got guys like that — a point guard and a big guy — you’ve got chances every night in our league,” Brooks said.
Indeed, Brooks feels confident about a team that reached the NIT title game before falling to Memphis 77-64, a run that he said gave the Bulldogs confidence after falling to Alabama in the conference tournament.
“If that season had ended last year with that loss against Alabama, everybody in here would have a bad taste in their mouth coming into this year,” Brooks said. “You go win three games in the NIT, it gives the guys confidence. It gives them motivation.”
But it won’t be easy to parlay that impetus into regular-season success in the SEC. Brooks mentioned the Crimson Tide along with Kentucky, Auburn and Florida as teams that could vie to win the conference.
“There’s six or seven schools that could all win it, in my opinion,” he said.
With a little more than a month to go until Mississippi State opens its season Nov. 10 against North Alabama, Brooks’ goal is clear: Make sure the Bulldogs are one of them.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.