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NC State’s Freeman is back. Here’s why that’s good news for the Pack.

NC State's Freeman: "It's going to be fun"

NC State's Lennard Freeman says bringing in Kevin Keatts as coach, with his work ethic and up-tempo style of play, can help the Wolfpack become a championship program.
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NC State's Lennard Freeman says bringing in Kevin Keatts as coach, with his work ethic and up-tempo style of play, can help the Wolfpack become a championship program.

N.C. State’s basketball players have had to run a lot under new coach Kevin Keatts.

“You won’t recognize a couple of the guys,” Keatts said.

Tops on that list will be Lennard Freeman. The fifth-year senior has dropped 20 pounds since Keatts was hired in March.

“Lennard has completely changed his body, and he’s working extremely hard,” Keatts said.

The 6-8, 245-pound forward was one of former coach Mark Gottfried’s favorite players, but he missed all of the 2016-17 season while recovering from a lingering leg injury. Freeman was the Wolfpack’s top rebounder on its 2015 Sweet 16 team but was never 100 percent for the 2015-16 season.

He had a 14-inch steel rod inserted in his right shin in June 2015 to repair a fracture and attempt to stabilize the leg. He needed a second surgery after 2015-16 season.

Gottfried, who was fired with five games left in the 2016-17 season, made the point several times that last year’s group needed Freeman’s rebounding, defense and leadership. Keatts noticed the same thing.

“When I went back and I looked at a lot of the games from last year, one of the things that that team missed was they didn’t have a guy who was physical and could rebound the basketball,” Keatts said.

Those are Freeman’s strengths. There’s a reason his nickname is “Nard Dog.” His career scoring average is only 3.6 points per game but, when healthy, he has been N.C. State’s best rebounder (5.5 per game) and best defender in pick-and-roll situations.

Freeman’s best game came in the Wolfpack’s upset of No. 1-seeded Villanova in the 2015 NCAA tournament. He had 11 points and 12 rebounds in N.C. State’s 71-68 win.

It wasn’t an accident that when Gottfried put Freeman into the starting lineup in mid-February of the 2014-15 season, the Wolfpack started its run.

Keatts will have to rely on Freeman this season as well. The first-year coach wants his team to be able to run and press, which is not exactly Freeman’s skill set, but the forward has been quick to adjust. With Freeman, senior Abdul-Malik Abu and sophomore Omer Yurtseven in place in the frontcourt, Keatts didn’t add any bigs to the roster this offseason.

Keatts, and his staff, were busy adding guards and might still add one more (Hargrave’s Braxton Beverly). Lavar Batts, the only freshman, is a point guard. Graduate transfers Sam Hunt and Allerik Freeman are both scoring guards. Transfers Devon Daniels and C.J. Bryce, who have to sit out this season, are bigger scoring guards.

There was a reason, Keatts said, he didn’t add any forwards to the roster this offseason.

“If (we added) a big, where would he play?” Keatts said. “We’ve got Lennard, we’ve got Omer, we’ve got Malik, the guy wouldn’t play. And in today’s time, when you recruit guys now, it’s a microwave society. If they don’t play, they’re looking to transfer.

“Bigs, for us this year, weren’t a priority. Obviously, moving forward in next year’s class, we’ve got sign some guys with size.”

Keatts relied on a four-guard lineup at UNC-Wilmington but said he would prefer to start two forwards. Freeman and Abu will get a chance to play together in Italy. Yurtseven will miss the 10-day trip (starting Aug. 2) while playing for the Turkish national team.

“I’m going to look for different combinations and different mixtures and see who plays well together,” Keatts said.

A healthy, trimmed down Freeman gives Keatts some much-needed toughness and flexibility.

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938