April 25, 2017
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– In what turned out to be “The Year of the Joshes” for Georgia Tech basketball, Josh Heath was the quietest of the trio that included himself, head coach Josh Pastner and ACC All-Freshman two-guard Josh Okogie.
But being quiet didn’t mean Heath went unheard.
Quite the opposite. His leadership by example was heard loud and clear.
That kind of leadership had been the Tampa, Fla., native’s method of choice from the first day he arrived in Atlanta after transferring from the University of South Florida, and it was never more important than during the `16-17 season.
The example he set began on day one of summer workouts, and helped set the tone for the entire season. Yet, that day had more to do with handling adversity than handling the ball. In fact, running the offense was the LEAST of his concerns.
“When the freshmen first got here I was out. I couldn’t even run,” recalled Heath, who was still rehabbing from offseason hip surgery. “Coach Pastner used to always say how important it was to be a team of appreciation and not a team of entitlement. I think that we carried those qualities.”
Heath never felt entitled, especially not after facing down the prospect of having the opportunity to play the game he loved being taken away from him via injury.
He would not be denied in his comeback. He and the entire senior class made sure everyone showed similar desire and appreciation, in practice then in games.
“We wanted to lead by example, just like players when we were younger led by example or led in other ways,” he said. “I think we did a good job of that, showing how we do things every day with practice, film, all that.
“We had help with Kellen (McCormick) and Jodan (Price) coming in as grad transfers. As soon as they stepped on campus, they were all about the team,” he added. “Sometimes grad transfers come in and they think it’s about them, they have one year left. But those two were all about the team, they were very selfless and wanted to win games as much as we did. Then, me, Corey (Heyward), Rand (Rowland) and Q (Quinton Stephens), know we had been through a lot with the previous staff then the change of staff and then coming into this year. But the previous staff had taught us so much in terms of just being disciplined and being good leaders and being hard-working, being self-motivated. I think that carried over with the new staff. When the new staff got here we just clicked right away. They aligned with us, we aligned with them.”
Together they made the stars align, forging a season few outside the program thought possible. The key word was “outside.”
“At first when you see what everyone’s writing about you or what everyone’s thinking, you kind of try not to pay attention to it,” he said. “These are people outside the locker room. Whatever they think doesn’t really matter. But once we started kind of winning and playing the way we were, it was kind of like, `Alright, this is nice to be able to show people what we could really do.'”
Heath showed what he could do like never before. He made 24 starts, played 30.7 minutes (up 10 minutes from his previous high as a freshman at USF in 2013-14), dished out 4.4 assists (seventh in the ACC), scored 5.3 points (nearly double last season), with 39 steals (nearly double his previous best in 2014-15) — all career highs.
He set single-game career-highs in just about every category as well. He recorded his first career double-double with 10 points and 10 assists in the Jackets’ 86-76 win on Jan. 15 at NC State, and poured in a career-high 15 points in the ACC opener, a 75-63 win over No. 9 North Carolina on Dec. 31, 2016 at McCamish Pavilion.
While both were satisfying coming in wins, the UNC game was especially pleasurable.
“That was awesome,” he said, breaking into a smile. “The best part was it was our first ACC game, against North Carolina at home, and we won it. With the expectations that we wouldn’t win an ACC game, and we win the first one against the eventual champion, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Heath didn’t get much better than he did his final ACC season. He averaged 6.3 points with tied for fourth in the ACC with 4.9 assists per game, shot 46.9 percent from the floor (45-for-96), made eight three-point field goals — two fewer than he had his first three seasons combined — and grabbed 50 rebounds (six more than any whole season). He also provided his typical great ball security, as his 1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio tied for ninth in the conference.
During ACC play, it seemed like how Josh went so did the Jackets.
He averaged 7.5 points and 6.4 assists in Jackets’ victories vs. 5.4 and 3.7 in losses.
“That week when I was kind of sick and we played Clemson and Wake Forest (both road losses), that’s when it really dawned on me, if my energy level wasn’t there or if I wasn’t leading the team or if my head wasn’t in it, I knew it would be a trickle-down effect on the rest of the team,” he said. “I felt like I really needed to bring it. If I brought it we would have a chance in every game. But I’m sure Ben (Lammers) felt the same way. I’m sure Josh-O felt the same way. You’ve got to have that mentality if you want to win.”
Heath feels that the winning mentality that was present in 2016-17 is in place for the future. Knowing he played a part in bringing the winning tradition back to The Flats is satisfying.
“I think the program is definitely going in the right direction, and I think we played a role in it. Just the way we played,” he said. “Coach Pastner would always tell us, `It’s not about the winning. It’s about the way we played.’ You could see the hard work, us diving on the floor, the ball movement and just how hard we played and how much it mattered to us. I think fans could tell. I think that’s why we got a lot of fans back in `Thrillerdome.’
“I think the habits and everything that we did as seniors left a good impression on the younger players to carry the torch and show how to lead when younger guys come in,” he added. “So every time a new class comes in, they’re learning the same kind of things, all the stuff that it takes to win.”
Heath, who graduates with a degree in business administration in May, feels good as far as knowing where he wants to go and, although he’s still unsure where the road will lead, he’s eager to embark upon it, maybe even following the lead of his father, Stan, his coach at USF and currently an assistant at Boston College.
“I’m still deciding whether I want to play or not, so that’s what I’ll be doing after graduation,” he said. “If it’s working out, finding an agent. If not, I want to get into coaching one day. Either way, I’m thinking of staying around basketball. Right now I’m just kind of going with the flow of things, seeing how everything lays out.”
He’ll appreciate every step of the way, just as he appreciated every step of the 2016-17 season.
“It was magical,” he said. “It was a great way to go out. I didn’t think I would go out like that. Just going out on a winning note is everything to me. Being able to extend my season as long as we did in NIT play and then kind of shatter expectations coming into the season was everything.”