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Jamel’s journey: Junior forward steps into leadership role

Jamel+Artis+led+Pitt+with+21+points
Jamel Artis led Pitt with 21 points

Jamel Artis led Pitt with 21 points

Jamel Artis led Pitt with 21 points

By Jeremy Tepper / Senior Staff Writer

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High school projections say Jamel Artis’ basketball career wasn’t supposed to go this way — becoming the team’s offensive focal point by his sophomore year and earning NBA draft mentions.

Artis showed flashes of promise as a freshman, and those flashes flared longer at the start of his second year — but nothing suggested he was on a path to stardom.

Then something clicked. In an 11-game stretch from mid-January to late February 2015 of his sophomore year, the 6-foot-7 now-junior forward averaged 19.5 points per game.

Artis’ sudden dramatic leap did not surprise Ryan Hurd, his coach at Notre Dame Prep in Massachusetts.

“If you coached him, played with him or been around him for any degree of time, that dude will do whatever he can to win,” Hurd said.

Now entering his junior season at Pitt, Artis is integral to his team’s success. For the Panthers to fulfill any sort of championship aspirations, he’ll need to lead those efforts. Hurd knows Artis is up for the challenge.

“He wins, he wants to win, he’s aggravated if he doesn’t win,” Hurd said. “He’ll make plays to make sure that he’s doing everything he can to get the outcome that he wants.”

At first, Artis didn’t make much of an impression on Hurd. Hurd said there was something off about Artis, who played a postgraduate season at Notre Dame Prep. He didn’t show the energy and emotion that coaches typically want out of their players.

As he became acquainted with the player, Hurd learned that though Artis was laid back and quiet,  he still had a competitive fire.

“If you go off Jamel’s body language, you’re either going to think he’s lazy or passive,” Hurd said. “There’s a drive inside of him that you don’t necessarily recognize unless you spend some time with him.”

That drive first surfaced in four-on-four scrimmages in the fall of 2012, Hurd said. Artis treated the inconsequential scrimmages like championship games.

His desire to win paid off, as Artis averaged 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game that season on the way to leading Notre Dame Prep to the National Prep Championship semifinals.

Off the court, Artis primarily received interest from La Salle and Georgetown, among other schools, after his stint at Notre Dame Prep. Regardless, recruiting wasn’t a primary focus.

“I knew I was going to play D-I. I wasn’t worried too much,” Artis said.

When Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon first watched Artis on the AAU circuit, it was his passing — not his scoring — that caught the coach’s eye.

“His passing was the first thing that stood out. That’s obviously a thing that we always look at,” Dixon said. “Any guy with size and hands who can pass, you’ve got to keep an eye on.”

Recently, one of Hurd’s current players made what he called the second-best pass he’s ever seen at Notre Dame Prep’s gym — the best came from Artis.

“I’ll never forget. When he was here, he pulled in a rebound, took two dribbles and threw an 85-foot bounce pass that hit his teammate in transition. My jaw hit the ground,” Hurd said.

Pitt offered a scholarship to Artis shortly after, which he accepted once his grades improved enough to meet Pitt’s academic standards. It was the competition, in part, that attracted him to Pitt.

“They showed trust, and it was a good style of play for me,” Artis said. “It was the ACC, a tough conference to play in, so I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to play with the best.’”

In the 230-pound range when he arrived at Pitt, Artis knew he had to improve his conditioning.

But no matter what, Artis is a master of procrastination.

“I always do things at the last minute, I can just turn it on like that,” Artis said.

Dixon had been through this before — the skilled wing with conditioning issues. Current Atlanta Hawk Lamar Patterson, who was a senior when Artis arrived at Pitt, fought a four-year battle to reach optimal weight. Given their similarities in body types, Dixon worried the body change would take longer than he hoped.

Artis surprised him. Staying in extra nights doing cardio work with the treadmill and stair stepper quickly toned Artis’ body down to 212 pounds.

“I didn’t used to do that at Notre Dame Prep at all. I just used to go to practice, eat whatever,” Artis said. “When I came here, it’s college, so I had to do what I had to do to play.”

Dixon said the weight loss helped Artis’ overall game.

“When Jamel got here, he lost that weight pretty quick, so that was surprising,” Dixon said.

The weight loss didn’t give him the confidence to step out of the normal learning curve though. Playing 15 minutes a game as a freshman, Artis averaged 4.9 points per game. There were times when Artis would flash his slick passing ability or midrange shooting but not enough to warrant him more than a modest bench role.

“It was a typical freshman year. I didn’t do too much,” Artis said. “I guess I was just staying in my system. Staying in the system of the plays, trying to fit in.”

Still, his ball skills, passing and shooting ability had all been refined. As a shooter, Artis was significantly better than what Dixon saw at Notre Dame Prep, which came as a surprise.

“As soon as he got here, he showed a great ability to put the ball in the basket from 15 to 17 feet,” Dixon said.

It was imperative Artis continue that trajectory next season. Patterson and Talib Zanna’s graduations left a tremendous void in the roster. Pitt needed a star, and after cutting the weight for his sophomore year, Artis prepared to take on that role.

But Hurd saw a very different Artis than the one who shined at Notre Dame Prep.

Following Pitt’s game against Boston College on Jan. 6, Hurd waited for Artis outside of Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. After watching Artis accumulate only four points and turn the ball over five times in a starting role, Hurd knew something was up with his former player. At that point in early January, 15 games into the season, he wasn’t producing. They talked as Artis walked to the team bus.

“I said, ‘This isn’t the dude I know. I don’t know what you’re doing or what’s got you playing passively or not confident, but it’s not the Jamel Artis I’ve seen play basketball before,’” Hurd said. “‘So whatever you have to do to figure that out, you just have to get back to yourself.’”

Artis took Hurd’s advice, calmed down and returned to the fundamentals that had helped him succeed.

After a rough game against Clemson, Artis shot five of six for 13 points against Florida State on Jan. 14. From there, he never looked back, regularly scoring in the high teens and 20s each game while also being instrumental in facilitating offense.

Artis has a simple explanation for the success.

“Just taking more shots I guess. I was too passive in the beginning of my sophomore year. I was just passing to my guys, trying to get them shots,” Artis said. “I knew that for us to have a chance at winning, I had to shoot the basketball.”

Artis began to play primarily power forward as opposed to small forward, where he began the first half of the season.

Though he said small forward is his more natural position, his skill set is more effective against taller, less mobile power forwards.

“Guys couldn’t guard me at the four. I was too quick. And once my shots started falling, I could make more plays for others,” Artis said.

Functioning essentially as a point forward, Artis’ playmaking ability was a keystone of Pitt’s offensive success. Though his knockdown midrange shooting stood out, his passing ability was just as important.

“I always could see my man and where the defender’s going to be. I’ve always just been natural at that,” Artis said. “I’ve never, like, worked at it all, it’s just been natural.”

For all of Artis’ success, Pitt still struggled as a whole, finishing 19-15 and missing the NCAA tournament in the process. After their sophomore seasons, both Artis and forward Mike Young have established themselves as Pitt’s strongest offensive players. The team’s success, subsequently, will hinge on their performances this season.

Despite the pressure, Hurd said he believes Artis will stay focused.

“He’s just not bothered by things going on in his environment,” Hurd said. “He’s not going to be easily distracted.”

After a strong sophomore season, Artis is well aware that he’s worked his way onto the NBA radar. Few players have his size, shooting, passing and ball handling abilities.

“It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that he could have a year here that could put him on some fairly solid ground on some NBA draft boards,” Hurd said.

That standing partly depends on his ability to solidify the small forward position. After playing more power forward than small last season, Artis will be back at the latter position with the influx of height in transfers Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, Rafael Maia and Rozelle Nix.

“Either way, we’re going to keep him in the same spots and try to keep him doing the same things whatever position he’s playing,” Dixon said.

What Dixon will want Artis to do differently than last year, though, is improve on his defense, which has been Artis’ main focus in the offseason. Looking back at last season’s film, Artis said he’s diagnosed his problems.

“I feel like I’m quick enough, smart enough — I know where to be — it’s just that sometimes I get too deep in spots or not at the right spot at the right time,” Artis said.

Dixon added Artis will need to put forth more effort on that end while also upping his physicality.

“I think you can’t be a great defender without physicality. There has to be a consistent level of physicality and aggressiveness,” Dixon said. “He has to value the defensive possession as much as he values the offensive possession.”

Along with improving his defense, Artis will now have to take on a new role as leader, given his upperclassman status and importance to the team.

The coaches have stressed that he’ll need to be more vocal, Artis said, but he still believes he can lead predominantly through his actions and play.

“I don’t really talk a lot. I try not to talk a lot because I don’t want the guys to think I’m yelling at them or something like that. I just try to lead by example,” Artis said.

With a deeper roster and better presence inside from graduate transfers, Artis said Pitt is in a much better position to succeed this year.

Though he personally would like to gain All-ACC status, his primary goal remains simple.

“I just want to win, that’s about it. I just want to get my team where we want to be,” Artis said.

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Jamel’s journey: Junior forward steps into leadership role