March Madness: Freshmen grow into contributory roles throughout season

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Jamie Dixon, like any other coach, would prefer a player to have experience. And like most coaches, Dixon has often had the luxury of mostly depending on upperclassmen. 

Typically, Dixon has received commitments from recruits who stay at Pitt for four or five years and has reaped benefits.

After Pitt’s second-round defeat to Wichita State last year, it looked like Dixon would once again be able to depend on experienced players.

But the roster soon endured some unexpected losses.

Guard Trey Zeigler was the first to go when he transferred to Texas Christian University. Zeigler wasn’t a huge loss from a contribution standpoint, but his departure still hurt Pitt’s depth.

Soon after, Pitt experienced a crushing blow.

Despite claims that he would return to the University after Pitt’s loss in Salt Lake City, center Steven Adams decided to enter the NBA Draft. The loss left Pitt without its key defensive cog and no true center on the roster.

Last of all, forward J.J. Moore decided to transfer to Rutgers. Not only did Pitt lose one of its best scorers in Moore, but it also left Pitt with limited forward depth.

When a team endures losses so late, it has to — often unsuccessfully — scramble for replacements. Dixon and his staff quickly got to it, searching for alternatives.

Unfortunately, the options were thin, as most recruits are already committed by the spring and the amount of transfers who could play immediately were thin. But Dixon managed to restore a little depth on his frontline, getting a spring commitment from Baltimore forward Jamel Artis and bringing Derrick Randall into the fold as a transfer from Rutgers following the Mike Rice debacle.

At the beginning of the 2013-2014 season, maybe more so than ever in his career, Dixon had to depend on freshmen heavily. Freshmen Michael Young and Artis manned the power forward spot, while Josh Newkirk took all of the backup point-guard minutes and some more as the backup shooting guard.

The future results seemed grim.

When teams depend on freshmen, it’s usually by choice because they provide a better option over the alternative. Young, Artis and Newkirk, however, were forced into these roles out of necessity, despite deficiencies that would seemingly leave them underqualified.

Fast forward to the season’s end: Dixon’s freshmen dramatically improved. Not only that, but all have filled their roles well enough that their success could play a role in how far the Panthers can advance in the NCAA Tournament.

An immediate contributor

Once Adams decided to enter the NBA Draft, Young’s responsibility immediately skyrocketed. Initially intended to back up Talib Zanna at power forward, Young has started at power forward all season as Zanna moved to center. 

Ranked as the No. 57 overall prospect in the class of 2013 by ESPN, it’s always been clear that Young has great talent. At 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds, Young has the ideal power forward build. 

To go along with that, Young has a shooting range outside the 3-point line, demonstrates skills facing the basket and with his back against it, is a good interior passer and shows intensity and effort on defense and on the boards. 

Simply, Young has every skill that Dixon could possibly want out of his power forward.

The problem with many freshmen, though, is they often aren’t the sum of their parts. Young has been no different in that regard, though he has steadily improved.

Although Young was reasonably productive in nonconference play, it was clear that he wasn’t ready for his role as starter. While he flashed his skills, he did so sparingly. 

More importantly, he struggled to finish at the rim, constantly throwing up awkward shots when contested.

When ACC play started, the results began to match the eye test. When faced with better competition, Young proved not to be up to the task. 

In his first 10 ACC games, Young shot a mere 19-for-46 while looking terribly uncomfortable on the offensive end. Along with poor results, Young’s confidence was clearly shaken as fans witnessed the player sulking on the court after missed shots.

As the season progressed, however, Young improved.

Even though he’s still not the most comfortable finisher around the rim, Young has been able to make high-percentage shots easier and make them look easier, too. Young’s last five regular-season ACC games are a testament to his improvement, as he averaged 8.2 points a game, up from his 6.1 average on the season.

Mainly, Young has made his greatest contributions through defense and rebounding. When Zanna isn’t grabbing a clutch rebound or making a play on the defensive interior, it’s usually Young.

The developments have surely pleased Dixon.

“Coach, for the most part, he just wants us to go out there and focus on playing defense and rebounding, so that is what we do,” Young said.

His confidence has improved, too.

No longer sulking, Young has assumed a more relaxed mindset, disallowing himself from stressing over too much over a missed shot. That mentality has allowed him to grow more comfortable in the college game and to be less hesitant in showcasing his full repertoire of skills.

Now it’s common to see him execute a nice face-up jumper, post-up move or knock down a 3-pointer when the defense gives it to him. For Dixon, it was just a matter of time before Young and his fellow freshmen showcased their abilities.

“I don’t think people realize how good of freshmen we had going in,” Dixon said. “I felt confident about them after working in the summer and working in the spring that they were going to be guys that could impact us in a big way.”

An unknown commodity

When Artis first showcased his skills in the Greentree Summer League, it was clear that he simply had the look of a Pitt player. Strong, skilled and tough as nails, he resembled predecessors such as Sam Young and Brad Wanamaker.

But also like his predecessors, he looked like he would have to endure a few obstacles along the way.

His variety of skills were evident, but it didn’t seem like he’d be able to put them all to action. And like many freshmen, Artis had to work on his body.

Although he was already strong, he was sporting too much bad weight. Artis recognized the issue, spending hard hours in the weight room to trim his physique.

He was also hard at work on his jump shot. In prep school, Artis’ jump shot was ugly, with too much added motion. To remedy the problem, Artis shortened it, creating a more aesthetically pleasing and effective shot.

From the beginning of the season it was clear that Artis’ hard work proved effective, as he went along to average seven points in his first four games. Artis hasn’t looked back from there, never hitting the freshman wall that most encounter.

Never short of confident, he hasn’t been afraid to put up a deep jumper or attempt a tough pass. Oftentimes, Artis acts as one of Pitt’s sparks off the bench when the offense is reeling.

No matter the score or the opponent, Pitt can always depend on Artis for energy and endless confidence. When he plays, Artis looks to bring that energy and is an asset in every facet of the game.

“Play good defense, crash the boards, and I have to score,” Artis said.

The rapid development has been surprising. ESPN recruiting ranked him as the 58th-best player at his position and a mere three-star recruit. Prospects like that very seldom look the part as a freshman playing in a major college basketball conference. 

Neither Artis nor Dixon are surprised, though, as the results are merely the fruits of Artis’ labor.

“It’s great to see him emerge as a freshman and improve,” Dixon said. “He works really hard at it, so it’s not a surprise that he should improve.”

For the work that he’s put in, Artis believes that he deserves every positive result that he sees.

“I’ve worked very hard since the day I got here,” Artis said. “I think I deserve to come out here and perform every game. When I step on the court, I do it for my team and my coach.”

Lightning -quick growth

Out of the three true freshmen, Newkirk made the greatest strides throughout the season.

When Newkirk came out of high school, the expectation from most was that he would provide speed and driving ability off the bench, but would struggle with his jump shot and with keeping his play under control.

Surprisingly, he has shown ability in each aspect.

Going into the season, Dixon remarked that Newkirk was possibly the fastest player he’s ever coached. Newkirk’s shown that by leading numerous fast breaks and getting past his man in halfcourt sets with a lightning-quick first step.

Unexpectedly, Newkirk has been able to play under control and lead the offense with confidence.

Very seldom is a freshman point guard able to run Pitt’s offense well, or any offense for that matter. If he can, he usually doesn’t have excellent athletic ability like Newkirk and is instead known for his smarts as a recruit, such as sophomore point guard James Robinson, who started as a freshman.

But Newkirk bucked the usual trend of a fast freshman point guard playing out of control.

Just as unforeseen, Newkirk also shot the ball tremendously well.

ESPN’s scouting report noted that Newkirk “will need to steady his perimeter game and become a better perimeter player.” But Newkirk worked hard on his jump shot over the summer, and the efforts paid immediate dividends.Statistically, he’s been Pitt’s best 3-point shooter, making 21-of-46 threes for a team-high 45.7 percent clip. Notably, Newkirk single-handedly kept Pitt in its eventual defeat in its final home game against North Carolina State when he scored 20 points and made all five of his attempts from distance.

Despite not having the reputation, Newkirk isn’t surprised about his results after the effort he put in over the summer.

“I spent long nights in the gym getting up a lot of shots, and it’s paid off,” Newkirk said.

When Newkirk arrived at Pitt, Dixon recognized that.

“Josh made it pretty clear when he got here how well he shot the ball, and it was evident early. We were very fortunate with that,” Dixon said. “He works at it and is a great kid.”

But things weren’t always working for Newkirk this season.

For the first half of the season, Newkirk played timidly. He often looked lost while trying to guide his team, made aimless passes and mostly opted not to use his speed to drive.

Simply put, he looked like a freshman. As he’s gotten more and more comfortable, though, he’s taken full grasp of the offense.

Having Robinson, a quality point guard who also took on large responsibilities as a freshman, playing with him has been a large part of his development.

“I can go to James about anything, any little thing,” Newkirk said. “He’s a good role model, and I’ve learned a lot from him.”

Before the offense, though, Newkirk had to first show the ability to defend in order to take on a substantial role. Not many freshmen can defend at the necessary level for Dixon to have trust in them, but Newkirk demonstrated  he could.

“That’s what Josh has done first and foremost, and now you’re seeing the offense come with it,” Dixon said. “He’s an asset on the defensive end.”

Newkirk’s improvements culminated March 8 against Clemson, when Pitt kept itself off the bubble with a 83-78 win. As the final seconds dwindled with his team down two points and the ball loose on the floor off an inbounds steal, Newkirk picked the ball up about 10 feet away from the basket.

Calmly, he sunk the jump shot to send the game to overtime. The play was a microcosm of Newkirk’s game this year — not only is he talented, but he’s composed as well.

Postseason Implications

If Pitt makes a deep tournament run, it will likely be because of the freshmen.

While seniors Patterson and Zanna can mostly be trusted for consistent quality play, the freshmen can go either way. They have talent, but their skills are not fine-tuned.

Their consistent scoring is crucial in order for Pitt to win several games in the tournament, according to Dixon. It became especially important when Johnson got hurt, something Newkirk recognizes, and he’s made a concerted effort to take on more scoring responsibility since the injury.

“I’m looking to be more aggressive in the open court,” Newkirk said. “Me pushing the ball creates other opportunities for other people to score, and I’m going to continue to do that.”

Artis has taken a different approach. Instead, he doesn’t especially look to score, but focuses more on rebounding and taking advantage of his scoring chances when he gets them.

“I never really looked at scoring, Artis said. “I just play within the offense.”

In addition to being consistent offensive threats, it’s perhaps even more important for the freshmen to be solid defensively.

“They got to be able to defend for us to give us an opportunity,” Dixon said. “You may score some buckets, but if you’re giving up more on the other end, then it’s not helpful to our team.”

Whether or not they can provide the necessary offense and defense for the Panthers to make a deep run in the tournament remains to be seen. For Artis, it’s no question that they will.

“I just want to make a good run,” Artis said. “And I know we will.”

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