In the words of the immortal Marlo (The Wire) “You want it to be one way. . . but it’s the other way.”
On commencement day Dwayne Anderson II was riding high. He was “the guy” on a team full of “the guys” at DMV powerhouse St. John’s College High School (DC) and St. Thomas More School (CT). He was a bucket getter extraordinaire headed to the school of his choice after telling a bevy of high profile programs “thanks but no thanks”. He planned to take in the sights and dunk on some guys during his pit stop at Villanova before going on to his inevitable destination: THE NBA.
At least that was the plan. Somehow, he went from going to the League to “walking to practice in tears”. What happened? Well, the answer is both simple and complex, with much of it rooted in the expectation that college would be a “rinse and repeat” of high school.
Expectations can be a funny thing. They are formed automatically and are necessary for our survival but in the transition from high school to college basketball they have to be managed with an important caveat borrowed from any sound investment strategy: understand that past success does not guarantee future results. Or at least not immediate future results.
Keith Urgo, a coach at Penn State University, said this is a common mistake made by incoming freshmen who have to learn a plethora of things on and off the court to be productive in the program. Not once did any of the persons interviewed for this piece ever mention “talent level” as a reason for not getting playing time. Urgo mentioned a few things, including adapting their bodies to physically compete, improving their work habits and focus to consistently play with the required intensity and learning the systems implemented by the coaching staff. Larry Suggs, director of a midwestern AAU program, Team Sizzle, acknowledged the need for players to properly grasp the “terminology and techniques” college teams employ.
Walter Fisher III, an assistant at an Illinois NAIA program, Governor’s State, echoed those same sentiments in describing the trials and tribulations suffered by freshmen. “The growth process is the same at our level,” he noted adding that “managing time off the court” is just as pivotal.
Fisher pointed to one the keys to Anderson’s early struggles as a Wildcat. “(Freshman) have to develop the mental preparedness to compete everyday.” Anderson, now the Director of Basketball Operations at Villanova, acknowledged that was one the things he had to learn. “I thought I’d be given an opportunity to play” as opposed to “earning” it everyday in practice, he said. All of these were factors in my own son’s delay in playing meaningful minutes for the Villanova Wildcats.
Another major component in “earning” playing time is garnering the head coaches trust by showing the necessary “commitment” to work hard on and off the floor to improve and contribute. In a cursory examination of minutes played by freshmen from the Class of 2019 from the Philadelphia area I found that most only played about 10-12 minutes. Isaiah Wong (Miami), Donta Scott (Maryland) and Christian Ray (Lasalle) were among the few to garner 21 minutes per game. With the exception of those three, the majority did not play important minutes in more than half of the conference games for their respective schools.
One of the things that can negatively affect the management of expectations is promises made on the recruiting trail. Urgo and Fisher emphasized that most coaches understand the dangers of guaranteeing playing time beyond the opportunity to compete for minutes. Still, some paint a less than realistic picture for prospects. Urgo added that some high school influencers don’t help as some may operate with an agenda and “sell the school, sell the dream” to recruits.
Fisher, who started his own AAU organization (Team RWA) prior to becoming a coach, took it a step further advising prospects to surround themselves with people who are willing to give straight forward feedback and have difficult conversations. “You want the blunt guy. You don’t want the dreamer.”
On the recruiting circuit, Urgo believes being honest and as forthright as possible can save a lot of “headaches” later, for both the staff and the player. It helps the player “pick a school that is the right fit. The right institution”. Fisher, who is in his 2nd season with the Jaguars, only assures prospects that “if you outplay the (upperclassmen) you will play”.
Well, “outplaying the upperclassmen” is quite often easier said than done. In college, especially at the NAIA level, it may be even harder because the players will be competing against guys as much as 5 years older than them.
Anderson got an inkling of the difficulty in one preseason open run with his Villanova teammates. He had “made a steal or something” and got on the break with just 6-10 Jason Fraser standing between him and an impressive dunk. “He waited for me. Like, waited for me. So I (reared back) ready to dunk.” Then as Anderson recounted, Fraser leapt into the air meeting the high flying freshmen at the rim, blocking his dunk in spectacular fashion, bringing the ball down with him while sending the incredulous Anderson sprawling under the basket, Fraser standing over him with a greeting, “Welcome to college”.
Urgo talked about the importance of having veteran players to help freshmen adjust and accept their roles as they prepare to be key contributors down the road. He talked about how having Lamar Stevens helped Seth Lundy, who has doubled his scoring average in his sophomore year, get through his early playing time frustrations. Conversely, he related how not having that type of mentorship hurt Stevens and Tony Carr as they had to “figure it out” on the court, losing a lot but learning in the process. Both were outstanding high school players who were unaccustomed to the losing and they were often frustrated in the beginning.
Stevens and Carr arrived in Happy Valley as heralded recruits in a program not known for them. They were instantly two of the best players on the roster. This is not the case for most incoming freshmen and certainly was not the case for Anderson, who joined several future NBA players on the mainline. It didn’t take him long to discern that he wasn’t going to be in the rotation as a freshman. “It was okay because I knew I was behind future NBA guys.” He spent his first year “watching them, learning from them, believing next year would be my time”.
Over the following summer he would earn a chance to have a larger role early in the following season. He wasn’t getting it done. He again had to accept that he wasn’t “going to be one of the guys that would be playing.” It was tough for him and his parents. Following his sophomore season an end of the season meeting with Coach Wright made things quite a bit tougher. According to Anderson, Wright sat him down and told him he should transfer because he didn’t envision him having the kind of role on the team that he knew he wanted.
Wright and his staff took notice and he earned more trust and more playing time. During a mid season lull he earned more opportunities as the guys ahead of him just weren’t productive enough. The turning point came midway through his junior year when Anderson buried a corner three to beat Seton Hall. He was a fixture in the rotation after that. That moment, that shot, propelled Anderson to a change in perspective that has driven him ever since. “I will never again accept that I’m not good enough.”
His message to freshmen: “The way you adapt to coaching will determine when you get on the court.” And to parents: “Don’t try to solve all of their problems.” Urgo intimated that parents need to make sure their children are coachable as early as “5th or 6th grade”. Fisher advises that parents and other HS influencers “stop treating them like babies” and not to ‘“coddle them”.
Other things high school influencers (parents, coaches and trainers, amongst others) can do to help are making sure they learn about nutrition and proper sleeping habits. In addition, Fisher says “trainers need to train them for the college game, not the pro game.” In relation to that Suggs said he tries to be familiar with what colleges are doing so that he can help his players start adapting before they even arrive on campus. For example, if he has a player committed to or strongly considering a certain school he would have them practice doing things like releasing from pin-downs or guarding ball screens the way the school does it.
Other things freshmen often struggle with according to Fisher is focusing on things other than scoring and guarding without fouling. Also, drilling the fundamentals. “Be consistent. Don’t get bored with what you find boring.”
As a parent who is experiencing this first hand I would like to share a few things from my perspective. I acknowledge that being the parent in this process can be very difficult, especially when you have been involved in the game as I have as a player and coach. We invest an incredible amount of emotion, time and other resources to their development and, more importantly, want so badly for them to achieve their goals and realize their dreams. There is a sense of powerlessness that coaches and bystanders often ignore as they villainize us and scapegoat us. However, the truth is we do make mistakes and we do sometimes cause more harm than good when we interfere in their coaching and teams. Those needing help or information can join the CBPA for free. For more details visit us at theCBPA.org.
The key for me is understanding my role and realizing that my relationship with his coaches has to be a partnership with clear lines of both communication and boundaries. Also, when helping him with his school decision I considered that my son and I are close so picking a school close to home where my wife and I could attend games or just meet for a quick chew and chat was important. We don’t really talk about basketball unless he wants to and even then it’s never about discounting what his coaches are telling him. Again, his coaches are my partners so I wouldn’t want to disparage them. In addition, I understand the value of him having to struggle. As one assistant said to me once, “Diamonds are not made at the top of the mountain, they are formed by the intense pressure under it.”
Also, “waiting your turn” may not be popular but it is often necessary. At Villanova, as Anderson found out, it is almost built into how the program develops leadership in it’s players. Wright and his staff teach players the fundamentals and how to be productive role players while they play behind the upperclassmen. These players then become leaders by example, torch bearers for those who come after them. Their mantra of “playing for those who came before us” becomes a kind of two-way street with learning and leading happening throughout the process.
The transition is “humbling” and an “extremely difficult… ego check” for many says Anderson, who is now pursuing a career in coaching. To those freshmen and their families who are struggling I say you are not alone. Pay attention and use patience, persistence and perseverance, and maybe even a little prayer, to get through it.