Penn State Basketball: Nittany Lions Searching for Balance on Interior to Help Out Guard Play
The NBA may no longer have a place for center on its All-Star ballot, but having an effective big man can be the difference between winning and losing on both the collegiate and professional level.
In the Big Ten, Indiana’s Cody Zeller has shown what a physical forward or center can do for a team. The Hoosiers went from a brief stint at the bottom of the league to national title contender over the span of three years. Several factors played in to Indiana’s rise, but a large contributing factor to that rise rests in the hands, and more importantly, the height of the 7-foot sophomore from Washington, Ind.
For Penn State, a Zeller-type big man has been hard to come by in recent years. This season, Penn State has had a mixed bag of success at the position. Both Sasa Borovnjak and Jon Graham have shown flashes in the paint, but neither has truly dominated a game. Borovnjak’s season, his last at Penn State, is his first fully healthy season and it has shown as the Serbian native has averaged 5.7 points and 3.4 rebounds a game. Graham has shown a lot of grit on the defensive end of the floor but hasn’t benefited from many kind rolls on the offensive side, averaging just 2.3 points and 3.2 rebounds in 15.2 minutes per contest.
“I think Sasa is doing some good things,” Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers said Monday. “He’s going against some big-time bigs and playing hard, making some good moves, making some great finishes, playing some great defense. I think Sasa has improved, without question.
“I think Jon Graham is playing his best basketball of the season right now. He’s doing some good things the past couple games. We’ve just got to keep developing them and find their sweet spots.”
While the offensive system isn’t the same as the one Chambers helped coach at Villanova, Chambers credits good guard play as part of how the Wildcats’ bigs became so good.
“What helped those guys at Villanova, was the guard play,” Chambers said. “They had pros playing there, guys that were a cut above the rest of the league. And here DJ is doing a great job, Jermaine is doing a great job. Those guys need to get some more opportunities and be ready to make plays.”
The Nittany Lions have had their fair share of success at the forward and center positions, but if the numbers were to be lined up, Happy Valley has likely produced more guards as of late than anything else, as well.
Former Penn State forward and Philadelphia native Andrew Jones is one of the few exceptions. The 6-foot-10, 245-pound forward left Penn State as the 12-best rebounder in school history, and his 55.4 percent shooting from the field was the second highest career mark at Penn State. Most notable, Jones was instrumental in Penn State’s run to an NIT title in 2009, scoring 16 points while pulling down 14 rebounds in an NIT semifinal victory against Notre Dame in Madison Square Garden.
From his perspective, the key to good interior play is more than just being physical; it can be mental as well.
“Adjusting to Big Ten play varies from player to player,” Jones said. “For some it's mental, physical and for some both. For me, starting out, it was more physical simply because of the lack of size and strength. Once I established that, it then became mental. Preparation, focus, consistency, et cetera. The physical was just the tip of the iceberg so to speak.
“During the NIT run I just had a ton of confidence. My junior year I allowed for others to dictate my confidence level for whatever reason which led to me not playing as free or aggressive as I would have. My senior year I was more mature, and more experienced, my mindset going up against guys is always the same. Do not be outworked. Regardless of talent level you still have to work for success. So if a guy is maybe more talented — I never liked to think so — stay confident and outwork him. That's my mindset and it has never changed.”
Next season, the Nittany Lions will add another big man to the fold in Germantown Academy Julian Moore, a 6-foot-9, 215-pound center who signed his letter of intent back in September. Moore will join freshman Donovon Jack and the sophomore Graham as the three primary post players for the Nittany Lions.
While Jack has shown plenty of upside and Moore is still in high school, it’ll take a tag-team effort by the coaching staff to get them up to Big Ten speed. Assistant coach Brian Daly, the only former big man on the coaching staff, isn’t the only one getting his hands dirty with the bigs in practice.
“It’s a group effort,” Chambers said. “Coaches are out recruiting. I’ll take the bigs for a day, Eugene [Burroughs] is with them for a day, but Brian is with them the most and he does a real good job with them. They just need to slow down. You can see that they all are sped up out there, they just need to play with a clear head and great confidence and they’ll be fine.”
“I’m fine with however works with us,” Graham said about not having one designated big-man coach. “All the guys have great basketball knowledge and have different knowledge and different skills, and it just goes to show the versatility of our coaches, so it doesn’t really matter who’s working with us.”