Joe Santoro: Pack’s 6-11 freshman ‘trying to fit’ role

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

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“I’m just trying to fit my role,” 6-foot-11 Wolf Pack freshman Jordan Brown said this week. “I just want to help in any way I can.”

Brown could have been the one to shoot out the tires and drive the Wolf Pack’s Muss Bus into a ditch this season. As one of the most sought after high school seniors in the nation last spring, Brown’s resume screamed alpha wolf. A McDonald’s All American, the owner of a 7-foot-plus wingspan and a body sculpted by the basketball Gods, nobody would have been shocked if Brown snarled and showed his teeth when learning he’d be a character actor this season and not a leading man.

But, it turns out, there’s not a selfish bone in that perfectly sculpted basketball body. Brown has taken on a back-of-the-pack role so far, playing a total of just 26 minutes over the first two games and scoring a grand total of eight points. And he’s loving every precious minute of it.

“He’s young and he’s playing against some older guys,” explained Pack coach Eric Musselman, the captain, driver, lead mechanic and human GPS of the Muss Bus.

A lot of coaches might be afraid to treat the Mountain West Preseason Freshman of the Year, a McDonald’s All-American, a guy who has the likes of UCLA, Stanford and Cal on speed dial, as a spare part. But Musselman, everyone knows in Northern Nevada by now, isn’t a lot of coaches. And Brown isn’t your typical you-better-play-me-right-away-or-I’m-leaving McDonald’s All-American.

The Northern California native (born in Vallejo, raised in Roseville) came to the Wolf Pack with his lunch pail ready to do whatever dirty job this Pack team needs him to do. Brown doesn’t have one eye focused on the NBA this year. He’s not playing for NBA scouts. He’s playing for his teammates.

“This is a team full of seniors, full of veterans,” said Brown, who doesn’t even turn 19 years old until Dec. 4, three days after the Pack plays USC in Los Angeles. “They’ve done it before. I’m just trusting they are going to do what they need to do and I am just going to do what I can to help.”

Brown came to Nevada in May, it seems, for a lot of reasons. One reason is UCLA signed the 6-9 Shareef O’Neal, the son of Shaquille O’Neal, back in February. Another reason is because the Wolf Pack went to the Sweet 16 in March. And yet another reason is because Musselman started recruiting him five years ago when Brown was 6-6 and in eighth grade. One of the first things Musselman did when he became the Pack head coach in the spring of 2015 is offer Brown a scholarship.

It all paid off in Brown becoming the Pack’s first McDonald’s All-American recruit since Luke Babbitt in 2008. But one big reason Babbitt came to Nevada (he had already committed to Ohio State) was because he knew he was going to play big minutes right away. The Pack was more than a year removed from going to the NCAA tournament for four consecutive seasons. Nick Fazekas, Ramon Sessions, Marcelus Kemp, David Ellis, Kyle Shiloh, Denis Ikovlev and JaVale McGee were all gone.

Babbitt played 32-plus minutes a game his freshman year and averaged 16.9 points a game. He started his first game in college and played 34 minutes with a game-high 20 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. After two games and 26 total minutes, Brown is 3-for-9 from the floor, 2-of-7 from the free throw line with seven rebounds and three blocks. A walk-on could have done that. Well, a 6-foot-11 walk-on, if one even exists.

But forget the numbers. Wolf Pack fans should be every bit as excited about Brown as they might have been last May. He gave glimpses against both BYU and Pacific as to why coaches were falling over each other trying to land the last ESPN Top 100 recruit still without a college home.

“We obviously feel overly confident that Jordan is going to have a phenomenal year,” Musselman said.

Brown played only 291 seconds against BYU but midway through the first half he flashed a right-handed hook in the lane off a feed from Cody Martin for his first college basket. That one shot should have made your jaw drop. It won’t be long before that shot is dominating the Mountain West.

Brown made his Wolf Pack debut with 15:31 to go in the first half against BYU. He committed his first turnover and foul 79 seconds later. But 57 seconds after that he had his first assist when he fed Jordan Caroline for a bucket in the paint. That sort of play — one big man feeding another for a basket — is something that hasn’t been seen at Nevada in recent years.

Brown left the BYU game with 10:40 to go in the first half, never to return. He played just five minutes and didn’t even have time to pull down a rebound or block a shot. The No. 7 Wolf Pack, after all, had a game to win and Musselman went back to his comfort zone and played a small lineup the rest of the way. Developing the 6-11 freshman sensation would have to wait.

“When you are ranked in the Top 10 you don’t have much margin for error,” Musselman said. “We’re treating every possession like it is the last game we’re ever going to play.”

It was just the first game for Brown. It likely won’t be the last time he plays just five minutes this year. His freshman year will probably look like the stock market, with huge ups and downs from night to night.

And we’ve already seen the Brown rollercoaster. His stock shot up in the second game of the year against Pacific. He played 21 minutes against the Tigers, scoring five points with seven rebounds and three blocks as the Pack won easily, 83-61.

“It felt good to just get out there and get loose and kind of break out of the shell,” smiled Brown.

Brown entered the Pacific game with 14:31 left in the first half. Two seconds later he missed a short jumper. Just 21 seconds after that, though, he had the first rebound of his career. Less than a minute after that, however, he committed a turnover and was back on the Pack bench.

That’s what happens on a Top Ten team.

“It’s hard to get guys in rhythm,” Musselman said, “and let guys play through their mistakes.”

On this Pack team, a team that has legitimate national championship dreams, freshmen must sit on the bench and think about their mistakes. But, unlike in the season opener, Musselman didn’t make Brown think about his mistakes for long. He brought Mr. 7-Foot Wingspan back onto the court against Pacific with 6:45 to go in the first half and Pack fans witnessed a young thoroughbred finally getting up on all fours and starting to run wild and free around the corral.

Brown rebounded a miss from teammate Tre’Shawn Thurman with 6:11 to go but he missed the put-back layup. Baby steps. With 6:02 to go in the half he blocked a Jahbril Price Noel layup. Less than a minute later he drained a short jumper for a 24-19 Pack lead. Just 25 seconds after that he blocked a jumper in the lane by Lafayette Dorsey.

He then exploded with emotion and so did the crowd of 10,561. “It’s great energy to see a block,” Brown said. “You can just see us get hyped up after every defensive play we make. It gets us going and it gets the crowd going.”

Brown simply took over the game on the defensive end during that brief stretch in the first half against Pacific. If he wasn’t blocking shots, he was changing them and breaking the Tigers’ will to compete.

In the second half Brown crashed the glass, pulling down four rebounds in a span of five minutes. His first two rebounds of the second half led to 3-pointers by Caleb Martin and Jazz Johnson as the Pack exploded out to a 72-45 lead with 7:49 to go. His third and final block of the night, on another shot by Dorsey, came with 3:13 to go.

“It was good to get more involved and get out on the court playing with these guys, just getting a better feel for everyone,” Brown said.

Forget Babbitt’s freshman year. A more fair comparison for Brown right now would be with JaVale McGee’s freshman year in 2006-07. McGee, a 7-footer with a 7-6 wingspan, played 33 games his freshman year and averaged just 10 minutes a game. He averaged a mere 3.3 points and 2.2 rebounds a game.

But he was a permanent part of coach Mark Fox’s rotation on a team with NCAA championship dreams. Just like Brown with Musselman on this team.

McGee’s situation as a freshman is almost identical to Brown’s situation this year. The team McGee joined, like this year’s Pack team, is coming off a NCAA tournament appearance. The 2006-07 team would be the fourth consecutive Pack team to go to the tournament and, like this year’s team, was loaded with experienced, battle born players like Fazekas, Kemp, Sessions and Shiloh. It took a special freshman like McGee to even carve out 10 minutes a game with that group.

McGee, an eventual first-round draft pick in the NBA, didn’t complain about minutes his freshman year. He remained patient, paid his dues, did what he was told and waited until his sophomore year to emerge, averaging 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. Brown, who’s just as special as McGee was, will likely do the same next year once he adds upper body muscle and matures a bit more and once seniors like Caleb and Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline, Trey Porter, Tre’Shawn Thurman and Corey Henson are gone.

Until then, however, Brown is more than willing to take any seat available on the Muss Bus and learn the game from his more experienced teammates.

“It’s been great for me, to see the way they mentally prepare before the games, how they act on and off the court on game day, the day before and after the game,” Brown said. “Even immediately after the game you see guys that just played 30-some minutes, they are out there (on the court) getting shots up, getting ready for the next game, the next practice.”

Musselman doesn’t play anyone, even McDonald’s All Americans, even one second if they don’t practice the right way and put in the work. Brown certainly wouldn’t have gotten 21 minutes in the second game of his career if he would have pouted in the practices leading up to the game after playing just five minutes in his first game.

“He’s made some great adjustments since training camp started and he’ll continue to make adjustments,” Musselman said.

Musselman hand-picked Brown to come to the postgame press conference after the Pacific game. That doesn’t happen if the coach thought his freshman didn’t deserve the attention.

“Rebounding the basketball, he did a great job for us,” Musselman said. “The blocked shots are another area he did a great job.”

Musselman is also happy to see his 18-year-old freshman hasn’t been shy so far. Shy, after all, is a word that doesn’t exist in the Musselman family, on or off the court.

“He finds a way to get a lot of shot attempts (nine) up in a short amount of minutes (26),” said Musselman, a firm believer in the-only-bad-shot-is-one-you-don’t-take philosophy. “And the guys are looking to throw him the ball.”

The Wolf Pack is overloaded with players who can and want to shoot the ball. This Pack team doesn’t need Brown to be the second coming of Babbitt and score nearly 17 points a game as a freshman. They would like him to score more than freshman McGee’s 3.3 a game but it’s the defensive end where he can help get this team to the Final Four. Blocking shots, defending the paint with his wall-to-wall reach and rebounding the basketball is where he can truly be an impact player as a freshman.

“I think so, yeah,” Brown said. “If that’s what they need, that’s what I’m going to do for them.”

So don’t worry about this McDonald’s All-American’s ego getting in the way of what this Pack team wants to accomplish this year. He’s not about to demand he sit at the grown-up’s table this Thanksgiving. He’s OK with simply sitting at the kid’s table this year and eating leftovers.

“I just want to bring energy and see how the game goes and just do what I can,” he said.


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