By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
A year in, and with their season on life support but not yet dead, West Virginia is getting help from a place it hadn’t planned to turn to for big help this season – Nathan Adrian.
The freshman from down the road at Morgantown High was supposed to be going through a learning season, if coach Bob Huggins had gotten his way. He knew it, too.
“I didn’t see this kind of role but we had a couple of people who didn’t get eligible so I had to step up and I’m doing all right,” he said after his definition of “doing all right” was scoring 14 points, pulling down six rebounds, five of them offensive, having three assists without turning the ball over and blocking a shot against TCU in an 81-59 victory at the Coliseum on Saturday.
Big at 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds, Adrian came out of high school without perhaps as much elite competition as many other freshmen, leading to the idea that he would be eased in this season. But then Jonathan Holton and Elijah Macon failed to earn their eligibility, a blow that has hurt WVU all season.
That forced Huggins to force-feed Adrian, move him forward far faster than he had planned to, and when Terry Henderson came down ill for the last three games and not yet cleared to play, it increased Adrian’s role and importance even further.
His teammates appreciate his skills.
“Nat is very capable of scoring. He’s a great shooter,” said point guard Juwan Staten. “When he has it going, he can really fill it up. As long as he concentrates on doing what he does, other things will come to him.”
His season average is just 5.8 points a game, but his role isn’t really to carry the team in that area. That responsibility lies on Staten, Eron Harris and Henderson, before he took ill, and even after more on Remi Dibo than Adrian.
Dibo, at 7.6 per game, hasn’t quite lived up to what they hoped they would get out of him.
But there are a couple of areas where Adrian has really stepped forward that probably weren’t expected right away, the first being on the offensive boards, where he pulled down five against TCU. He is really becoming not only adept at grabbing offensive rebounds, but turning them into points.
“I wasn’t making shots like I should, so I knew I had to go in and get on the boards,” Adrian said.
In fact, watching him grow as an offensive rebounder offers some hopes that he could possibly create a game in the image of all-time WVU great Kevin Jones, although he scoffs at that idea having seen him play here during his junior high years.
“I definitely watched him play,” he said. “I don’t know about that good, but I can always try.”
When the idea was brought up to Huggins, he wasn’t sure that would be Adrian’s future role.
“I don’t think he’s going to be Kevin Jones,” he said. “He’s going to be a little more skilled guy on the wing than KJ was. I don’t know if he’ll be the kind of rebounder KJ was.”
Probably not, but only once in Jones’ freshman year was he able to grab off five offensive rebounds, that being against Iowa, as Adrian did against TCU and seems to be learning the art of offensive rebounding, something Jones also picked up as his career went along.
“You got to get to the right spot at the right time. You have to know where the ball is going. You have to be able to tell from the shot where it is going to bounce off the rim,” he said.
It’s something best seen in the game of Staten, who despite being a point guard and not very much beyond 6-feet has a knack of being where the rebound comes off to, averaging 5.9 rebounds a game, ranking second to Devin Williams on the team while possessing more defensive rebounds than any Mountaineer.
Perhaps more surprising has been the way Adrian has won over Huggins with his defense.
As everyone knows, defense is what Huggins values above all else and that freshmen normally don’t take to his defensive values very quickly.
Yet Huggins reserves his biggest praise of Adrian for his defense.
“Defensively, Nat has been really good all year and he keeps getting better and better,” he said.
He’s versatile. We can put him on a wing and he’s OK and we can put him on a post and he’s OK. He’s the only guy like that we have.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.