by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
There was no madness at midnight in Welsh-Ryan Arena, no dunk contests or quirky introductions or intra-squad scrimmages. Northwestern commenced official practice on a more subtle note. With all the buzz floating around the football team, the NU hoopsters are not the main focus – nor should they be at this juncture. But the season is fast approaching. Less than a month from now, your beloved Wildcats will take on Texas Southern in the season-opener. If you plan to attend – or at least enjoy the proceedings via television – there may be an initial shock factor, because this team hardly resembles last year’s squad. There are nine new players either joining or making their debuts for the Wildcats this season: two transfers, five freshmen and two redshirts.
That’s a lot of turnover, so you can expect some changes this season. How those changes will turn out, and whether the new pieces can come together and coalesce into a unified outfit, it’s tough to say. I do know that Coach Bill Carmody has a pretty decent idea, so I went straight to the sideline boss to glean some insight about the newcomers. Our conversation took place after just three practices, and while Carmody has a pretty good feel for his team after summer workouts, it pays to remember that there are still weeks of position battles and schematic adjustments and role building to go through. So think of the following breakdown as a first impression, rather than a conclusive picture of where the new guys stand heading into the season.
Herewith, your first inside look at the nine new faces.
Kale Abrahamson (Freshman, 6-7, 195 pounds; West Des Moines, Iowa)
When Abrahamson committed to the Wildcats, I though the marriage of offensive principle and singular talent was practically a seamless fit. Abrahamson is a tall, lanky wing with an excellent three-point stroke, the type of guy who can be slotted in multiple positions in the Princeton offense. To no surprise, Carmody’s been impressed by Abrahamson’s long-range game.
“He’s fast and he’s got a ton of energy,” Carmody said. “He’s one of our better long-range shooters already.”
“He has to learn, like all freshmen. But he can give you outside shooting. He can play anywhere in the four-out [four-guard offense].”
Sanjay Lumpkin (Freshman, 6-6, 195 pounds; Wayzata, Minnesota)
If you happened to catch my interview with senior forward Drew Crawford two weeks back, there was little doubt Crawford believed strongly in Lumpkin’s ability to contribute in 2012. Then you read what Carmody told ESPN’s Andy Katz last month, add in the following comments, and it becomes rather clear that this kid appears well on his way to finding a spot in the rotation this season.
“He’s just got a really good feel for the game,” Carmody said. “He really understands how to play. He’s very athletic, cuts very well, and a better defender than I originally thought. And he gets rebounds, which is a plus.”
“He can play right away and fit in. He knows what he can and can’t do.”
Chier Ajou (Freshman, 7-2, 235 pounds; Aweil, South Sudan)
In a late and unexpected recruiting coup, Carmody snatched a towering big man in late June for the 2012 class (he was cleared to play by the NCAA in August), the tallest player in NU basketball history. Ajou was originally committed to New Mexico before renouncing his pledge and joining NU. He was unable to partake in the Wildcats' summer practices, but Carmody said he’s making strides in practice every day. At this stage, Ajou’s offensive game is unrefined, though his shot blocking and rebounding is expectedly impressive. At 7-2, should we expect anything else?
“He’s big, he’s long, and he’s already blocking a lot of shots,” Carmody said. “We just have to give him some time to pick things up. We have to teach him how to work the low post. He needs to work on some individual [offensive] stuff.”
“He’s a little uncertain as a freshman, but I think he’s going to be a big player down the road.”
Alex Olah (Freshman, 7-0, 275 pounds; Timisoara, Romania)
Find me a frontcourt with more combined length than the potential pairing of Olah and Ajou. If it exists, i’d like to see it. That colossal partnership may or may not happen this year, but all indications point to Olah playing a big role in NU’s frontcourt plans. The individual developmental concerns with Ajou aren’t nearly as striking with Olah. He combines excellent size with an imposing two-way interior game. If Olah continues to shine in practice, you may see him challenge for a starting spot. At the least, he should be a major contributor.
“He understands how to play, and he’s a really big kid,” Carmody said. “He takes up a ton of space, and has a great feel for the game.”
“Right now, Alex is ahead of Chier [Ajou]. He seems more ready right now. Alex runs well, I just need to remind him to do it sometimes. He’s going to help us this year.”
Aaron Liberman (Freshman, 6-10, 215 pounds; Los Angeles, California)
The comparisons – one media outlet went as far as to label him the “Jewish Dwight Howard” – being thrown around in the wake of Liberman’s announced commitment this summer were completely unreasonable. I don’t expect Liberman to grow mountainous shoulder muscles and suddenly acquire a 40-inch vertical leap. More likely, he’ll be a nice player, a high-energy guy with the potential for consistent frontcourt productivity. Carmody likes what he’s seen so far.
“I saw him four or five years ago on the AAU circuit,” Carmody said. “He runs very well and is very active.”
“He has a great motor. He’s only been playing about five years, but he jumps very well and is a competitive kid.”
Mike Turner (RS Freshman, 6-8, 215 pounds; Chicago, Illinois)
Often times, players redshirt to mature physically and develop their games. Turner did both in his practice-only season, and more than one source close to the program raved about Turner’s development. At least one national pundit is decidedly on board with that sentiment. He was tentative early on last year as he attempted to carve out a role on the perimeter. Now he’s at center, where Carmody believes he’s more comfortable.
“He was playing on the perimeter a lot in practice. Now I have him as a center,” Carmody said. “He looks really relaxed at the center position”.
“He’s gotten a lot stronger from last year. He seemed a little unsure about himself last year. That’s gone now.”
Tre Demps (RS Freshman, 6-2, 200 pounds; San Antonio, Texas)
“New” doesn’t exactly describe Demps’ situation, because he played in four games last season. A shoulder injury forced him to miss the rest of the season. Luckily for Demps, he used 2011 as a medical redshirt year, so he still has four years of eligibility beginning this season. Demps flashed great promise last year and was well on his way to a strong season. He’s picked up right where he left off, thanks to a tireless work ethic and impressive natural physical tools and athleticism. The backcourt remains an unsettled equation, but you can rest assured Demps will be a major part of the final product. Before you get any ideas about Demps potentially unseating Dave Sobolewski at the point guard position, Carmody was quick to dispel those myths.
“He’s a tireless worker,” Carmody said. “He spends a ton of time working by himself. He’s a powerful guy, and I’ve seen a lot of improvement.”
“The backcourt is in really good shape, with Tre, Sobo [Sobolewski], Reggie [Hearn] and alex [Marcotulio]. I don’t think Sobo and Tre are competing for a spot.”
Nikola Cerina (RS Junior, 6-9, 245 pounds; Topola Oplenac, Serbia)
*Sat out last season after transferring from TCU
When I spoke with Cerina at a practice last season, he told me the biggest motivation for his transfer was the Princeton offense, that he felt his skill set was better suited for the four-guard sets and fast-moving pace of Carmody’s system. In yet another case of perimeter-drawn big man syndrome, Cerina has morphed into a stretch four, which is different from the more traditional frontcourt position he played at TCU. Carmody said Cerina can still play on the low block; his versatility, improving jump shot and ball handling skills only adds to the range of possibility.
“He played mostly inside at TCU, right around the basket,” Carmody said. “Here, he’s played inside and out on the perimeter. He’s learning to play out there, to take some shots outside.”
“He’s a powerful kid who runs well and jumps well. I think he’ll be on the perimeter, but he can go down low too.”
Jared Swopshire (Graduate Student, 6-8, 210 pounds; St. Louis Missouri)
*Able to play immediately this season as a graduate transfer from Louisville
The logjam in Louisville’s frontcourt hampered Swopshire’s playing time in last year’s NCAA Tournament. He sought refuge as a graduate transfer at NU, where his versatility and silky athleticism make a perfect fit in Carmody’s Princeton. It’s hard to decipher exactly where Swopshire will fit in the lineup, but his skill set – keen ball handling skills, high basketball IQ, range out to the three point arc – demands a perimeter role. Perhaps an accurate comparison is John Shurna or Drew Crawford’s positional responsibilities last season. Both spent their fair share of possessions on the low block, but the perimeter is the land they call home. Swopshire looks primed for a big season. His work ethic and lead-by-example mindset is already rubbing off on his teammates. Carmody spoke highly not only of Swopshire’s skills on the hardwood, but the intangibles he brings to the locker room.
“I’ve liked everything so far,” Carmody said. “He’s got a very well-rounded game. He’s a perimeter guy, but he can play down low a little bit. He’s just an experienced kid who knows how to play.”
“He has great leadership qualities, and he just goes about his business the right way. You can’t help but like him as a kid, and the guys definitely respect him. He plays to win.”