Sanjay Lumpkin is one of the first players on the Welsh-Ryan Arena floor to warm-up before practice. He has one basket all to himself, just a manager under the hoop to feed him mid-range jump shots. He moves around the arch, knocking down jumpers with his quick, high-release stroke. Those same shots didn't come as easy for him last season.
Lumpkin saw the floor a lot in just his second year in Evanston. After sitting out 2012-13 with a broken wrist and accepting a medical redshirt, he played nearly 30 minutes per game last season. He was thrown into the starting lineup and became one of Northwestern's few reliable options at power forward.
It was clear, however, that Lumpkin was not on the floor for his offense. Defenders often left him open to help on Alex Olah in the post, and it was an effective strategy. In his 29.2 minutes per outing, he was scoring just 3.8 points and making well below 40 percent from the field. In the offseason, Lumpkin took it upon himself to improve his offensive game.
"I've just got to be an offensive threat. I've been working a lot on my shooting," Lumpkin said at practice. "Transition would be a place I can look to get buckets with the way we are running this year. Kick-out threes, rebound put-backs, setting picks, I've just got to make the right basketball play."
His 2013-14 stats show a need for a change. As a starter and someone who will typically play key minutes down the stretch, he couldn't afford to shoot that poorly for a second straight year.
Lumpkin's production depends highly on hustle points like put-backs and transition lay-ups. Northwestern's half-court set should run through Olah and the veteran backcourt duo of Tre Demps and JerShon Cobb. Chris Collins would like to see bigger numbers from Lumpkin, but not off set plays.
"We aren't going to run plays for Sanjay, and he knows that," Collins said. "He has to learn how to, from an energy stand point, give us six to ten points in a game and maybe some games even more than that."
Lumpkin did just that in NU's second game of the year. He dropped 15 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, both career highs, at Brown Monday. He's been extremely efficient to start the season, making 8-10 from the field, 2-3 three-pointers and 4-5 from the line, exactly what the team needs offensively from the sophomore forward.
Of course, Lumpkin's defensive contribution is much more important to the young squad. Defense was often the only thing keeping Northwestern in games during conference play last year. It was a change of pace for the program, ushered in by new coaching.
"My first year defense wasn't harped on like it was my second year, and that comes from coach. He wants us to play to defense, and we need that to win games," he said.
The defensive emphasis increased Lumpkin's role and helped him become Northwestern's best all-around defender. He's a lengthy 6-foot-6 and stronger than ever before. Through dieting and weight training, Lumpkin has added some weight to help him body up on the Big Ten's bigger forwards. He's now listed at 220 pounds, ten pounds heavier than he was listed last winter.
Even with the added weight, Lumpkin remains agile and quick enough to guard just about every position. Last season he manned up on everyone from Terran Petteway to Sam Dekker to Adreian Payne. Lumpkin's versatility is likely aided by his high school experience, where he played a lot at every position except the point.
Lumpkin's diverse game led to some stuffed stat sheets too. He led the team with 37 steals last season and was third in blocks. With 4.8 boards per game, he was considered by some to be the best pound-for-pound rebounder in the Big Ten. Yet, stats aren't on Lumpkin's mind right now. Still just a sophomore, he wants to be a leader on the defensive end for Northwestern.
"That's the main reason why I play. I always got to bring that toughness, and I feel like I got to bring that voice," Lumpkin said. "It's pretty crazy. I feel like I've been here a long time and to be a veteran. I just got to help these guys and do my best to lead them."
Leadership likely won't determine how far this team goes, but if it means Lumpkin playing a bigger role on this team, Northwestern will be better for it. And if the first two games are any indication, there's already the potential for a bright future.