It wasn't too long ago that Dererk Pardon watched every game stuck in his Under Armour warmups, cheering on the team, learning from veteran big men Alex Olah and Joey van Zegeren, and preparing to play a major role next season.
Then, two weeks ago, out of nowhere, he became Northwestern's best offensive big man as soon as he stepped in, a force on the boards, and a guy that single-handedly carried his team to its first Big Ten win of the season in his first Big Ten game of his career. And if Northwestern wants to stay afloat for the next few games sans Alex Olah, and then wants to make the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament, it'll need Pardon to continue to play at a high level.
"I'm really, really pleased with how he's playing," head coach Chris Collins said. "His efficiency's been great."
So what has made the true freshman so good? First, look at his shot chart, via Shot Analytics:
It's admittedly a small sample size — Pardon has only taken 22 shots (and knocked down 18 of them) — but the shot chart shows one thing: Pardon doesn't play outside of himself. He gets shots near the rim, doesn't often stray from that area, and therefore gets a lot of high-percentage looks. Additionally, Pardon has been very good at finishing in the paint. Even against Maryland, a team with a big, long, athletic frontcourt he made four of his five field goal attempts. His 53.24 points above expected per 100 shot attempts would lead the nation if Pardon had attempted enough shots to qualify. (See an explanation of PAE here. Thanks Grantland; we miss you). Basically, Pardon gets where he needs to and converts. Maybe one day he'll develop more of an outside shot to go with that, but right now his ability to get create space for himself around the basket, and operate without much space, is what has made him successful.
Pardon more than holds his own in the post offensively, establishing position early and effectively sealing off his man. Perhaps the most impressive example of this came in the first half against Nebraska. (NOTE: All videos courtesy of Big Ten Network)
Pardon gets to his spot, uses one power dribble into the body of his defender and turns over his left shoulder for a beautiful baby hook with his right hand. Think you've seen that before? You're right: thats Olah's go-to move. The difference, though? Pardon is left-handed. For a freshman to have the ability to finish with both hands and the confidence to do so in a game is truly impressive.
Yes, Nebraska had no match for Pardon, whose sheer length and strength overwhelmed the undersized Cornhuskers. But Pardon showed his ability to get good position in the halfcourt set against Maryland as well.
Pardon catches the ball in good position, takes one decisive dribble toward the basket right at Maryland five-star freshman Diamond Stone, and goes up strong with his left hand, finishing the play with ease. Whereas Olah might pull up for that short jumper or van Zegeren — a less-skilled big man on the offensive end — might look to kick it back out, Pardon's move is well-executed and earns him the bucket.
What allows him to go right at Stone and finish is his length. He can go right into the body of Stone, who is two or three inches taller, and keep the ball out of Stone's shot-blocking radius.
Pardon's ability to get good position also helps the freshman get a lot of offensive boards, as shown twice in Lincoln, once off his own miss and once off a miss from Tre Demps.
In the second example, Pardon uses his strength to just push Nebraska big Michael Jacobson out of the paint. Jacobson is 6-foot-8, 222 pounds. Pardon, a former football offensive lineman, makes him his rag-doll.
"Bigger guys who have a great will to get better will rapidly improve because a lot of guys who are that big play basketball because they're pushed into it," Collins said. "And they might like it, but do they truly love it? And Dererk was a kid, the moment we saw him, you saw the passion he had, you saw the love, you saw the work."
So, Pardon gets position in the half court. That's great. So can hundreds of big men across the nation. But Pardon, at his relatively large size, also runs the floor exceptionally well, something he owes to extra sprints he did with the strength and conditioning coaches while sitting out, planning to redshirt. "He's really improved as an athlete since he's been here with our strength and conditioning staff," Collins said. "He's running better than he ever has. He's quicker off the floor. He's slimmed down, obviously with that length, and he's worked so hard to become the player he is and that's why I know he's got a huge upside, because I see that work ethic every day."
His floor-running ability has already paid dividends in both of his conference games.
It's not that Pardon has blazing speed, it's that he's giving the effort every time up and down the floor.
So we know Pardon is a big kid, a solid athlete and a good finisher around the basket. But what about the more refined aspects of the game? Pardon's shown flashes in the pick-and-roll with Bryant McIntosh, a rapport that should have Wildcat fans excited about the years to come.
On the first play, Pardon shows good recognition, slipping to the basket after the opening wasn't immediately apparent, and making himself a big target. With a guy like McIntosh, who is currently ninth in the nation in assists per game, running the show, Pardon should get plenty of opportunities similar to the first one. The second one, a fantastic pass from McIntosh, shows another part of the Cleveland-area native's refined game: his hands. "He's always had great hands and he's always had a great knack for the ball," Collins said.
Finally, Pardon's rebounding ability is very good. He averages 12.1 rebounds per 40 minutes through three games, and has a ridiculous 16.6 offensive rebound percentage, meaning when Northwestern misses a shot and Pardon is on the floor, there's a one-in-six chance that Pardon will get the rebound. He gathered six rebounds against Maryland in 23 minutes against a very good frontcourt and uses his size (an absurd 7-foot-3 wingspan), strength and natural instincts to his advantage on both ends of the floor. But it's his instincts that set him apart according to Collins.
"There's a term: you can rebound 'out of your area,' which means he has a really good ability — if the rebound's not just in his area — he has an ability to get outside of that. Some things you can't really teach. Rebounding, to me, if you see a lot of guys that are great at it, they just have a knack for it. He came here with that knack."
It would be irresponsible to rush to conclusions after three games, albeit three pretty good ones. Pardon has a long way to go on the defensive end, where he's sometimes slow on rotations and picks up fouls. His offensive game is limited to the paint and his free throw percentage hovers just above 50, something that, according to Collins, the big men need to improve on as a group. But through three games, Pardon has shown huge upside on both ends thanks to his energy, rebounding ability and offensive production. The three feed off each other at times — if he rebounds a miss by the opposing team, outlets the ball to McIntosh and runs the floor, there's a good chance he'll get a bucket.
But it is certain that Pardon's play is of major importance while Olah is out, and perhaps beyond. His continued development is key to the future as well. He's the only true center on the current team that's not a senior. Pardon has the raw athleticism, strength, instincts and developing offensive game to become a big-time Big Ten big man. And that development starts tonight against Ohio State, the type of game Northwestern must win to make it to March.
"We need to be more conscious of getting him the ball, especially when he's got a guy on his back," Collins, who expects the team to get more comfortable playing with Pardon as time progresses, said when asked about the matchup with the Buckeyes.
It may sound crazy, but Northwestern's March dreams may lie on the broad shoulders of a guy who wasn't even playing two weeks ago. And if three games are any indication, he's ready for it.