ROBINSON TWP – “Hey Ro, let’s go!” one of his Pitt teammates shouted from across the gym at Montour High School.
The affable Rozelle Nix smiled and hustled to join his teammates after an overtime victory for his squad at the Pittsburgh Basketball Classic Pro-Am Wednesday. It’s clear that off the court, Nix is a big part of the team, literally and figuratively. What remains to be seen is what kind of role the 6-foot-11, nearly 300-pound center will play for the Panthers in 2016.
With the graduation of Rafael Maia and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, Nix is the only true center listed on the Panthers’ roster. But with his sheer size and lack of experience, it isn’t clear how much Nix will be able to contribute.
An able rebounder with surprising touch around the rim, Nix has the skill required. The question is whether or not he’ll be able to get up and down the floor — particularly if the Panthers play a more up-tempo style under first-year coach Kevin Stallings.
“Right now, I’m doing good, but there’s always room for improvement,” Nix said of his continued work on his conditioning, which went straight through his redshirt season in 2015-16 and has continued to this summer. “I know I can get better with my conditioning so I can last longer on the court.”
The reason that former head coach Jamie Dixon went out and got Maia and Nelson-Ododa as graduate transfers was to try to take some of the burden underneath off the shoulders of star forward Michael Young. Now, that job will fall to Nix.
“It’ll be a great opportunity for me,” Nix said. “I took care to learn off (Maia and Nelson-Ododa) last year. I learned a lot there from both of them. … My main duties are to control the paint and playing physically.”
Helping get Nix ready to go for physically for the season has been new strength and conditioning coach Garry Christopher. Christopher came over to Pitt from Vanderbilt with Stallings and has immediately made an impression with his outsized physique and gregarious personality.
“He’s a real good strength coach,” Nix said. “He just wants to help make his players better and help them take better care of their bodies.”
The good feelings between Christopher and Nix are decidedly mutual.
“He’s a great kid,” said Christopher, smiling. “It’s fun just to be around him.”
When it comes to Nix’s continued work on his conditioning, Christopher said the number on the scale isn’t necessarily the most important figure. It’s about — regardless of a player’s size — how well they can get up and down the floor and how many times they can do it. If improvement in those areas leads to weight loss, so be it.
“I’m never concerned about weight,” he said. “I’m concerned about how the move. If he’s not moving efficiently, maybe we’ll worry about. Right now, I just want to make him a better basketball player.”
The process of taking an unfinished product and being able to help mold it in to something special is one of the most rewarding parts of Christopher’s job, and he sees several opportunities to do just that at Pitt.
“We’ve already started the process with (the freshmen),” Christopher said. “That’s the most rewarding part of this job. Hopefully, when it’s all said and done, you can look back at each individual’s career and know that they started at Point A and ended up at Point B. To see the maturation, not just on the court or in the weight room, but as a man, because they come in as young boys, there’s no doubt about it.”
Nix — who will be 23 in July — is a bit older than most first-year Pitt players thanks to his redshirt season and two years at Pensacola Junior College. By the time he takes the floor at the Pete for the first time, it will have been nearly two years since he signed with the Panthers. He’s itching for that moment.
“I’m just excited to play — to get back out on that court and be able to contribute,” he said.
Header image: The Petersen Events Center by Flickr user sabreguy29 | CC BY 2.0