PITTSBURGH — Jared Wilson-Frame can shoot an open 3-pointer.
Anyone that watched Pitt play last season probably knew that, as Wilson-Frame’s offense from outside the arc was one of the few ways Pitt was able to consistently generate offense during the 2017-18 season.
But one of the problems that happened a lot for the Panthers was that there wasn’t any other way to make the offense work. If Wilson-Frame and Parker Stewart couldn’t get open or just weren’t having a good night, there was no way for anyone else to create any offense.
In Pitt’s 2018-19 season opener on Tuesday against Youngstown State, the Panthers showed that they can take the ball to the hoop. Freshmen Xavier Johnson, Bryce McGowens and Au’Diese Toney and transfer Malik Ellison aren’t shy about attacking the rim and all have the combination of size and athleticism that’s necessary to do so.
Friday, they also proved that what worked last year can work again, as Wilson-Frame hit five from 3-point range and Pitt drilled 13 as a team.
The ability to beat a team multiple different ways, displayed in Game 2 of the season, is certainly a strong sign for Pitt’s offense.
“It was big for us,” head coach Jeff Capel said. “Shooting has not been a strong suit of ours. I’m not saying it’s a weakness, but we have been streaky, and [Friday] we were on a good streak, and I would love for us to continue on a good streak. It was really important for us.
Capel said the two styles, both attacking the rim and shooting from the outside aren’t mutually exclusive and to beat good teams, Pitt will have to have a mix of both styles of offense.
“We had 24 assists on 33 field goals and that speaks to the unselfishness. A lot of those threes came from shooters being set off of penetration,” Capel said. “I think those are much higher percentage shots, and we did a good job of knocking them down.”
Johnson came to Pitt as the least heralded of the Panthers’ three freshmen, but he might end up being the best.
He’s starting at point guard as a true freshman and has scored a total of 30 points over his two games. He’s shooting 60 percent from 3-point range and 43.8 percent overall. While those are impressive figures, lots of freshmen can score.
But it seems like Johnson can do much more than that. He had 10 assists on Friday for his first career double-double. He has nine rebounds in two games and four steals as part of a Pitt perimeter defense that has stingily held opponents to 39.7 percent shooing and 21.0 percent from 3-point range.
“I have been really impressed with him since he’s gotten here. I have been impressed with his approach to the game, his approach to improve, his approach to try and learn about leadership. He’s a kid who loves the gym and loves the game. He’s a naturally competitive guy and when you have those qualities on top of some of the gifts he has you have a chance to be a pretty good player and he’s becoming that. He has a strong desire to improve and you love being around that and when you have that positive mindset things tend to happen.”
SMALL FORWARD IN THE MAKING?
Pitt freshman Au’Diese Toney is listed as a guard in the program, but in the age of position-less basketball, that doesn’t really mean much.
He’s been slotted at the No. 3 or No. 4 spot in Pitt’s scheme, which usually would be a small forward. But with the Panthers playing a four-guard offense, it’s anybody’s guess as to what to call the role Toney has played.
But he certainly has some small forward to his game. The 6-foot-6 freshman led Pitt with eight rebounds on Friday in addition to his 14 points. He had nine the previous game, giving him 17 on the young season.
Capel said after the game that he doesn’t have a “guy I can pencil in for 10, 11, 12” rebounds and that it will have to be a team mentality. But if Toney, somewhat undersized for a forward spot, can muscle his way to that many loose balls, it’s a good sign for Pitt’s potential on the glass.
“It means we are coming together as a team, boxing out, and executing and getting rebounds,” Toney said. “We are sacrificing our bodies. We are small as a team, so all five men have to crash and get rebounds and we did that tonight. We are looking forward to doing it throughout the season.”
PAINT BATTLE CONTINUES
After starting the first game, Terrell Brown was the third big man off the Pitt bench, with Kene Chukwuka getting the start. In between came Peace Ilegomah.
The order didn’t seem to particularly matter, as none of the three players filled up the stat sheet against VMI.
Chukwuka played 16 minutes, the most of the three. He didn’t score, was 0-for-1 from the floor and had five rebounds. Ilegomah played 14 minutes and was the most productive with six points and three rebounds. Brown played eight minutes and had two points and three rebounds.
Pitt needs more production inside to compete against bigger opponents, and I’d expect those three to continue to rotate until they get it.
The game against VMI was never really in doubt after Pitt went on a huge first-half run and went into the break leading by 18.
“That’s something that we talk about every single day,” Wilson-Frame said. “Any time we have a competition that’s what we talk about, making that first hit, punching somebody in the mouth first. It’s really important for us always to come out and try to be on our best game.”
They didn’t let up, either, hammering the Keydets in the second half to take the total margin of victory to 39, the largest total for the Panthers since 2016. Wilson-Frame hopes the successful start to the 2018-19 season can instill some confidence in the young Panthers and returners.
““It’s really important, especially having the talented young guys that we have and the guys we have returning,” he said. “With our record from last year, it’s really important to be able to play really well together and win. It’s really important for us.”