PITTSBURGH — When you watch him on the court or listen to him talk in press conferences, it’s clear that Pitt’s Justin Champagnie is mature beyond his years and uber-confident in himself.
The freshman from Brooklyn, New York, is playing over 31 minutes per game and has already shown growth early on in conference play.
Every freshman who goes to a high major program to play college basketball goes through different challenges at some point on and off the court in their first year. Champagnie was thrown off track with some adversity before his first season even began.
He was hit with a knee injury just weeks leading up to the start of the season, and the Panthers’ coaching staff had assumed that they would be without him for the entire season. But the very next day, Champagnie was telling everyone that he was going to be okay and he didn’t think he would miss any games.
He was right.
Champagnie played in the season opener vs. Florida State and has blossomed for the Panthers ever since. Months after that injury, it’s like Champagnie completely erased it from his mind.
“Every level I went to, from middle school to AAU, to high school, I had to adapt, so it was pretty much ingrained into me to adapt to the new things and new environment,” Champagnie said after practice on Thursday. “I never got down on myself. I just worked to get back to where I am now.”
He’s had a few games thus far where he has shown his youthfulness but in large part, Champagnie has been a bright spot for the young Panthers. Champagnie admits that the speed and strength of the college game snuck upon him in the early goings, but he has taken the necessary steps to improve in those areas when gamedays come around.
“I’m still working on the strength part,” He said. “My speed got better. It’s just a matter of your mentality of, yeah, they might be stronger than you, but you got to fight until that whistle blows.”
One of the main reasons that he is having success is because of his versatility on the court. A lot of freshmen are strictly one dimensional and need time to learn to find success or develop a niche for themselves.
But Capel can put Champagnie anywhere on the court on the offensive end, and it seems like he’s comfortable. A lot of his recent success has come from shooting the deep ball, but he also has the uncanny ability to be able to finish buckets in the soft spots of the defense in and around the paint area.
“I’m starting to see (teams starting to guard me tighter around the 3-point line), Champagnie said. “I just have to play to my strengths and start driving the ball more and just make the right play for the team.”
As teams continue to put Champagnie higher on the scouting report, his numbers are only gaining traction. He’s averaging 14.5 and 9 rebounds over Pitt’s last six games.
Pitt will play North Carolina for the second time in less than ten days on Saturday at the Petersen Events Center. In the first meeting against the Tar Heels, Champagnie knocked in four big 3-pointers in the win and finished with 22 points (career-high) and grabbed eight rebounds.
“It’s like basically do or die,” Champagnie said about taking and making plays in the crucial moments of games. “I want to win. I love winning and hate the feeling of losing. So, if I want to win, I have to step up and make big plays even at a young age.”
Single digits have decided five out Pitt’s six ACC games, and that trend will likely continue down the stretch, with the increased level of parity in the league this season.
Champagnie knows that he will be called upon to continue to provide on the offensive end, with Pitt’s lack of wing and interior scoring. But he’s not sweating that opportunity.
“(My confidence) comes from my parents,” he said. “They used to put a lot of confidence in me. They would just tell me to stay positive and always say you can do it, instead of saying you can’t.”
Champagnie doesn’t just count on his parents for support. He has a twin brother, Julian, who plays basketball at St. John’s.
Growing up, competing with and against his brother has paid off, and Champagnie says they still talk every day over the phone. They talk about the daily grind of playing Divison I college hoops and about the differences between their schools. Justin also made it clear that he’s outplaying his brother up to this point in their careers.
“(We talk) about what we can do better,” Champagnie said. “Like the other night, (we were looking at stats), and I told him just to pick it up.”
Julian is averaging 8.8 points and 5.9 rebounds this year. The one thing that both brothers always think about is the chance of getting to play against each other.
Justin thinks Pitt has the advantage.
“I mean, we are going to win,” he said about Pitt playing St. John’s. “I would love to see that happen.”