First impressions often are difficult to forget, though Notre Dame graduate student power forward Juwan Durham has done his best to erase those early opinions.
He’s done it the same way he’d send back a shot from an undersized guy who ventures near the rim. Like, get that $%#$@ out of here.
Unable to see this year’s Irish men’s basketball team up close and personal in the summer and early fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, we in the media were left to form ideas about what it all might look like in one preseason Zoom call with Coach Mike Brey. The way Durham looked and carried himself and played was a popular topic. Wait until you see Durham, Brey told us, he finally looks the part of an premier big man.
Ninety minutes before Notre Dame opened at Michigan State, there was Durham on the far end of the Breslin Center court working through his pre-game routine with assistant coach Ryan Humphrey. He fired in jump hooks. He worked on his mid-range and finished with a few dunks.
The session with Humphrey over, Durham wandered from the post to the perimeter. He took a few fade 3-pointers, then a few more. That’s not where you want your supposed new and improved big man to hover, but maybe it would be different come game time.
It wasn’t. Durham didn’t play big against Michigan State or a couple games later against Ohio State or in the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against Duke or as 2020 became 2021. He often operated like a guard trapped in a big man’s body. He’d settle for soft shots at the rim instead of definitive dunks. He’d too often get pushed around near the bucket. He was everything Brey insisted in preseason that he wasn’t.
If the Irish were to do anything after a rough ACC start that saw them lose their first five, Durham was going to have to do something. To be someone that up until the middle of January, he hadn’t been.
The proverbial light bulb that Brey often talks about going on for his older guys now burns brightly for Durham. He’s a post presence. He’s played like someone who’s 6-foot-11 and 233 pounds should play. He’s tossed together a recent run of games where he’s been good on defense, good on offense and just good all around.
Heading into Saturday’s game (8 p.m., ACC Network) at Georgia Tech (8-6; 4-4 ACC), Notre Dame (7-9; 4-6) has won its last two league games and four of five. Durham’s been a big reason. He’s coming off an 18-point, nine-rebounds, four-block, two-assist effort in Tuesday’s win over Wake Forest. One offensive possession underscored how far Durham’s come.
He basically ripped away an offensive rebound from a Wake Forest defender, then bullied him with a body bump that moved the defender out of the way. Durham then capped the possession with a right-handed sledgehammer dunk.
That’s how an ACC big should look.
“I just go up and say, ‘Don’t be soft,’” said the soft-spoken Durham, who offers little in terms of words during his Zoom appearances. ”Just try to play through the contact and then translate that over to defense.”
Defensively, the Irish have gotten after teams knowing that the big guy is back there. He had those four blocks against Wake Forest, but Brey guessed there were 10 other possessions where the Deacons looked around for an extra shot-clock tick or two wondering where No. 11 lurked.
“We need him on the floor,” Brey said. “He’s done a great job playing behind big guys and making them make tough shots over him.”
Durham has scored double figures in five of the last six games. He had his first double double for points and rebounds (12 and 11) in league play in Notre Dame’s first conference win over Boston College. In 16 games overall, Durham is averaging career bests for points (9.4), rebounds (5.2) and minutes (23.7).
Why now? That answer’s easy.
Brey’s seen it happen at this point in the season for a lot of guys currently in Durham’s position. He knows that this likely is the final full month of his college basketball career. Prior to the start of the season, Durham and fellow graduate student Nik Djogo met with Brey after the NCAA announced it would award an additional year of eligibility to all student-athletes.
The three decided that this is it for them. Time to move on and start the next chapter, so might as well write this one the right way.
“This is a fifth-year guy where you know it’s coming to a close,” Brey said. “It’s coming to an end. He’s really on a heck of a run.”
He’s also responded to adversity the way a fifth-year guy should. After Durham finished with three points and four rebounds in 11 rather invisible minutes against Virginia Tech on Jan. 27, Brey didn’t talk to him the next two days. It wasn’t that he was upset at his big man. It was because he knew Durham, often his own harshest critic, needed some alone time. Don’t harp on the effort, and Durham would be better for it.
Durham knew why Brey was giving him the silent treatment. He knew he had to be better, then delivered 14 points, three rebounds and two blocks in 24 minutes in last week’s road win against Pittsburgh.
“I don’t have to say anything to him,” Brey said. “God, sometimes he’s come up and apologized to me, which nobody needs to do. I love his frame of mind right now.”
It’s one that says he belongs. As a starter. As a veteran guy. As a big man in the ACC. The Irish big man faces another big test Saturday in Moses Wright. He’s long and athletic and knows his way around the post. It will be a challenge, though one Durham should accept. And excel.
Regardless of Wright, establishing Durham early on the offensive end, then letting him play some defense on the other has been good for him. And for the Irish.
“He’s a heck of a player and he’s playing with a lot of confidence,” said fellow captain Cormac Ryan. “Him continuing to play with confidence and aggression is going to continue to help us.
“It’s no surprise when he’s playing well, we’re playing well.”
As for that guy who worked on those guard skills before the opener? That guy’s long gone.
“Just go up strong,” Durham said of his current mindset. “That’s what I keep telling myself.”