Standing wide-eyed along the baseline, Notre Dame sophomore power forward Juwan Durham just watched the starters work.
Part of every practice plan calls for the Irish to run through their halfcourt offense against no defenders. Just five guys moving and cutting and passing the ball, setting imaginary screens and shot-faking ghost opponents while keeping the floor properly spaced.
The drill looks the same the 100th time the Irish run through it as the first, yet no two movements seem the same. One time, someone will screen and cut one way; the next, he’ll roll the other. That’s why Durham was eyeing it all with such interest during a practice earlier this month.
Sitting out the 2017-18 season as a transfer following one season at Connecticut, Durham’s plan is pretty simple — watch and learn while he waits.
“I’m just trying to soak in everything, learn everything, talk to the guys and learn the ins and outs of things,” he said.
There’s already a lot that Durham likes about this group, particularly how the ball keeps moving. So do the Irish. That’s what made watching the drill so important for Durham. He’s not just going to get his 6-foot-11, 218-pound frame down the floor and staple himself to the low block or hover around the bucket when he gets eligible next season. He’s a power forward in name, but in this system, he’s a basketball player.
That means he’s going to screen here, move there, maybe face the basket and take the occasional mid-range jumper. And if it’s not there, Durham’s already understood that if he moves the ball and his body, it’s going to come back around to him.
That’s the Irish way.
“I like that they share the ball,” Durham said. “They have an open offense and there’s a lot of passing and cutting. They look for the open guy instead of a guy forcing a shot.”
Often, there's not a big difference in the way they play from pickup to practice. The way they play in June and July when the coaches are away is the same when they’re around in September and October. During Durham’s spring visit, he felt an immediate connection to his teammates. Everyone felt already like family, which carried over to how they played. The Irish ran the floor, shared the ball and played fast, a lot faster than what Durham was used to in his one season in Storrs.
“I just got a good vibe,” he said.
Yet part of him was a bit skeptical. Everything might have seemed open and relaxed with a good amount of freedom during pickup, but Durham wondered how that might change when it was time to incorporate the coaches. Would everything then become a bit too structured?
In some ways, Mike Brey and his staff pushed the players to play with even more freedom. Move it. Cut. Shoot it. Talk, Defend. Flow.
“What we did in pickup when I came for my visit, that’s exactly how we play,” Durham said. “The coaching staff, I don’t want to say that they’re a loose group, but they let us play.
“I was really happy.”
Durham will spend this season under the tutelage of assistant coach Ryan Humphrey, who’s in charge of the Irish bigs.
“He’s a sponge; he wants to work; he wants to get better,” Humphrey said. “Everything that we’ve asked him to do on and off the court, he’s done.
“And he’s coachable. That’s a big key.”
And the coach can relate to the player. Like Durham, Humphrey was a highly-touted prospect coming out of high school. Like Durham, Humphrey sought a new home as a college transfer. Like Durham, he also wound up at Notre Dame, where he crafted his game to become an All-Big East first team selection his senior season and eventual first-round NBA draft pick.
Humphrey sees a lot of himself in Durham when he was that age. Both were so raw, though Humphrey believes Durham has a higher ceiling.
“I’m grateful that I get to work with him,” Durham said. “It’s really fun. He’s going to take my game to the next level.”
It’s going to take time. And work. Durham reminds Humphrey of a young deer. He can run. He can jump. But he doesn’t know how to best do it. Durham will spend this season figuring that out while adding a few pounds to his frame. He hopes to play next season around 235.
Durham averaged 1.6 points and 1.5 rebounds in 8.3 minutes over 28 games last season. He hasn’t cut it loose on the court since his junior year at Tampa (Fla.) Prep, when he averaged 22.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.7 blocks before suffering the first of two knee injuries (right, then left).
Durham insists that the knees were a non-issue last season. Getting into a system that best fits his skills was.
“Once he gets into our system and learns it,” Humphrey said, “we’re excited about what can happen with him.”
Missing practice piece
Slotting sophomore T.J. Gibbs alongside senior Matt Farrell and junior Rex Pflueger in the starting backcourt leaves the Irish blue (reserve) team without a true point guard when the practice plan calls for five-on-five.
When that happens, sophomore Nikola Djogo, who’s more of a wing guard, works as the main handler for the blue team. The 6-foot-7, 205-pound Djogo sat out last season to preserve a year of eligibility.
“It is kind of weird,” Brey said of the point guard imbalance. “It’s good for Nik to have to handle the ball for his future and his career. He’s come a long way from the first day of practice in being capable of doing it.”
Gibbs spent last season running the reserve team opposite Farrell. There are times now when Gibbs or Pflueger jump to the blues for a handful of possessions, but more often than not, they’re with the starters.
“Those three,” Brey said of his top guards, “are going to play a lot together.”
Brey and his staff continue to kick around the idea of adding a point guard walk-on prior to the start of September practices.
“We may have to keep an open mind to that once school starts,” Brey said. “I don’t want to force anything as far as a walk-on unless it’s a really great fit.
“We’ve got our dozen and we’ll go to work with them.”
Three projected starters on this year’s team are away from campus for other endeavors this week.
Power forward Martinas Geben returned to his native Lithuania, where he looks to earn a roster spot on his country’s student squad that will compete next month in Taipei at the World University Games.
Senior captains Bonzie Colson and Farrell left Wednesday for this week's Under Armour All-American Camp in Philadelphia.
Both likely first-team Atlantic Coast Conference preseason selections, Colson and Farrell are among the 21 college players participating in the camp at Philadelphia University. The pair will serve as camp counselors for high school players by day and play pickup games by night. NBA scouts will also attend the camp.
Former Notre Dame assistant coach Gene Cross again is serving as a coach/counselor at this year’s camp. He worked last year’s session in Charlotte, which was attended by Colson and former Irish guard V.J. Beachem.
Both Irish seniors have impressed.
"Colson never ceases to amaze me with his uncanny ability to make shots over bigger and longer bodies," Cross told NDI in a text message Thursday. "Whether it's a turn-around jump shot or awkward whirling dervish to the rim, the end result is usually the same - bucket!"
Farrell just has a knack of finding the smallest of spaces to make plays shots and then does, often in end-of-clock situations.
"He will continue to be a problem for guards in the ACC," Cross wrote. "All-ACC this season."