A Texas-Sized Presence
Dexter Pittman is going to be a major problem for Big 12 opponents this year.
Three years ago, during the fall of 2006 when the air was starting to turn crisp and football was still top dog in Austin, Texas basketball coach Rick Barnes met with his team for an early practice with the season still several weeks away. With his players surrounding him as he preached, Barnes sized up the talent that would take the floor at the Frank Erwin Center that year, particularly a loaded freshman group that featured seven recruits ranked in the top 150 in their class nationally.
As he spoke about the future to his freshman the accomplished coach lectured about how the game of basketball — which had already helped pay for their education — could one day allow them to provide for their families. Now that he had baited them with the carrot, Barnes struck home with the importance of dedicating themselves to honing their craft.
“There are only two guys in here right now with real promise to play in the NBA,” Barnes said sternly. “Kevin Durant and Dexter Pittman.”
The former of course doesn’t need any introduction, but for the latter it was lofty praise, especially considering that freshman class included future lottery pick D.J. Augustin and future All-Big 12 performer Damion James. Then there was the matter of Pittman, tipping the scales at nearly 400 pounds while carrying 41.6 percent body fat on his 6-10 frame.
“Everyone in the room was basically like ‘What did he say?’” Pittman says with a laugh when thinking back on Barnes’ comments. “I didn’t exactly have the kind of basketball physique that would allow me to think about becoming a pro.”
Whether or not Barnes was simply using his remarks as a motivational tool or was waxing prophetic, Pittman — now a senior — has not only seen the possibility of the NBA become a stark reality, but will be the X-factor for a Texas team that is being mentioned with a handful of other programs as national title contenders. With a backcourt that will be relying heavily on freshmen Avery Bradley and Jordan Hamilton as well as Florida transfer Jai Lucas, it will be imperative for the Longhorns success that their center be productive for long stretches, something he has yet to do in his career.
As a junior, Pittmann played a career high 16.6 minutes per game, hardly major minutes by most standards, but considering the previous year he had played less than seven minutes due to his poor conditioning, it was a major step in the right direction. The man responsible for getting the hulking big man to play for longer and longer periods of time is team strength coach Todd Wright, who proved to be the biggest selling point for Texas during their recruitment of Pittman. The extra time that Wright has put in with the senior — at times two separate conditioning workouts in addition to regular practice — has resulted in nearly 100 pounds of weight loss since his senior year of high school.
“Coach is like a family member to me, he helped me have a better life and to believe in myself,” Pittman says of his relationship with Wright. “I had to give up a lot things. I had to change how I ate, my style of living and I had to work hard and be dedicated. In high school I never really looked at basketball as anything important, I was focused more on football, so I didn’t work hard enough at it. When I got here I had to change that and create a work ethic. Now I can safely say I’m one of the hardest working guys on the team and I take pride in that.”
Not that Pittman lacked the potential of becoming a great college player buried within, it just needed some severe coaxing to fully flourish. As a senior at Rosenberg Terry High he averaged 17.1 points and 11 rebounds on his way to earning first-team All-Greater Houston by the Houston Chronicle. Major programs such as Kansas and Florida State were actively recruiting him, so it wasn’t as if Pittman was an unknown giant, there was just no telling how good he could become.
Texas assistant coach Rodney Terry, who was the point man for Pittman’s recruitment, says it was pretty clear from the beginning that Pittman was a physically gifted player despite the excess weight.
“We saw him palm the ball off the floor, explode up and dunk it,” Terry remembers. “That he was able to do that at the time considering what he was carrying, that was impressive. Not a lot of guys out there have that kind of size and that level of athleticism.”
But the questions still remained about Pittman’s level of dedication.
“We had no way of knowing how much he would put into trying to get himself physically ready for what we were asking him to do,” Terry continues. “Coach Wright did a great job in terms of demanding a lot of him, but I think a lot of the credit has to go to Dexter also for wanting to do it.”
The going was slow at first. Pittman played a total of 401 minutes in his first two seasons and started just one game; then came last year.
With his conditioning level finally at a point where he could handle being on the court for more than just a couple of minutes at a time, the Texas native began to realize the potential the Longhorns had seen when they began recruiting him. There were a pair of double-doubles during the non-conference schedule, then came the 25-point, 7-rebound performance against Missouri on February 24th. Finally, Pittman came into his own during the postseason when in five games between the Big 12 Conference Tournament and the NCAA Tournament he posted averages of 15.4 points and 10.4 rebounds in 27.6 minutes and was named to the All-Tournament team.
It was a milestone year for the center. He started in 24 of the 35 game he played in. After scoring in double figures just three times in his first two seasons, Pittman reached that plateau 15 times as a junior. He earned the team’s Most Improved Player honor for the second time in his career (the first was as a freshman) and left expectations exceedingly high entering his final season.
He spent the summer on campus taking classes and working to refine his game. Already praised for his ability to ceil defenders on the block and finish with a soft touch around the rim, Pittman says he has put in a significant amount of time into developing his mid-range shot. He knows he will be expected to rebound and anchor the interior of the defense and that new found responsibility has resulted in him becoming more of a vocal leader with his teammates in the off-season as well. But really, a lot of his change in mentality comes from the advice he has received from former Texas players who routinely visit the campus during the summer months.
“I got to spend some time with T.J. Ford and Royal Ivey when they were on campus,” Pittman says. “They told me how I should be a dominant player this year in college basketball. They also told me I need to start looking at myself as a professional guy.”
While Pittman insists he isn’t concerned with the NBA right now, but focusing his attention on the upcoming season, the topic of his draft status is sure to be a hot topic in Austin as the year progresses. Most mock drafts have the center landing somewhere in the second round in 2010, but his ability to stay on the floor for longer periods as he did last postseason, will go a long way to improving his stock.
Those closest to Pittman who have seen him develop over the last three-plus years know that he has come a long way and the best could still be ahead of him.
“There’s no question about it,” Rodney Terry says of Pittman having a chance to land on an NBA roster. “Dexter has all the skill and the size to be able to make that jump. I think he’s given himself a chance to make that type of a leap in the future.”
As far as Pittman’s take on Texas running through a loaded Big 12 and challenging for a Final Four berth?
“Everybody out there this year is going to be pretty good in the Big 12,” Pittman says. “I know we’re all big in this conference, Kansas has Cole Aldrich, then there’s myself, plus the big guys at Baylor and Texas A&M. It’s a brutal conference with all of those big bodies banging on each other.”
“We’re going into this season with a swagger in that we’re going to go out and play tough every night. That’s our motto right now.”