Die-hard hoop heads endure an agonizing wait during September and October for seasons to tip off—biding their leisure time with distractions ranging from watching post-season baseball, football or binging on TV series on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon streaming (I’m not judging).
With college basketball practices officially underway, and Midnight Madness’ right around the corner, another niche group of people’s wait has ended.
Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig, Georgia Tech’s Travis Jorgenson and Marquette’s Duane Wilson all set foot on their respective campuses last year as heralded true freshmen point guards. But all three went through seasons unlike any they’ve ever had in their past and hope this is the year they can begin to introduce themselves to the rest of the country.
The 6-4 Koenig gave the nation a brief glimpse of his talent during the Badgers’ 74-73 loss to Kentucky in the Final Four, by scoring all 11 of his points in the first half to help Wisconsin take a 40-36 lead into the break.
“When I first came in I was pretty nervous, but the first play I was in Trae [Jackson] got it to me upcourt, and I got a layup,” Koenig said. “That got my confidence going, and I think something kind of came over me and I felt really comfortable. I feel like I really came alive during the Tournament.”
Koenig averaged 15.5 minutes last year, but only averaged 3.5 points and 1.1 assists per game. Having started on basically every team he had ever played for, sans an AAU squad when he played up two age levels prior to coming to Madtown, the transition to a reserve role came with challenges.
“Coming in obviously there were some veteran guards, so it was different not knowing how many minutes I’d play,” Koenig said. “I understood, but as a competitor it always bothers you when you’re on the bench. With Coach [Bo] Ryan you really have to earn your spot and your minutes. So I tried to do the best I could to earn as many minutes as I could.”
He famously chose to stay in his home state, passing up offers from Duke, UNC and Kansas, and the decision obviously paid off with a trip to the Final Four during the Badgers’ 16th straight appearance in the Big Dance in his first season.
Starting guard Ben Brust was the only key contributing member of last season’s squad to graduate, and the void his departure leaves, opens the door for Koenig to put his yo-yo handle, distributing ability, silk shot and lightning-quick feet defensively on display. When Koenig was back home in La Crosse, WI, this summer he said he worked hard with his trainer who he described as, “a martial arts kinda guy.”
Koenig’s main focus was strengthening his core in order to improve his flexibility, mobility, endurance and balance. He mentioned having some back issues the first several months of his freshman year, and after playing a season off the bench in the Big Ten, building a stronger core was a necessity for him to take a step forward in flourishing under coach Bo Ryan.
To keep his skills on the court sharp while he was at home, he linked up with longtime western Wisconsin rival and current Iowa State shooting guard Matt Thomas for some one-on-one.
“They were a little one-sided, I got the better of him most games,” Koenig laughed.
Now physically stronger, more experienced and with a small taste of postseason glory, Koenig is ready to aid the Badgers in maintaining their stay among the elite teams in the country filling a larger role this season. The senior Jackson returns at starting point guard, while redshirt senior Josh Gasser also returns in the backcourt, so it remains to be seen whether Koenig will play the bulk of his minutes this year on or off the ball. He’s confident he can do both.
“The coaches and I talked after last season, but I’ve set pretty high expectations for myself now that Ben Brust is gone,” Koenig said. “I have more confidence in my game, so hopefully I can bring that over into every game. Obviously now that I have a year under my belt, I’ll be better scoring and on defense taking charges, doing some of the little things more.”
NBA prospects Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, along with returning Big Ten sixth man of the year and First-Team Big Ten All-Frosh forward Nigel Hayes, give the Badgers one of the most formidable frontcourts in the country. Whether it was during summer workouts back in Madison with the squad, or these past few weeks as Badgers are on the brink of another season, Koenig noticed a distinct difference between last offseason.
“We’re more motivated,” Koenig said. “Being so close to a National Championship, we’re just motivated to do any little thing we can. Our strength coach always says that we have to be willing to do what other teams aren’t. We’ve been working very hard in the offseason, and it’s definitely going to show once we get on the court.”
Koenig may have been able to take last season’s experience on the court to hit his offseason training running, but Georgia Tech’s Travis Jorgenson wasn’t able to go full-speed until a few weeks ago.
The Columbia, MO, native arrived in Atlanta by way of New Hampshire after playing his senior season at New Hampton. The 6-footer cracked Brian Gregory’s Yellow Jackets rotation from the get go thanks to the quintessential floor general qualities he possesses, and averaged close to 20 minutes a game.
During Tech’s fourth game against Dayton, he tore the ACL in his right knee and was forced to redshirt following surgery.
“I was just getting my feet wet, and getting in the rotation which was pretty cool,” Jorgenson remembered. “Then the injury came which was unfortunate, but it was four games in so I got the medical redshirt. So that was a positive because if it came later I would’ve lost a year (of eligibility).”
Aside from being able to keep a year of eligibility, another silver lining from his injury came in his preparation for his redshirt freshman season.
“I just feel a lot more mentally prepared, and ready, this year than I did last year,” Jorgenson said. “Just being around watching practices, watching games and seeing gameplans helped me realize what it will take to be successful.”
Known for his excellent court sense, and a nasty handle, Jorgenson said he was able to start shooting around six months after his surgery. He said he focused on fixing some mechanics on his shot, striving for more consistency with repetition in order to improve that part of his game.
Since being cleared to go full-speed with his teammates a few weeks ago, Jorgenson claimed his command on the point guard position suffered no ill effect of the year off.
“When I’m out there I feel like my feel for the game is right back where it was,” Jorgenson said. “I didn’t have any clue what to expect. I’m happy with where I’m at, but I’m not where I want to be so I have to keep working every day.
“All I’m trying to focus on is going in every day ready to work, and doing everything I have to. Then I’ll keep treating my knee making sure it’s fresh for the next day, so I can keep getting better the next day.”
Since most of his time was dedicated to getting healthy, strengthening his knees and getting back into shape during the offseason, Jorgenson’s day-to-day progression the remainder of the preseason and beyond could be integral to the success of the Yellow Jackets.
Last year’s starting point guard Trae Golden graduated, so Jorgenson is in the midst of trying to earn minutes among a handful of other guards.
“I haven’t talked with [the coaches] about playing time or anything like that,” Jorgenson said. “I feel like I should get some minutes, but we’ll see what I can do in the next few weeks in practices. It will all depend on how well my knee holds up and how well I perform.”
Tech fans got to see a small sample size of how well he can perform, but assuming all goes well health-wise they will get to see a point guard whose presence can help improve upon last year’s 16-17 season and exclusion from the NCAA Tournament.
“I can control the game a little bit,” Jorgenson said modestly. “I get guys the ball where they need to get it. I try to push the tempo, take care of the ball, get guys in the right spots and hit open shots. So I try to help the team out in that way.”
The Yellow Jackets haven’t made an appearance since 2010, and are picked to finish toward the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference this season by a variety of publications in effectively meaningless pre-season polls.
Jorgenson is ready to do his part in helping Georgia Tech prove itself, all the while proving himself as a high-major point guard.
“That’s something we’re aware of, and I definitely feel like we have something to prove,” Jorgenson said. “But the good thing is that once they throw the ball up and the season starts none of that matters. Other teams will have to earn a win just as much as we do. I’m excited to go out there and compete.”
A pre-season stress fracture in his leg that crept into the first portion of last season, and then the stomach flu, led Duane Wilson to decide to redshirt during last season at Marquette after not suiting up for any games early on.
The debut of one of Milwaukee’s finest, and back-to-back state champion at Dominican High his junior and senior year, was put on hold.
But Marquette fans will get their first look at Wilson in a Golden Eagles uniform this year, and potentially some lobs to sophomore dunk machine Deonte Burton who joined Wilson as high profile recruits for former coach Buzz Williams from Milwaukee in the Class of 2013.
Both Wilson and Burton were part of the recent wave of high-major talent coming out of the state of Wisconsin, and Milwaukee-based NY2LASports founder Antonio Curro has had a front row seat. NY2LASports tournaments field some of the top club teams, and players, from around the country every spring and summer—and getting local high-major players to stay home is always big.
“It’s important anytime Marquette or Wisconsin can land an in-state talent because you want to protect your home base first,” Curro said. “Duane is a product of the city, so for Marquette to get him obviously was huge—especially with getting Deonte too. You got to see flashes of Deonte’s explosive athleticism and power, and what he can bring to the table (last season). Duane will big for them at some point. It’s just big they were able to keep those kids in the city.”
Though Williams, who recruited Wilson and Burton, took over at Virginia Tech, Wilson still could shine under first-year coach Steve Wojciechowski. Returning starting point guard Derrick Wilson and graduate transfer from BYU Matt Carlino figure to be ahead of Wilson in the rotation to start the season, but whether it’s this season or over the course of the following three, Curro anticipates Wilson bringing an element to the court that had Milwaukee folks hoping he’d choose to stay home and play at Marquette.
“Duane’s always had a knack for hitting big shots,” Curro said. “He always elevates his game when it matters the most. There’s a reason he won two straight state championships. He just brings a lot of leadership to the court, and understands the game. The other thing is that he hates to lose, and any time you have a point guard who hates to lose that’s an asset because that rubs off on the other players. You can’t teach that.”
Koenig, Jorgenson and Wilson are just three of many point guards in their second seasons on their respective campuses having learned the value of patience during their first college hoop fans will end up needing to get acquainted with.
Last year, Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison, Iowa State’s Monte Morris, Washington’s Nigel Williams-Goss, North Carolina State’s Cat Barber, Louisville’s Terry Rozier, Michigan’s Derrick Walton, Oklahoma State’s Stevie Clark, DePaul’s Billy Garrett Jr, Florida’s Kasey Hill and of course Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis (drafted 18th by the Phoenix Suns) all showed major promise in significant minutes last year as true freshmen at their respective high-major programs with college hoops fans taking notice.
Point guards such as Kansas’ Conner Frankamp, UCLA’s Bryce Alford, Xavier’s Brandon Randolph, Missouri’s Wes Clark, Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson and North Carolina’s Nate Britt figure to see a spike in minutes this year compared to their true freshmen seasons last year.
Perhaps Oakland’s Khalil Felder, whose 6.4 dimes per game ranked him atop any true freshman point guard and seventh in the country, will continue to show he can hang with any point guard from a power conference.
The level of your point guard’s play can directly impact your team’s success in March.
Now it’s just about time to see which lead guard continues to emerge toward the top.