In early October, freshman Brandon Taylor sat on a training table inside the Bryce Jordan Center with both feet soaking in an ice tub and two ice packs resting like holsters on each hip.
The rigors of preseason conditioning drills had tested his stamina both mentally and physically.
Plantar fasciitis in his left foot limited his ability to work out in the summer, and as a result he came to Penn State weighing about 260 pounds.
Sometimes he finished last in sprint drills, the penalty for which was to get back on the baseline and start again – alone. Most times his teammates would line up with him, unwilling to let their teammate go it alone.
“For me, the toughest part is all the running,” Taylor said back in October as he shifted his feet in the frigid cocktail of water and ice. “It was frustrating because I didn’t want to come in behind, but I did. … But it’s a learning experience because anybody can get hurt, you just have to handle it the right way.”
That was then. Now, the 230-pound Taylor is a starter, his freshman learning curve accelerated because of guard Tim Frazier’s season-ending injury to his Achilles tendon.
In his first career start, Taylor carried the Nittany Lions (3-2) offensively in the first half against a previously unbeaten Bucknell (5-1) team.
Penn State trailed 10-2 early when Taylor scored eight straight points, part of a 10-3 run that kept the Nittany Lions in the game.
The team managed just five field goals in the first half and Taylor had three.
“That’s a confident kid,” head coach Patrick Chambers said of Taylor on Monday at the team’s weekly press conference. “He missed his first few and some might be gun shy (after that), but not him. He kept shooting.”
The in-game confidence that Chambers saw belied Taylor’s initial reaction to learning he would start.
“When I found out I was nervous,” Taylor said as he stretched before Monday’s practice as the team prepares for Wednesday’s 9:15 p.m. game against Boston College at the Bryce Jordan Center. “I didn’t know what to say to that. I just told Coach I would go out there and do my best.”
Taylor scored 16 points in 20 foul-plagued minutes against Bucknell. He made the most of his limited time by scoring his points in bunches. He knocked down eight in a row in the first half and then began the second half with consecutive 3-pointers.
“Any contribution Brandon can give is great because he’s a freshman,” Chambers said. “I wasn’t really sure how much he was going to give us and right now he’s exceeding expectations.”
Taylor is shooting 52 percent from the field and his 40 percent shooting from the 3-point line leads the team.
How far has Taylor come since the early days of struggling to finish conditioning drills?
“Light years,” Chambers said. “We’re talking 35-40 pounds ago. What he also has that many people might not realize is a great IQ for the game. He’s picked up our rotations; he’s picked up our terminology. He has a good feel for the game and that’s been great.”
Taylor took a more measured approach to the question of his progression thus far.
“I’ve made a lot of strides,” Taylor said. “It hasn’t been easy and it’s definitely been worth it, but I still have a ways to go.”
Newbill has special tutor on bench
Frazier might be out for the season, but his fingerprints were still very much on Penn State’s upset over Bucknell.
The Bison pick-and-roll defense was causing D.J. Newbill problems in the first half. They attacked him with a “soft blitz,” essentially double-teaming him and forcing the ball out of his hands.
He turned the ball over three times in the half, each coming during pick-and-roll situations.
“At halftime Tim came up to me and said I had to attack their big guy,” Newbill said. “At first I was just letting the trap come and then passing out of it, but when I started attacking it we started getting some open shots and I got some looks at the basket.”
Newbill scored eight points, dished out five assists and only had one turnover in the second half. He finished the game with 10 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
He admitted that his role as a leader has evolved in Frazier’s absence, but Newbill also stressed that Frazier is still at practice every day and is still an active leader on the team. Chambers echoed similar sentiments.
“Those two will room together whenever we’re on the road,” Chambers said. “Even though Tim’s hurt he will still travel with us and he needs to because he’s the captain of this team. So we will put those two together so Tim can guide D.J. along on what to expect and how to handle certain things as a leader.”