UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State’s D.J. Newbill relished the opportunity to compete against 30 of the top college players in the country at the LeBron James Skills Academy last week.
He also got the chance to play alongside the world’s best player at the camp in Las Vegas.
“It was cool,” Newbill said at the Bryce Jordan Center on Wednesday. “We actually played on the same team, me and LeBron, so it was kind of like give him the ball and stayed out of the way kind of. But it was cool just chatting with him for a little bit. He’s a real down to earth guy, real humble.”
Newbill used the four-day experience to gather as much information as he could to apply to the upcoming season. He talked with camp counselors about his shot, the aspect of his game he’s constantly trying to improve, and his decision-making. And he picked the brains of the players who have been to the NCAA tournament, the goal for a Nittany Lions program coming off a 16-18 season that ended in the College Basketball Invitational.
“That’s our goal,” Newbill said. “A lot of those guys were talking to me about some of the things they did with their team. Some of the guys were talking about how they just play a lot of pickup, just did everything together, went out together, so that’s one of the things I want to implement more on my team.
“I mean we’re all here together and everything, but I just want to do it more now.”
Newbill put together a standout junior season in which he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors and averaged a team-high 17.8 points per game. Newbill also participated at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy earlier this summer. He’s focused on improving his jump shot, free-throw percentage (75.3 percent in 2013-14) and defense.
But his top priority has been becoming a leader on the floor.
“I want to be the most vocal guy out there on the court every time I step on the court,” Newbill said.
Penn State’s newcomers
Newbill offered high praise for Penn State’s incoming players, describing them as a competitive gym rats.
“Being here these last couple years, I haven’t seen a group this talented or that compete at the level they do,” Newbill said. “I mean usually you got to, you know, bring ‘em along, show ‘em the way, but they just came in right away like I want to play some minutes this year.”
The group includes freshmen guards Shep Garner and Isaiah Washington and junior college transfer Devin Foster. The Nittany Lions must replace point guard Tim Frazier, who finished his career as the program’s all-time assists leader.
Garner was a Class AAAA second-team all-state selection at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia. Garner, who arrived on campus June 22, is adjusting to the transition to college on and off the court.
“As far as basketball goes, just getting used to the speed of college basketball, it’s different,” Garner said. “It’s a little faster than what I was used to playing in high school, but off the court, just being around a lot of people at all times. There’s always a lot of people. You get peace when you come in the gym. As soon as you leave the gym, it’s thousands of people here. It’s going to take some getting used to.”
Washington averaged 21.6 points per game for Williamsport and earned Class AAAA first-team all-state honors for his senior season. The 6-foot-3 guard was a four-year starter and helped Williamsport win the 2013 district title.
Foster was a second-team JUCO All-American at Vincennes (Ind.) University after averaging 12.2 points and 4.8 assists per game last season.
Taylor continues to evolve
Brandon Taylor reflected on his first two years at Penn State on Wednesday.
The 6-foot-6 forward said he arrived as a freshman believing he was a big man who shoot 3-pointers and stretch the floor, but his mentality has changed going into his junior season.
“Now that I’ve been playing in the Big Ten for two years, I’ve noticed it’s just not really my position,” Taylor said. “And I need to play against guys more my size and let that big stuff with the 6-9 guys.”
Taylor is aiming to become more versatile so he can play both forward positions. He’s worked on his post moves and ball handling in addition to trying to improve his shot selection from beyond the arc.
He attempted a team-high 143 shots from long range, shooting 32.2 percent last season.
Taylor said he forced 3s at times, but he’s trying to slow the game down this year.
“I think that was my problem with me my first two years,” Taylor said. “I wasn’t ready for the college game, it was a lot faster than I thought it was, so I used to be moving at a thousand miles per hour throwing up shots that were terrible. So I think now this year, you’ll see that I’m more of a smarter player and I won’t be taking those boneheaded shots like I was before.”