As Penn State’s six big men lined up under the basket for the next drill, coach Patrick Chambers stood at halfcourt and directed a message their way.
“We need to be elite finishers,” Chambers said at practice Tuesday. “Elite finishers now, let’s go.”
The Nittany Lions frontcourt proceeded to rotate through the drill, with players catching passes at both blocks and in the middle of the paint, then making quick moves to the basket. They completed each turn by going up for an alley oop on each side of the rim.
Chambers is expecting to see his big men play a crucial role offensively this season. It’s a new development for a team that has relied heavily on its guards, and it’ll be on display in Penn State’s opener against Morgan State on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Bryce Jordan Center.
“As a team, I feel like something we haven’t been able to do for the past three years that I’ve been here is put the ball inside as much as we’d like to,” senior forward Ross Travis said. “So one of the changes that you’ll probably see a lot of this year is us working inside out, put it into the post and letting them make some decisions.”
Travis, a 6-foot-7 forward, is among Penn State’s options down low and went through the post drill at practice.
Travis and 6-foot-6 forward Brandon Taylor have shown an ability to score in the paint and on the perimeter. 6-foot-9 Donovon Jack and 7-footer Jordan Dickerson played center for the Nittany Lions last season, starting 27 and seven games respectively.
6-foot-10 forward Julian Moore gives Penn State another option after playing just seven games before complications from a broken nose ended his 2013-14 campaign. 6-foot-10 senior Alan Wisniewski rounds out the group of post players.
Dickerson started the final seven games last season. He averaged 3.1 points per game and 2.9 rebounds per game during that stretch, and he averaged 1.3 blocks on the season.
Chambers said he could only play Dickerson between 18 and 20 minutes per game because of his conditioning. But this year, he’s in better shape and he’s played more than 30 minutes in preseason scrimmages.
Dickerson has also worked to become more of a threat offensively.
“I feel really good about where he is physically,” Chambers said. “I feel really good about where he is mentally. His skill development has gotten a lot better. He had a great offseason, so I see him playing some major minutes and playing a major role like he did last year.”
Dickerson and the rest of the big men provided limited production last season, though.
That forced Penn State to turn to guards D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier to make plays offensively night after night. Newbill averaged 17.8 points and Frazier averaged 14.9, combining to account for 46.1 percent of the team’s scoring.
Dickerson and Jack, the team’s centers, combined to average 7.7 points.
This year, Penn State plans to go to the post more often.
“We can get some easy buckets with them going back-to-the-basket and just getting our offense moving around and not just having the guards pounding the ball a lot,” Newbill said. “So it’ll just be a way for me to kind of not get rest, but just not do as much and spend as much time dribbling the basketball around the perimeter.”
Chambers said he’s been pleased with the development of the big men.
Practice offered a glimpse into how they have worked to improve their skills.
In one drill, they worked on reacting and catching passes fired from close distances. In the next, they worked on their post moves, including receiving passes deep in the paint and outside the block.
A decisive move often followed the catch. A mistake led to another rep.
Chambers is hoping offseason improvement translates when the Nittany Lions take the court.
“They make us a really good team,” Chambers said. “Something that we haven’t had – the pressure has been taken off our guards to make all the plays. These guys are high IQ guys and they’re very skilled.
“And I’m excited about them and how they’re going to grow over these first two months heading into the Big Ten.”