Yeah, those victories over Vanderbilt and Alabama. That’s something to get a kid excited. Which Weatherspoon is.
“We got our first back-to-back wins in the SEC,” the freshman guard practically boasts.
In a large part thanks to Weatherspoon’s work. His line for the consecutive successes showed 39 points on 11-of-22 shooting with 7-of-10 accuracy at the three-point arc. Weatherspoon also knocked down a dozen free throws with eight rebounds and a couple of steals. Oh, and a pair of assists for good measure.
The rewards? Well, start with ESPN’s acknowledging his three-pointer to beat both the buzzer and Vanderbilt as their #1 play of that day. Four days later, it was a two-pointer made from much closer range that again led national highlight lists. It came on a flying dunk over a helpless Alabama guard in the first half which was replayed everywhere. Repeatedly.
Combine consistently big production with consecutive top plays, and no wonder Weatherspoon was named the SEC’s Co-Freshman of the Week. Well, yeah, it is a wonder he had to share such status…but never mind. This made Weatherspoon a two-timer as the league’s leading rookie. Not back-to-back, though. The other award came waaaay back in late November after performances against Eastern Washington, Texas Tech, and UT-Martin.
These wins were bigger, of course. “He had another great week for us,” Coach Ben Howland said. “Like I said from beginning, I thought he’d be a really good player.” A pretty good teammate, too. Weatherspoon threw an assist to the rest of the Bulldogs for the SEC honor.
“They put me in position to win those, so I appreciate that.”
Weatherspoon is increasingly appreciated around the conference, and has to be next-thing to a lock for All-SEC Freshman now. He even ought get a few votes from media and coaches for All-SEC, Period. Ahhh, but at what position?
Because maybe Weatherspoon’s greatest freshman feat is all the roles he plays for Howland’s team. Ideally he would be a full-time guard, but circumstances on this squad aren’t ideal. Fortunately Weatherspoon is thriving wherever the play puts him, from point guard to ‘big’ forward.
“I’m a small guard playing the four,” Weatherspoon said. “And I know I’ve got to attack.”
That’s a fact. Rather than play passive at 6-4, this kid attacks bigger opponents first. On each end, too, according to his coach.
“He’s guarded 1 through 4, and played 1 through 4,” said Howland. “Not many freshmen have that capability.”
Weatherspoon said this versatility was not easy or automatic. “It was tough because I was trying to learn every position.” This would challenge even an old college ball hound, so imagine the burden on this kid right out of high school.
“I’d be forgetting what I was supposed to do. Now I’m used to it.” He’s also gotten his body used to the grind by adding muscle since summer. That’s proven by how much improvement Weatherspoon continues to make, at a point most of his classmate hit some sort of physical or emotional wall.
“He’s earned it. He’s put in the extra time,” said Howland. “What makes him good is he’s competitive, he’s tough, and he’s coachable.”
Weatherspoon took to coaching immediately when he let his college coach get right to work on the shot that had served so well in high school. This says something about Howland, too, since many a coach would let the kid keep doing what they were comfortable with. Not this coach. Howland invested is own time refining Weatherspoon’s jump shot. And, “He’ll be even better a year from now, I’m sure.”
But it will take something to top the shot Weatherspoon stuck last Tuesday from the left corner. It’s ironic of course that his much more-touted classmate, Malik Newman, was given the last-shot responsibility. The attempt was badly off…or was it perfectly off? Because the carom went over two Commodores in rebounding position, to center Gavin Ware outside the lane.
Ware passed up the shot and on the ball to point guard IJ Ready, who read his own defender while seeing Weatherspoon calling for a pass. The ball came to him and with seven-footer Damian Jones roaring at him Weatherspoon lofted a long one.
“I had to shoot it kind of high because he was closing so hard. But it felt good off my hand.” It felt pretty good being swarmed by an ecstatic squad for making the winning trey, too.
Howland is proud how the kid has taken to instruction on offense. But he’s even happier for the work Weatherspoon puts in to learning college defense. Man defense in particular.
“I wasn’t used to playing man,” he admits. It’s understandable. Why would a high school coach with a championship-level player risk fouls with man defense? Still it left Weatherspoon unprepared for something that sounds deceptive simple. ‘Man’ defense is just manning up, right?
Wrong. Help side, filling gaps, switching-off, not doing somebody else’s job… “So I had to adjust to that. In the zone you’re in one spot but in man you have to be rotating and stuff like that.”
“He’s really become a good defender,” Howland said. “Forget about the offense or making the shot. And he’s getting better. He takes it as a challenge. He gets it.”
Weatherspoon will ‘get’ a lot over the course of his career. Though, it needs noting, his increased college profile is sure to attract professional attention. Weatherspoon agrees the NBA is an eventual goal, but for now he’s able to focus on the next game.
“I’m enjoying the little credits I’m getting and the awards. But basically, I’m trying to get some wins.”