It will be another 16-months-plus before Notre Dame fans hear the name Juwan Durham introduced at Purcell Pavilion. But his impact will be felt immediately as the summer academic session began this week.
The 6-foot-11, 215-pound Durham, originally from Tampa, Fla., decided to transfer out of Connecticut following a sporadic rookie season in which he averaged less than nine minutes per game for the Huskies.
A matching pair of torn ACLs eight months apart – at the end of his junior season at Tampa Prep and prior to the start of his senior season – ultimately was what steered the Irish away from Durham coming out of the prep ranks.
But he was on their radar, which helped expedite the process when Durham chose Notre Dame over Villanova and Virginia Tech as his new home following one season at UConn.
“We looked at him a little bit the summer before his senior year,” said Mike Brey, who enters his 18th year as Irish head coach.
“We were digging around a little bit. (Associate head coach) Rod Balanis had done a little legwork on him. We almost scheduled a trip to go down and see him in September, but he was injured, so it was kind of hard to get an evaluation.
“We never did get there, but we knew of him. It was easy to reconnect once he became a ‘free agent.’”
It was a rocky season in Storrs for all involved with Kevin Ollie’s program. Injuries decimated the Huskies from the outset, and then, upon the conclusion of the 2016-17 season, defections ran rampant, including Durham and fellow teammates Steven Enoch, Vance Johnson and Makai Ashton-Langford.
Durham averaged just 8.3 minutes per game as a freshman at UConn, scoring a season-high eight points in an early-February game versus South Florida. He averaged 1.6 points and 1.5 rebounds per game with nine blocked shots in 233 minutes of action. He converted 20-of-41 from the field (.488) while making 3-of-8 from the free-throw line. He made both of his three-point attempts.
What Brey and his coaching staff saw, however, was the potential for a truly unique player by Notre Dame standards. Long and athletic with shot-blocking ability and finishing skills around the basket, Durham is not your typical back-to-the-basket big man.
As a junior at Tampa Prep, Durham averaged 22.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.7 blocked shots per game.
“We haven’t had a body type like that,” Brey said. “He can move, he can run. He’s really skilled. He faces up and makes the jump shot. He can put it on the floor a little bit.”
But there remained the question of Durham’s knees as well as a frame that carried just 207 pounds during his freshman season at UConn. Dr. Mike Yergler, a local orthopedic surgeon who tends to the Notre Dame basketball programs, evaluated Durham’s knees during a spring visit.
“Doc Yergler said, ‘Better than the original (knees) He’s fine, 100 percent, no worries on the knees,’” Brey said. “Now we just have to get him stronger, which he’s got a year to do.”
Brey is confident that Tony Rolinski, Director of Strength and Conditioning for 25 Notre Dame sports, including men’s basketball and hockey, will work his magic in short order.
“(Durham is) 215 now,” Brey said. “By the time he leaves here Aug. 1, he’ll be 230.”
That’s rapid progress for a player that’s 6-foot-11…and then some.
“I think he’s seven-feet,” Brey said. “He says, ‘No, no, I’m 6-11.’ He’s one of those guys that doesn’t want to be called seven-feet.”
One of Notre Dame’s selling points to Durham was Irish assistant coach Ryan Humphrey, himself a former transfer into Notre Dame (from Oklahoma), who scored 997 points in two seasons while averaging 9.0 and 10.9 rebounds per game as a junior and senior respectively from 2000-02.
“Ryan Humphrey, who actually did the same thing (Durham) did – transfer to Notre Dame and sat out – will be an unbelievable mentor for him on a daily basis and was a big factor in him coming here,” Brey said. “The family saw Ryan having him on a daily basis, especially having him this year while sitting out, as a real positive.”
Brey sees a versatile big man entering the program.
“He’s got a good stroke,” Brey said. “He’s got good hands. He can pass it. He can put it on the floor a little bit. He runs like a son of a gun. He needs to get a little stronger, but he has that length.”
That length ultimately will give Notre Dame a much-needed shot-blocking and shot-altering presence. Zach Auguste gave that to the Irish during his recent four-year stint, although he topped out at 87.
Only two players in Irish history have blocked as many as 200 shots in a career – Jordan Cornette (201 from 2001-05) and LaPhonso Ellis (200 from 1988-92). With three years of eligibility remaining, Durham should easily become just the eighth player in Irish history to reach the century mark in blocked shots.
As Durham improves his strength and adapts to his new home, Brey believes the 2017-18 Irish frontline will gain an advantage by practicing with a player of Durham’s length.
“He’ll benefit Bonzie (Colson), Martin (Geben), (Austin) Torres and everybody else this year because they’ll have to play against length every day,” Brey said.
“We couldn’t simulate that length (preparing for) Florida State or North Carolina. But Bonz will have to deal with him every day, which should help him deal with teams like Florida State in games this season.”