Assistant coach Erik Martin has worked with West Virginia's post players since his arrival at WVU, and like head coach Bob Huggins, sees one common characteristic among those that have had great success.
"Any guys that we have had that have gone to the NBA, they worked hard before practice and after practice," said Martin, whose passion in discussing this aspect of the game is evident. "I say the same thing to them as when I had Kevin Jones. It's not what you do in practice. It's what you do after practice, before practice. How good do you want to be? I can give you the drills that will help you. But it's what you do outside of those three hours of practice that makes the difference."
The NCAA limits practice time with coaches and the full team before and during the season, so those "on your own" sessions are crucial to individual skill development. With much of in-season practice sessions spent on team issues and scouting review for upcoming opponents, there isn't much time for a post guy to work on his drop step or developing his off hand, or for a perimeter player to hone his shooting or improve his ballhandling. Those sorts of things have to come each player's own time, and Martin has tried to emphasize that to his newcomers.
"These guys are starting to figure that out," he said of Devin Williams and Brandon Watkins, who have both clearly gotten better through the non-conference portion of the schedule. "As a freshman you have so much other stuff going on, it can take a while to figure that out. But they are putting in some of that extra time now, and it's showing results."
Martin understands the importance of this from his own career. After signing with TCU and transferring to a junior college, he came to Cincinnati as a junior without much of a resume. Under Huggins' prodding, he became a key component on Cincinnati teams that advanced to the Final Four and Elite Eight. During his final season, he averaged 13.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, seeing firsthand the results of that extra work.
Williams and Watkins have shown different milestones in their development, which isn't unusual in Martin's experience. He works different angles to get different things from each player, and tailors work to areas where they need it most. Williams came in as a more polished performer, especially in the area of rebounding, while Watkins, erroneously, was targeted as a "project" by some observers. After some struggles learning the level of effort that is needed in practice to improve and earn playing time, he's also been on an upward improvement arc.
"I think each of the young guys have made progress at their own pace," Martin said. "Devin made a lot of progress at the start, and Brandon as of the last two weeks [has come on]. I've been a lot more hands on with these guys. I will show them more things on film, because a lot of times when you see things on film [that you don't know you were doing]. For example, if a guy is playing below you, step in and duck in and be aggressive. I tell them no matter what you do, be aggressive. If you screw it up we'll fix it, but I would rather have to fix an aggressive player than one that is timid."
Martin's two-fold job is to smooth out the rough edges on things his guys do well, such as rebounding for Williams and shot-blocking and challenging inside attempts for Watkins, and also develop other parts of their game. Both have shown the ability to knock down 12-15 footers, with Williams ranging out to the key and Watkins demonstrating a beautiful touch on baseline jumpers. Both have learned more about defensive positioning, and countering the way they are played on defense. But both still have a long way to go to become the players they eventually will be. Martin understands that, and while he is pleased with what they've shown, he knows that the way they commit to the grind of extra work will be the telling factor in how far they can go this year and in the future.
"It's their freshman year," said Martin. "If it was up to me they'd be averaging 20 and 10, but the reality is they have to work and come along. There are a lot of other things that come with being a good big man. It's not just scoring baskets. Controlling the backboards, blocking shots – they've both made strides. As long as they keep listening and putting in the extra work they will be fine."