The way Andre Yates and Isaiah Zierden see it, Creighton will have no freshmen on its basketball roster this season.
True, Yates and Zierden will be on their first go-round when practice opens in mid-October, but their work with coaches during an eight-week period this summer will help them avoid some problems that usually befall incoming freshmen.
“I feel I have a good idea what kind of system I'm playing in and what's going to be expected from me,” Yates said. “It's not just watching a game on TV and trying to figure things out. It's been hands-on with the coaches. I feel that I'll be more like a sophomore by the time practice starts.”
That might be accelerating the process a bit, but Zierden, too, believes it will be a big advantage to both players having been able to work with the coaching staff for two hours per week during the summer.
“When September and October comes around,” Zierden said, “it's going to be easier to get in that flow and have a feel for things.”
The flip side is that, unlike in previous seasons, the coaches will have at least some concrete ideas about the strengths and weaknesses of their new players. Before this summer, coaches could have no on-court contact with players from late April until the start of school.
Now, they'll have the baseline that Yates and Zierden established during the eight weeks of individual and team workouts.
“I think it's going to be unbelievably helpful, not just for our two freshmen but for college basketball,” Creighton assistant coach Darian DeVries said. “College basketball will be better because the kids will have an extra two months of working with coaches rather than just being on their own.
“They had eight weeks to work on footwork and learn how to get open rather than getting exposed to it for the first time in October or November. They'll be able to focus on other things once practice starts.”
DeVries worked extensively with Creighton's guards during individual drills this summer. He liked what he saw from Yates, a 6-foot, 185-pound combo guard from Dayton, Ohio, and Zierden, a 6-2, 175-pound shooting guard out of St. Louis Park, Minn.
“What I like about both of them is that they're both very talented but still have a lot of room for growth,” DeVries said. “And their talents are different in what they can bring to our team.”
Zierden, the son of an NBA assistant coach, made his mark in high school as a shooter but showed the ability to drive to the basket during summer-league play in Omaha. DeVries said Zierden's high basketball IQ helps make him more than a one-dimensional player.
“We ultimately recruited him as a shooter,” DeVries said, “but he's better than we thought at using ball screens to create opportunities for himself and other people.”
Yates played on a state-championship team at Dunbar High School that included several other Division I recruits.
“Before, he could just rely on his talent,” DeVries said. “Now, he has to learn to value every possession because that becomes magnified at this level. But I really like Andre's ability to score in a variety of ways. He, too, can create shots for himself and other people.”
The eight weeks of summer workouts left Yates with a newfound appreciation for attention to details.
“It's the little stuff that counts,” he said.
That's been hammered home for Zierden during his formative years as a basketball player. He said Creighton assistant coach Steve Merfeld, who along with DeVries was in charge of the summer program, reminds him of his father, Don. Don Zierden is an assistant with the Washington Wizards and had been a head coach in the WNBA.
“My dad has always said it's the little things that make the biggest difference,” he said. “That's what I've always tried to focus on.”
The early focus of Isaiah Zierden's summer work was on ratcheting up his work ethic to match that of his new teammates. Witnessing the dedication of a player such as Doug McDermott, Creighton's returning first-team All-America forward, helped both freshmen learn what is expected from them.
“When Doug is working out at 7 in the morning or 8 at night, it helps you work that much harder,” Zierden said. “You want to be like him. He's a great role model.”
Yates also had to adjust to the more intense workload in college basketball.
“You really can't prepare yourself for something like this,” he said. “You can work out back home, but it's different than what they expect here. It's just getting used to the college game, which is much faster. You have to think on the fly.
“It was an eye-opener at first, but I like to compete so it's just a matter of going out and getting it done. You can't have pity on yourself.”
Neither player is sure where he'll fit into a veteran team. The Bluejays return all but one player — point guard Antoine Young — from the 10-man rotation of a team that tied the school record with 29 wins last season.
In addition, redshirt freshmen Nevin Johnson and Geoff Groselle will be added to the mix, making for some intense competition for playing time.
It's the veterans, whose minutes the freshmen will be trying to take, who have supplied some of the greatest assistance in helping Zierden and Yates make the transition to collegiate basketball.
“If you mess up, it's not only the coaches that are trying to help you,” Yates said. “It's all the guys. They believe in us, and they believe that we can help the team be better. That's a good thing.”
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