Creighton assistant coach Steve Merfeld likes to periodically remind senior Gregory Echenique what's at stake for him this season.
Echenique will be playing basketball somewhere after his final season as a Bluejay. Where exactly could be determined by the quality of his performances in the coming months.
“I keep asking him, 'Do you want to play for thousands or millions?' ” said Merfeld, who coaches Creighton's big men. “It's really all up to him.”
Given the way he's prepared for his final season, Echenique appears intent on shooting for the big money. He has continued to improve his body and now packs 260 lean pounds on the 6-foot-9 frame that carried 302 pounds when he arrived at Creighton in the winter of 2010.
“What he's done is remarkable,” said Dan Bailey, Creighton's strength and conditioning coach. “He's worked very hard to get himself to this point.”
Always a dominant defender and strong rebounder, Echenique has worked hard on his offensive game. Robotic moves that once characterized his game are gone. Brute strength isn't his only weapon around the basket.
“He used to be a bull in the china shop,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “Everything was power. He'd try to go through you, but now he's agile enough to go around you.”
The Bluejays wrapped up their first week of practice with a Saturday morning workout. It capped a week in which Creighton practiced twice daily on four of the previous five days. It was the kind of week that takes a mental and physical toll.
Early in his Creighton career, Echenique sometimes had difficulty getting through one practice, let alone two. During Friday afternoon's second practice, Echenique appeared to be one of the more active Bluejays — not to mention the most dominant.
A three-series sequence during five-on-five scrimmaging underscored his value.
The sequence started on defense when center Will Artino knifed through the middle to grab an offensive rebound. Artino appeared to have himself an easy basket until Echenique came out of nowhere to block the shot.
On the offensive end, Echenique used a slick move to score.
Back on defense, he was defending the post when the ball ricocheted off a player and rolled free to the left of the free-throw line. In an instant, Echenique's body was on the ground, and he outwrestled an opponent for possession.
“He's embraced our culture and what we're trying to do,” McDermott said. “When his teammates see someone his size lay out on the floor like that, it really sends a message.”
Creighton fans likely have seen plays like that from Echenique the past two seasons, but rarely in such a tightly packed sequence. He would display dominance for a series or two, then disappear, particularly on offense.
That no longer is his M.O. He's showing confidence built by a strong finish to last season and a second summer of playing with and against professionals with the Venezuelan national team.
His teammates have taken notice of the continuing transformations.
“It's his total mind-set,” fellow senior Grant Gibbs said. “He's in better shape, his hands and his footwork are better, and he's shooting the ball better. He seems to have more of a sense of urgency. He knows this is his last year, and he realizes how dominant he can be.”
Echenique averaged 9.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game as a junior, when he became the first Creighton player to win the Missouri Valley defensive player of the year award.
He averaged 10.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks as a sophomore, missing the first nine games to fulfill NCAA requirements following his transfer from Rutgers. He played for the New Jersey school his first season and a half, but decided to transfer after a detached retina ended his sophomore season seven games into the year.
Echenique's arrival at Creighton was accompanied by great expectations. He was a big man capable of going toe-to-toe with the beasts of the Big East as a freshman, joining a conference traditionally short on quality inside players.
If his play his first two seasons didn't match all the hype, he now feels he's capable of fulfilling the potential others had for him.
“I'll have to let my numbers answer that question,” Echenique said. “But I think I've definitely improved from last season. I feel good, I feel confident and I've been working hard. I feel I can produce more for this team and help us get to where we need to go.”
Echenique smiled when asked if he ever pulls out an old picture of the guy who arrived at Creighton in the winter of 2010, the one who weighed more than 300 pounds.
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In his defense, Echenique was coming off eye surgery and he couldn't do any physical activity.
“To think I weighed that much more is crazy,” Echenique said. “I wish I were the kind of guy that can eat anything and not gain any weight, but that's not me. I love to eat — who doesn't? But I bought into what they were asking me to do, and I like the results.
“It wasn't easy. It was probably one of the toughest things I've ever done. It's nice to hear the compliments now, but I know I can even do better. I'm always trying to improve that part of it.”
Echenique is well aware — even without Merfeld's constant reminders — of what could be in store for him if he can punctuate his collegiate career with a productive season. He knows the size of his future bank account could be dependent on how well he performs this season.
“What he says is very true,” Echenique said. “I need to do a little bit of everything to help our team but for me, I think it's going to come down to how well I rebound and play defense. That's what people are going to look at.”
McDermott hopes Echenique can reap some rewards for the dedication he's shown in taking the necessary steps to improve his body and his game.
“A year from now, Gregory is going to be somewhere else and hopefully playing for a lot of money,” McDermott said. “That's my goal for him, and I think every kid his age has those kind of aspirations.
“He's got the ability to play basketball for a long time, whether that's in the NBA or overseas. This is definitely not a pipe dream for Gregory.”
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>> Video: Gregory Echenique at Creighton media day (Oct. 17):