Creighton guard Austin Chatman’s game is settling into a different zone this season.
Call it the comfort zone.
A year ago, Chatman was a relatively untested sophomore stepping into the starting point guard position. Now, he begins his junior season as a proven veteran, and it’s showing.
“He looks awesome out there,” teammate Doug McDermott said. “He’s a veteran player and he looks ready to lead our team. That’s what you need from your point guard.”
Fellow guard Grant Gibbs agrees.
“Going into last year, he was the guy everyone thought was the big question mark,” he said. “Now, he’s proven himself, and I think that leaves him feeling a lot more comfortable. He’s settled into the position.”
After backing up Antoine Young during Creighton’s 2011-12 season, the 6-foot Chatman took over as the starter, the only new addition to the lineup. He responded by averaging 7.4 points and 4.2 assists per game while compiling nearly a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He also finished second on the team with 30 steals.
“I think his play last year speaks for itself,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “There was a lot of pressure on him to run our team in Antoine’s absence. I think he passed that with flying colors.”
Chatman tried to downplay that pressure as he moved through last season. He didn’t want to let anyone see him sweat. Looking back on the experience, Chatman said, he did feel pressure at times.
He obviously feels more comfortable now as he begins preparations for the season. On a scale of 1 to 10, Chatman said, he rates himself a 9 in being comfortable with his role.
“There was a lot of pressure last year,” Chatman said. “I feel the pressure this year is not on me, that it’s more collective with the move to the new conference. The pressure is on the team, as we have a lot of questions that need to be answered.”
Creighton’s move to the Big East comes with a sense of uncertainty in how the Bluejays will handle the expected increase in athleticism they’ll see in the new conference. The players and coaches also will be handling a new experience each night as they make their way around the league.
Chatman, who grew up in the Dallas area, has a personal interest in the new conference. He said he has a lot of relatives in the Philadelphia area and he’s eager to perform in front of them when the Bluejays make trips east to play at Villanova, Georgetown, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Providence.
“It should be a lot of fun,” Chatman said.
Chatman’s offseason focus included work on the tangible and intangible aspects of the game. His shooting tailed off markedly toward the end of last season, and he finished at 38.6 percent from the field and 42.2 percent from 3-point range.
“My shot tapered off at the end of the season, and I want to be more consistent with it this season,” Chatman said. “I also worked on stepping up to be more of a vocal leader. I was going to have to take that role with Grant gone.”
Creighton didn’t learn that Gibbs would return until early July when the NCAA granted him a sixth season of eligibility.
“I was definitely relieved when that happened,” Chatman said. “It obviously takes a lot of pressure off me because he’s another ball-handler. It makes things a lot easier in a lot of ways because he made us so much better last season.”
Another player who could make Chatman better is Devin Brooks, a transfer from Iowa Western. Brooks is one of the few Bluejays who can come close to matching Chatman’s quickness.
Their on-court battles highlighted pick-up games leading up to the start of practice. That will carry over as they’ll be matched up against each other in practice over the coming months.
“Open gyms have been intense between those two,” Doug McDermott said. “Devin brings his Harlem, New York, stuff. Austin’s not having any of it, and he’s coming at him every day. We’re going to need that.”
“We’re competitors,” he said. “He doesn’t like to lose, I don’t like to lose. We have to have that mentality this year, to fight to get better and not want to lose.
“Dev is going to help us a lot. He brings a lot to the table. We didn’t have a guy last year that just could get to the rack when he wanted to. And we have a good relationship between us. It’s not personal, it’s just business when we step on the floor.”
So, who’s the quicker of the two guards?
“I’m going to have to say I’m quicker,” said Chatman, smiling. “He has his days, though, I’ll say that.”
One thing that excites his coach is Chatman’s ability to rein in that quickness when needed.
“He’s learned to play at different speeds,” Greg McDermott said. “We all know how fast he is and how explosive he is, but he hasn’t always been able to change speeds. He’s added that to his game.”
Chatman’s goal heading into this season is to add to the impressive résumé Creighton has built since he joined the program two seasons ago. The Bluejays won 29 games his freshman season and 28 last year. They reached the third round of the NCAA tournament each season.
“I want to get back to the (last) game we’ve been in the past two years, and win that game,” Chatman said. “That’s our motivation every day.”