Two months ago, Mack Anderson thought that the Montana basketball coaching staff was leaning towards giving him a redshirt for his freshman season.
That changed in a hurry, thanks to Anderson’s athletic displays in practice and, more importantly, an early-season wrist injury to returning all-conference big man Jamar Akoh.
Although he returned Saturday to play 28 minutes in a loss to UC Irvine, Akoh’s absence — before the Irvine game, he hadn’t played since November 9 against Georgia State — had been the big story of the early season for the Griz.
To fill the void, coach Travis DeCuire experimented with lineups, often playing with Donaven Dorsey or Bobby Moorehead, both listed at 6-foot-7, as the tallest player on the floor. But, as the saying goes, you can’t teach height, which has led to more playing time for Anderson and Kelby Kramer, two young big men who had combined for zero minutes coming into the season.
“Towards the start of the year, I was just going into every day being ready for whatever,” Anderson said. “I thought we were leaning more towards a redshirt, but with Jamar being out, it kind of worked out. … I think that with Jamar being out, we just needed some big bodies to help out down low, keeping the ball out of the post and protecting the rim, so that’s what I’m trying to do right now.”
Anderson is a 6-foot-9 true freshman from Bozeman who was widely considered the best player out of Montana in the Class of 2018. Kramer, from Rock Springs, Wyoming, redshirted last year, primarily to pack more weight on his 6-foot-10 frame.
In an ideal world, both would have spent time this season steadily growing into their roles by learning from Akoh, going against him in practice, and contributing in limited minutes.
Holding down the post in important early-season games for a team with NCAA Tournament aspirations is not quite that, and it’s greatly accelerated the development curves for both players — which were already pretty demanding.
“As a post player, you get responsibilities you don’t have in high school,” DeCuire said. “[In high school], you don’t help on screens, you don’t have to guard ball screens 25 feet away from the basket and get back to your man, you don’t have to remember so many details and schemes. Responsibilities grow for bigs, and the game is way more physical.”
Montana’s fast-paced, guard-oriented style of play offers additional challenges for bigs who are expected to keep up.
Although the score sheet isn’t all that impressive — Anderson is averaging 3.6 points in just over 13 minutes a game, Kramer 1.6 points in 9.4 minutes per — DeCuire said he was happy with the way the two have stepped up, especially given everything he’s asking them to do.
“I think sometimes you just have to put them out there, and you’ve got to make them go for it, and give them confidence, let them screw it up, let them make mistakes, let them have success, let their confidence grow, and then see what happens,” DeCuire said. “Based on how we play and what they’re being asked to do, they’re ahead, I think, based on where most bigs would be, given their experiences.”
Kramer, at least, was expected to see big minutes off the bench this year after redshirting last year.
After coming to campus weighing 215 pounds, he used the off year to bulk up to near 240. Although he’s not yet someone the Griz can run the offense through, Kramer can catch and finish around the basket, as well as alter shots with his long arms on defense.
“It’s tough, because Jamar is such a good player,” Kramer said. “He brings so much to this team, not just on the stat sheet, but also communication on defense, leadership when he’s on the court, so it was a big hit for our team. It was a spot we needed to fill. It was something where I knew us younger guys needed to pick up the slack and really focus in and do things the right way so we could make this team as successful as we could.”
Kramer said that he picked up confidence after one of his toughest outings of the season, a blowout loss to Creighton in which the young big man fouled out in just 13 minutes.
“I hadn’t been playing well recently, and I go in and I did make a few mistakes, but I also did some things really well,” Kramer said. “I altered a lot of shots, made it difficult for them offensively. I got a dunk. That’s a really big environment, really big crowd, one of the best in the nation, and so I felt like that really helped me. I knew I could compete at this level and contribute to this team at this level.”
That ability to take the highs with the lows perfectly demonstrates the paradox of coaching young big men. DeCuire knows that their development isn’t going to be perfectly linear, and he’s resigned himself to that fact.
“You’re going to get what you get out of those guys,” DeCuire said. “I can’t say to them, ‘Hey, tomorrow I want you to be better at this, tomorrow I want you to be better at that.’ That’s not how it works. What they have to do is just continue to try to get better at everything they’re asked to do, and play with confidence and aggression.”
Anderson is a perfect example of that. The former Bozeman High School star is one of the most athletic players on the team, and that’s allowed him to attack practices and games with confidence.
He announced himself to the Montana fans with a big fast break block on Akoh in the first few minutes of the Maroon-Silver scrimmage, and DeCuire raved about the plays he made in practice.
That got him on the coaches’ radar, and, after not playing in the first two games of the season against Georgia State and Montana Tech as they tried to preserve his redshirt, he broke out on the teams’ Bahamas trip, playing a combined 38 minutes over the three games there.
“A big difference between high school and this level was just the speed of play, and I feel like my athleticism has helped me adjust to that easier,” Anderson said. “After the Bahamas, I feel like I definitely got a lot more confidence, just growing after those first couple games. I feel like that’s definitely something I’ve been working on, is just being aggressive and confident when I do get into games.”
He still has a long way to go — “You need to get in the weight room. What do you weigh, 150 pounds?” DeCuire playfully barked at him during a recent practice — but the coach believes that Anderson has some of the biggest upside on the team.
“He’s athletic, he makes plays, he blocks shots, he rebounds, he finishes well around the basket,” DeCuire said. “He’s got hands. It’s just he’s a freshman, so it’s inconsistent.”
For both Anderson and Kramer, the reps and experience they’re getting now will help them reach that upside sooner.
It’s the one silver lining to Akoh’s unfortunate injury, and for every mistake they make in a game now, Anderson and Kramer know that it will pay off down the line, either as bench players later this year when the team returns to full strength, or in the years to come when they’ll be expected to take over Akoh’s role for good.
“It’s really detrimental for our team that Jamar is down, but it’s a chance for me to come in and contribute and fill that void that we have,” Kramer said. “Losing Jamar is such a big gap. … Some of us have to pick up the slack because he’s such a vocal leader, but it’s also a good opportunity for Mack and I to compete against each other, and it’s an opportunity for us younger bigs to get reps in practice. There’s negatives, but there’s also some positive takeaways that can be taken away from it.”