Through head coach Mike Brey’s 18 past seasons at Notre Dame, Fighting Irish faithful know the drill, especially when it comes to big men: Learn, grow and develop the first two or three years, and then emerge as a mainstay in the lineup.
The most recent example occurred last year with 6-11 Martin Geben. All but left on the basketball scrap heap his first two seasons with the Irish, and then averaging only 3.1 points and 3.4 rebounds as a junior, Geben enjoyed a stellar, consistent senior campaign with 11.1 and 8.0 rebounds per game prior to signing overseas with the EuroLeague.
Next in line for such steps in the program are 6-8, 237-pound senior Elijah Burns and 6-9, 242-pound junior John Mooney, both of whom have made the ACC Academic Honor Roll. When asked earlier this month who are the team’s most improved players, Brey cited that tandem.
“We need them to play like we’ve had older guys in our program rotate up and be the guys,” Brey said. “It’s their time, it’s their turn to give us more, and I like what they’ve given us since June.”
Slowed in the past from knee surgery his freshman year (resulting in a medical redshirt), Burns received his first taste of meaningful action last season while averaging 2.3 points and rebounds per game. He displayed his explosiveness in an open Oct. 14 scrimmage with two monster dunks off alley-oop passes from guard T.J. Gibbs, and even showed a little more comfort with the mid-range game. His smoother flow in the offense was more evident with his experience.
“You put in your time when you’re a young guy here, and when you get to that senior year it’s just that time to go,” Burns summarized of the Brey culture. “You know what Coach expects from you, and you just have to work hard every day.”
Meanwhile, Mooney as a sophomore last year displayed flashes as a stretch four figure along the perimeter while averaging 15.4 minutes per game. Of his 150 shots taken, almost half (74) came from three-point range, and he knocked the treys down at a strong .419 clip. It was highlighted by a school-record tying 6 of 6 at North Carolina, and he added three more beyond the arc while tallying 14 points in a loss at Duke.
At this point there is not a classic back-to-the-basket, low-post player in the lineup, but Mooney has been striving to improve that element and was used more often in the post during the open practice.
“That’s something where I definitely I’m going to try to expand my game a little more, having a few go-to moves down in the post,” said Mooney, who averaged 5.6 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season. “It’s really about not thinking too much. When you go down there, just go quickly into your move, and if not, get it back out and continue the flow of the offense. It’s about not overthinking and having one or two go-to moves to go at.”
Mooney will continue to work along the perimeter too when he and Burns or another big man are in the game, and there he wants to upgrade his shot fake and dribble when defenders are closing out on him.
For Brey, equally significant is post defense. That is where Connecticut transfer Juwan Durham (6-11, 223), who has three years of eligibility remaining, might come into play with his rangy frame.
“We could put Geben on a post player and he could guard them and was really good,” Brey said. “I think we’re still searching for can Elijah and John, can Juwan stand on the block? Who can guard that frontline guy for us?”
Coming off two knee surgeries and sitting out last year as a transfer, Durham has seen virtually no action the past three years and is working on finding a rhythm.
“Durham needs the day-to-day work,” Brey said. “I thought he was really good in the summer when we had them in a routine every day. Then in September when we were going maybe once a week, I thought we had slippage. He needs to have the reps every day just because he hasn’t had it.”
Durham admits that overcoming the mental hurdle of two knee surgeries has taken some time, as has consistency.
“There are still times that I do struggle with it, but at the same time I can’t dwell on the past and keep pushing forward and focus on the moment that I’m in,” Durham said. “The more that I prove that I can make shots and defend and talk on defense, I’ll be able to start and play as much as I want.”
His first-year role is to defend, block/alter shots, screen and rebound, although he believes he can help on offense other ways too.
“I feel I’m good at helping set up the offense, getting guys open on my screens and my rolls — because I take the defense with me and end up having an open shot for a three right next to me. Or even when they pass it to me in the post, just being efficient with the moves that I make.”
The hope down the road is that Durham’s range and leaping ability can alter shots psychologically for the opposition.
“Even if I don’t block the shot, I know that my presence will mess up their shot,” he said. “If I don’t get the block, I still get the block mentally in my head because I messed up the shot and we still got the ball back.”
Ideally, Durham would like to get his weight up to 235 to become stronger in the post.
“The biggest adjustment is my conditioning, getting back in the swing of going up and down the court a bunch of times, talking, setting screens, scoring and playing defense,” Durham said. “I feel like my conditioning is lot better now, but in the past I felt it more.”
Two freshmen — 6-10, 200-pound Nate Laszewski and 6-8, 225-pound Chris Doherty — are antithetical as they come among the “bigs.”
Laszewski is the consummate stretch four and already the team’s best pure shooter from the arc, whereas Doherty is the classic blue-collar low-post brawler.
Laszewski’s beautiful shooting stroke will make it difficult to keep him out of the lineup. During the three-game exhibition tour in The Bahamas, he was the second-leading scorer with a 15.7 average while converting 17-of-29 from the field (58.6 percent) and 6-of-15 (40 percent) from three-point range. In two open practices since June, Laszewski shot almost exclusively from beyond the arc with aplomb.
Doherty was not with the team in The Bahamas while taking care of personal issues, but Brey said the rookie has “almost closed the gap” among the bigs and has been plugged in extremely well with both his basketball IQ and conditioning.
How the front-line rotation plays out is to be determined in the coming months, but for Burns it all begins by setting the example as the elder stateman.
“If I can play hard every day, I know people will follow me,” he said. “That’s my goal.”