First impressions made by freshmen can go a long way in determining how the returning players on a basketball team view them.
Wichita State’s team dynamics are no different. Jamarius Burton, Erik Stevenson and Dexter Dennis are now established cogs in the system, having just been through the trials of being thrown into the fire as freshmen themselves last season.
They were curious how the incoming trio of highly-rated recruits — Tyson Etienne, Noah Fernandes and Grant Sherfield — would handle themselves transitioning into the program. All three freshman received four-star ratings by recruiting services, which is higher than Burton, Stevenson or Dennis ever got.
It could have caused tension between the two groups. Instead, the Shocker returners are raving about the listening and learning ability of the freshmen ahead of WSU’s first public showing on Saturday with the Black & Yellow scrimmage set for 11 a.m. at Koch Arena.
“You never know what they could come in like,” Stevenson said. “Maybe it’s, ‘I don’t want to listen to coach (Gregg Marshall); I want to do my own thing.’
“But they weren’t like that at all. They came in open-minded and they let us lead them and help them. They listened, and they learned. They’re still learning.”
Last season, the Shockers only had five players total who could play point guard, shooting guard or small forward. With the arrival of Etienne, Fernandes and Sherfield, Marshall has beefed up his backcourt with more depth, more shooting and more playmaking.
All three have already made an impression on the returners with their skill level (although Fernandes has been held out of recent practices with a foot injury), but Dennis says that’s not the thing he’s most impressed with by the trio.
“They’re extremely talented, but I think their effort and energy this year will overshadow that,” Dennis said. “Everybody wants to play. These guys, I think they get it, if you ask me. They get what being a Shocker really means: playing hard all the time and giving it your all.”
And it’s not just the freshmen guards. WSU also added a pair of freshmen forwards in DeAntoni Gordon (6-7, 210 pounds) and Josaphat Bilau (6-10, 232).
The team’s lone senior, center Jaime Echenique, has approved of the way his younger teammates in the post have conducted themselves thus far.
“The freshmen really believe in the process, that’s the most important thing,” Echenique said. “They listen really good, and they get things really quickly. We have a lot of talented players, and they’ve been amazing in practice. They understand the system really well, and they’re being put in a position where they feel comfortable about it.”
There hasn’t been a sole leader who has emerged for WSU. Rather, the returners agree, that all seven of the Shockers back from last season have stepped up in their own way.
Last week Marshall said WSU was well ahead of where it was at this point last year. Dennis agreed, saying it’s because there are seven returners with notable playing experience compared to just two last season.
“This year I feel like coach doesn’t have to do as much teaching,” Dennis said. “We’ve kind of helped them out teaching them sets and plays and what coach likes and what he doesn’t like. I think it’s been easier for them. Plus these guys work really, really hard. Early mornings and late nights, they’re really working on their games. They come in and it’s really competitive. They’re going at us, we’re going at them. We’re getting better each and every day.”
Burton agreed: “Iron sharpens iron. Those guys coming in is helping everybody get better.”
It’s created a healthy rivalry for the Shockers. Off the court, the freshmen and sophomores have bonded and already consider themselves brothers. But on the court, they know playing time for the upcoming season is at stake and that competition is bringing out the best in both groups.
After a season where all of WSU’s guards were trying to adjust to drastic changes, the combination of consistency from the sophomores and competitiveness from the freshmen has been a beneficial mixture for the Shockers early this season.
“These freshmen, man, they’re tough,” Stevenson said. “They’re so competitive, and I think that’s what we needed for Burton, myself and Dennis. We all needed to be pushed more in practice. We can only do so much if we’re always on the same team.
“You mix in those freshmen and their attitudes to get better every day, and it pushes the guards, it pushes the forwards, it pushes everybody on the team. They’ve brought that competitive edge back into practice.”