I shook Evan Wessel’s hand after he scored 15 points during Wichita State’s 81-52 win over Saint Louis on Saturday at Intrust Bank Arena.
I wasn’t sure I should. I wasn’t sure I’d get my hand back.
Wessel’s late grandfather, Ev, for whom he was named, had the strongest grip of any person I’ve known. You shook hands with the 6-foot-9 Wessel at your own risk and the goal was always to try not to scream in pain.
“I don’t crush you like he did,” Evan Wessel said as he loosened his grip.
There’s not a Wichita State game that goes by when Evan doesn’t think of his grandfather, a standout center for the Shockers in the late-1950s who later coached East High to a state championship in 1972.
Evan, a junior, is thankful to be a Shocker. Especially because his grandpa was one, too.
“I think about the things he would say after a game,” Evan said. “I shot the ball well tonight but I missed a free throw. He would definitely be harping on me about that. He always said things like to keep my head up and I definitely think about him every time I play. I know he’s up there watching.”
Wessel, who played on three state championship basketball teams and one state title football team at Heights, had his best offensive game as a Shocker on Saturday. He made 6 of 9 shots and was 3 of 5 from the three-point line.
Last season, Wessel couldn’t shoot. Not to save his life. He made 3 of 25 three-point attempts and saw his playing time get shorter and shorter.
Wessel’s shooting woes were a mystery then and they’re a mystery now. He can’t explain what happened, other than it happens to almost every shooter who has ever laced up sneakers.
“It was definitely a struggle last season,” Wessel said. “What I’m doing now comes with having more confidence. I worked on my game over the summer. It’s just stuff that happens, I guess.”
Through six games, Wessel is shooting nearly 46 percent overall and has made 7 of 16 three-pointers. His numbers – 5.5 points and 4.8 rebounds – are solid. In fact, he’s the Shockers’ leading rebounder.
Defense and rebounding are givens with Wessel. So is a love – a calling, really – to get on the floor after loose balls. Something tells me Wessel, who still has football in his heart, is happiest when he’s in a scrum with a group of other players, elbow and knees flying everywhere.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall loves it when the wild-eyed Wessel is in a ruckus.
“When there was a ball loose in the first half, just across the lane from the Saint Louis bench, I walk down in front of our bench while the ball is loose and tell my guys, ‘Don’t worry, the ball is loose but Evan will get it,’” Marshall said. “Evan does get it, but some big, strong guy pries it from his hands and I continue with my tirade in front of my guys – ‘Don’t worry, Evan will get it.’ And he did. Those are the type of plays that endear a guy like Evan to a head coach.”
Wessel is usually good for a couple of loose-ball pursuits every game. Now he’s adding some offensive reliability to his resume.
“I want him to take shots when he’s open,” Marshall said. “If it’s your shot, take it. And he’s proven to us that he can make threes; he shot the ball well (in 2012-13) before he got hurt (surgery on a broken pinky finger on his right hand). Last year he struggled for some odd reason. But he’s got to be able to shoot the ball, otherwise he can’t play that position.”
That position, power forward, is already a stretch for the 6-foot-4 Wessel, who needs his football instincts to survive. What he gives up in height, he makes up for in toughness.
“Evan does so many things to help us win,” Marshall said. “I love him as a young person, I love him as a student, I love him as a competitor.”
I imagine Marshall sees some of himself in Wessel. And in so doing, he sees a lot of Wessel’s grandfather, who died in 2007.
“I spent a lot of time around him growing up,” Evan Wessel said. “He and my grandmother (Phyllis) lived right next door so we were over there all the time. I can’t say I’ve met a tougher guy, not yet anyway.”