When Greg McDermott took over as Creighton's head coach, he decided to bring back an old tradition that had gone away over the last few years of the Dana Altman era - summer basketball.
Jason Isaacson, a local high school coach and former college player at the NAIA level, organizes a NCAA-sanctioned summer league every year at Omaha Sports Academy, and many current and former players from the various colleges around the region or those with local ties travel to Omaha to participate. Greg McDermott decided to take advantage of this league to get his players some extra burn during the summer, and the result has been fun for all.
This league is where Doug McDermott got his start as a Bluejay. Since his debut, Creighton fans have flocked to OSA to get a glimpse of the future, and tonight was no different.
Five former Bluejays (guards Nick Bahe and Jahenns Manigat, walk-on forward Matt Dorwart, forward Justin Carter and center Kenny Lawson) and nine current players (guards Austin Chatman, Devin Brooks, James Milliken, Avery Dingman; big men Will Artino, Zach Hanson, Geoff Groselle and Toby Hegner; and walk-on guards Tyler Clement and Steven Ferrarini) suited up on Thursday night.
However, all eyes were focused on the three members of the five-man 2014 recruiting class who made it out to OSA in week one: Boston University transfer guard Maurice Watson and freshmen forwards Ronnie Harrell and Leon Gilmore III (transfer forwards Cole Huff and Ricky Kreklow were not there but will play at some point this summer).
The first round of games on Thursday included only one player with Creighton ties - former point guard Antoine Young who has spent the last couple years playing internationally and helping to coach the Bellevue West basketball team since graduating. Young's mid-range game - namely his pull-up jumper - is as sharp as ever, though he struggled a bit from behind the arc and his team fell way behind in the second half.
With the first round out of the way, it was time for the main event. Gilmore (and teammate Hanson) faced off against Harrell (and Dingman) in a freshman showdown. The two even matched up with each other at the start of the game and were really going at it.
Harrell was very impressive, showing off his handles and shooting ability at 6-foot-8 en route to 19 points, (at least) five rebounds and a couple of assists. He got after it defensively as well. I am not sure if Creighton has ever had a player at that height with those kinds of ball skills. He got the better of his fellow freshman in this one, denying a Gilmore dunk at the rim (though one of his teammates reached in for a foul) on one play and blew by him before collapsing the defense and kicking it to the corner for a 3-pointer on another.
Gilmore finished with at least eight points, six rebounds and two assists. He struggled with his outside shot but made a couple of very impressive plays on the offensive glass, showcasing his athleticism and nose for the basketball.
The other two Bluejays in this game also played very well.
Zach Hanson was a big presence in the paint, finishing with 20 points and at least eight rebounds, showing why those in the program are so high on the rising sophomore. However, Hanson's performance was not enough as Avery Dingman equaled his teammate Harrell with 19 points including a couple of powerful dunks. Dingman struggled a bit with his outside shot (he shot 26 percent last season after being a 40 percent shooter over his first two seasons), but he was very aggressive.
Hanson will be competing with Artino for the starting center spot unless Greg McDermott changes things up and decides to start both big men, while Dingman is going to be fighting for the starting small forward role.
Harrell and Dingman led their team to an 87-65 win over Hanson, Gilmore and company.
Elsewhere during the second round of games, a team packed with current and former Bluejays in hChatman, Bahe, Manigat, Lawson, Dorwart took on a team featuring rising senior center Will Artino. Despite Cal transfer Rickly Kreklow not being there tonight to provide support on the wing, Artino led his team to an 83-78 victory.
The night was capped with a pair of games marked by exciting performances, if not spectacular finishes.
Mo Watson teamed up with redshirt freshman Toby Hegner as their team faced off against the team that has dominated the summer league over the last few years and includes former Bluejay and current pro Justin Carter.
Carter was sharp for his team, racking up 20 points, but it was the duo of current Bluejays who stole the show.
Hegner got off to a quick start, scoring 13 points in the first half alone and finishing with 18. He is a stretch four with impressive perimeter skills for a man his size, including a nice stroke from 3-point range. Nobody can replace Doug McDermott, but Hegner at least has some of the skills to play that versatile scoring forward role and is the only true power forward on the roster this year.
Mo Watson was equally impressive, showing how foolish it was for so many major programs to pass on him coming out of high school because of his small stature. Watson is quick, strong and crafty, and is excellent at breaking down the defense and getting in the paint to score or collapse the defense to find his teammates - something he did to the tune of 22 points and five assists in this game.
Bluejay fans will have to wait a year as Watson sits out due to transfer rules, but he will be ready to step in and take over the point as Chatman and Brooks graduate.
The inside-out duo of Watson (the inside at 5-foot-9) and Hegner (the out at 6-foot-10) was too much for the defending league champs, with the final score reading 78-70.
Meanwhile, on another court, last year's junior college pick-ups James Milliken (who redshirted last year) and Devin Brooks got into a shootout, with the two players taking turns bombing from three or taking it to the rack. Big man Geoff Groselle and walk-on point guard Tyler Clement also played in this game, but it was the two former junior college players who dominated the game and put up huge numbers.
Milliken may have put up the high score, but it was Brooks who got the last laugh with a 78-63 win.
A last second addition to Milliken's team was Justin Patton, the high school rising senior who committed to Creighton on Tuesday. The 6-foot-11-inch center held his own with the big boys for the most part and made some impressive plays.
At 200 pounds, Patton obviously needs to add a lot of weight to his frame if he expects to defend the post at the college level. However, he can run the floor and handle the ball like a guard and threw down a couple of transition dunks to get the fans excited. He hit a couple jumpers, but he is still developing consistency with that part of his game. Patton is a seriously late bloomer, but has taken massive steps forward even since the end of his junior season and could turn out to be a steal for the Jays.
Wrapping it Up
The first night of summer league is in the books, and fans were treated to some tremendous performances. All of the new guys showed serious flashes of potential, while the returnees showed off some significant improvements as well.
With so many new players and all of the returnees stepping forward into bigger roles, it is anyone's guess as to what the 2014-15 Creighton Bluejays will look like. However, the talent and skill shown by the players on Thursday night have to have fans feeling optimistic.