Avery Dingman admits he had a little difficulty picking up Creighton's defensive system last fall.
“Last year I was a wandering sheep at this time,'' Dingman said, a smile coming to his face. “I really didn't know what was going on.”
Twelve months later, Dingman not only has a firm grasp of what the Bluejays are trying to do to stop opponents. His progress has left his coaches and teammates raving about what he's done in the first week of practice.
And it's left his name linked to two words no one dared think, let alone speak, a year ago.
“He understands that defense is pretty important, especially to this team,” Creighton forward Doug McDermott said. “We don't have a lot of guys like him. He's pretty athletic and I think he'll be able to guard the other team's best perimeter player at times.”
Dingman's inability to guard anyone last season cost him what players desire most: playing time. His deadeye shooting ability would get him on the court but his defensive deficiencies would, too many times, bring him back to the bench.
The 6-foot-6 guard from Branson, Mo., played an average of 7.2 minutes as a true freshman. He came away from last season knowing he could have played more if only he had guarded more.
“I absolutely understand that, and that's why coming into this year I know that playing defense will get me on the floor,” he said. “That's been the one thing that has been in the back of my mind at every practice.”
It's one thing to think about it, another to dig down and do it. Dingman is doing both, impressing his coaches and putting himself not only in the mix for more playing time but possibly a spot in the starting lineup.
“His defensive improvement is across the board,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “His footwork is better, his technique is better, his endurance and his ability to make multiple plays on one possession is there.
“Avery has made great strides. He's always been a great threat as an offensive player but he's bought into what we've asked him to do defensively. We're going to need a stopper on the perimeter, and if I had to name that person now, it would be Avery Dingman.”
Dingman's ability to put the ball in the basket — not to keep it from getting there — was what attracted McDermott and other college coaches. He averaged 23 points a game as a senior when he earned Missouri all-state honors, 21.3 as a junior when he scored a school-record 46 points in a game.
Dingman's sheepish grin was answer enough to a question about what kind of defensive player he was in high school.
“To be real honest with you, I wasn't asked to play a lot of defense in high school,” he said. “That was one thing that made it more difficult to make the transition to college.
“I went from not being asked not to play much defense to having the coaches here demand that you play defense 100 percent of the time.”
Greg McDermott said Dingman started showing some improvement as a defender late last season. Unfortunately, when practice ended last season, Dingman found himself without the one venue in which a player can try to improve as a defender.
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“It's hard to work on defense by yourself,” Dingman said. “In the summer, you're not in a lot of situations to get better. In conditioning, we did a lot of ability stuff and some resistance work to improve our hip mobility.
“No one plays defense in summer league games. You don't get a lot of opportunities to improve as a defender. You almost have to wait until practice begins again, and then come in with the right mindset.”
Dingman's focus on trying to improve as a defender has left him with a greater comfort zone at that end of the floor.
“Things are just starting to click faster, and I don't really have to think about what I'm doing defensively,” he said. “I don't have to say to myself, 'I need to be helpside on this play' and then go be helpside. Now, I just do it. I'm able to process things a lot quicker, and it's more instinct than thinking about it.”
Dingman by no means neglected his offense during the offseason. As a freshman, Dingman was asked to be a perimeter threat, and he responded by shooting 41.9 percent from 3-point range.
The coaches stressed that he improve his ballhandling in an attempt to become a player with a greater ability to get to the basket. He's displayed an improvement in those talents, too, in early practices.
“Avery is a guy with a ton of talent,'' guard Jahenns Manigat said. “We're all starting to see that, especially on the defensive end of the court. His confidence is up and he understands what he can or can't do against certain guys.
“When he applies himself, he's as good as we've got here.”
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