LINCOLN — In one of those before-the-season meetings college basketball coaches have with their players, Nebraska’s Tim Miles told freshman Shavon Shields he wanted him to play this season, not redshirt, and that his first job was “to help the team.’’
“I figured I’d just have a small role and do whatever I could,’’ Shields said. “But as the season has progressed, that role has grown.’’
Grown like wildfire.
After recovering from an early season elbow injury, the forward from Olathe, Kan., quickly went from a 15-minute-a-game substitute to a starter from the second game of Big Ten play.
In those 12 starts, Shields has averaged 10 points and 5.9 rebounds a game in the nation’s best conference.
And as Nebraska (12-14, 3-10) prepares to host Iowa (17-9, 6-7) on Saturday, he is coming off his first career double-double — 19 points and 13 rebounds against No. 8 Michigan State.
“I’m grateful this is happening,’’ Shields said, “and I’m blessed everything has fallen the way it has.’’
That’s as close to a boastful statement as you’ll get from the soft-spoken Shields. But that doesn’t mean his coach can’t talk him up.
“Shavon has performed very well in the Big Ten,’’ Miles said. “He’s had some very big nights. And we haven’t featured him getting shots. He just does it within the flow of the offense, which I think is most impressive.
“For anybody who is a true freshman in this league, that surprises me.’’
But is Shields surprised by his contributions, which include a career-high 29 points in a win at Penn State?
Without a hint of bravado, he says no. The reason is his past play in AAU summer leagues.
“Playing in the Nike league, that’s against the best kids in the nation every single game,’’ Shields said.
Among the names he recalled from ESPN’s ranking of the Class of 2012: No. 2 Shabazz Muhammad (UCLA), No. 3 Isaiah Austin (Baylor), No. 10 Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State) and No. 21 Ricardo Ledo (Providence).
“You name them, I probably played against them,’’ Shields said. “Now, in the Big Ten, I’m playing against the best teams in the nation every single game.
“So if you don’t think you belong somewhere, you’re probably going to show it. You have to believe in yourself to be a success. And my teammates believe in me, too, which is why I’ve had some success.’’
The ultimate compliment is that Big Ten foes have begun to game-plan for Shields. “It’s very humbling that an opponent considers you a threat,’’ he said.
Michigan State used three defenders at various times on Shields, holding him scoreless in the first half but allowing 19 points in the second.
“When you see them strategize for him,’’ Miles said, “that’s a good sign for him and a good sign for our future.’’
Speaking of the future, what position will Shields play?
He currently is 6-foot-6 and 214 pounds, playing small forward. But he doesn’t turn 19 until June. His father, Will, was a 6-3, 315-pound All-America football lineman at Nebraska and All-Pro with the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I vote for Shavon to grow four more inches,’’ Miles said, “but I’m not sure he’s going to cooperate.’’
“I think I can still grow,’’ Shields said. “How much, I’m not sure.’’
Said Miles: “He needs to improve quickness and change of direction to play small forward, and he needs more strength and explosiveness to play power forward. But that’s not exclusive to Shavon. That’s everybody.’’
Miles has little doubt that Shields will do whatever is needed to improve.
“Shavon is emotionally invested in what we’re doing,’’ the coach said. “It bothers him when things don’t go well, it bothers him when we don’t win, it bothers him when the scout team doesn’t run their stuff right.
“When he sees a teammate acting out, he’ll speak up and say, ‘Knock it off.’ He really cares about the right things.’’
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