Isaiah Zierden has his swagger back.
The redshirt freshman Creighton guard has shown an air of confidence in the Bluejays’ early practices that he didn’t always display in his first season in the program.
“I didn’t come in nervous last year, but I really didn’t know what to expect,” Zierden said. “I wasn’t myself. I didn’t have that swagger that I used to have on my AAU team. I’m getting that back, and I’m feeling better out there.”
When it was suggested that he doesn’t look like a guy who plays the game with swagger, Zierden laughed.
“It’s all about how you carry yourself,” he said. “In high school, I was just real confident that if I missed a shot, the next one was going in.”
Zierden’s coaches and teammates have noticed the difference. Creighton coach Greg McDermott said the 6-foot-2 sharpshooter from St. Louis Park, Minn., has made as much progress in the offseason as any of the returning nonstarters.
“He’s stronger, his ball-handling is a little tighter and defensively he’s always in the right spot,” McDermott said. “Isaiah’s always had a great feel for the game, and now that he’s added some strength, he’s been able to put it all to use.”
Senior guard Grant Gibbs said he noticed a difference in Zierden’s game during spring and summer workouts.
“I had heard in high school that he had this confidence about him — not that he was arrogant, but he had that way about him,” Gibbs said. “Then you get to college, and you get humbled by all the things that come along with that.
“He progressed during his redshirt year, and then he started making great strides with his game. He evolved from being just a shooter, and as your game evolves, you gain confidence.”
Zierden came to Creighton with a reputation as being a standout perimeter shooter. A finalist for Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball award as a senior, Zierden averaged 19.7 points in earning all-state honors.
He shot 46 percent from beyond the arc in high school and participated in a 3-point shooting contest before the 2012 Final Four, where he was runner-up to Oklahoma State recruit Phil Forte.
But Gibbs likes the other things Zierden is doing with the ball this fall besides shooting it.
“He’s gotten really good at being crafty and changing speeds,” Gibbs said. “He’s starting to make the reads that our offense is built upon as far as ball screens.”
Ultimately, it could be Zierden’s defense that determines how much he’ll contribute. He has worked hard during the offseason on adding strength and quickness.
The question persists whether he’s quick enough to be an effective defender in the Big East.
In addressing that question, McDermott points to the way Gibbs can get things done defensively.
“Grant’s not quick enough,” said McDermott with a smile, indicating that there are other ways to make plays on defense. “Grant has to pick and choose his spots as to when to be aggressive defensively. He has to be in the right place, and positioning and anticipation is really critical. He has the ability to be a solid defender, and Isaiah falls into that same category. He’s going to have a learning curve, just as Grant did.”
Zierden has grown accustomed to hearing questions about quickness. He said the ability to change speed and taking good angles are keys to playing defense if you lack quickness.
“Even when I was playing on the AAU circuit, people have always doubted my quickness,” Zierden said. “To be honest, you don’t have to be the quickest guy. I watch a lot of film on Steve Nash, and he’s not the quickest guy out there.”
Many of the film sessions have come with his father. Don Zierden is an assistant coach with the NBA’s Washington Wizards. He’s also been a head coach in the WNBA and the old Continental Basketball Association.
Those film sessions have honed Isaiah’s basketball IQ.
“Just growing up around the game has helped,” he said. “There are a lot of things that you don’t see when you watch practice live, but then I’d watch the film with my dad and he’d point things out. That was a huge help while I was growing up.”
There is a flip side to possessing such knowledge, and Zierden said that might have contributed to some tentative play last season in practice.
“There were times when I was just overthinking the game instead of just relaxing and playing,” Zierden said. “You have to be free, have that swagger and just play.”
Creighton started a series of two-a-day practices Saturday that McDermott said will be important in helping define roles.
Asked what he wants his role to be, Zierden replied in a way that his father, the coach, would appreciate.
“If they want me to play minutes off the bench and come in and do the dirty work, I’m fine with that,” he said. “I’m not a guy that is going to be selfish and care about points. I just want to help this team win.”