Promising parts of the puzzle

“His skill-set has gotten so much better,” coach Greg McDermott said of Justin Patton. “He’s much better at shooting the ball away from the basket, and defensively he’s made real good strides from where he first started.”

After watching Marcus Foster make an obscenely difficult basketball play look simple last month, Greg McDermott turned and proclaimed to a few folks watching practice, “I’m going to be a much better coach next year with him on the floor.”

Reminded of the incident after a recent practice, the Creighton coach smiled.

“It’s amazing how better players make a guy a better coach,” McDermott said. “Marcus is talented. He can get his own shot, and he’s going to give us another guy that can do that.

“A guy like him makes other guys whose skill sets maybe aren’t as broad a little more effective. Shooters might get a little more of an open look because of what teams have to do to try to slow a guy like Marcus down. I’m glad he’s part of our program.”

Foster became a Bluejay last spring after transferring from Kansas State, where he scored 875 points in two seasons. He figures to be an integral part of next season’s team, along with another player who is sitting out this season. Justin Patton, a consensus top-50 prospect from Omaha North, decided to redshirt to prepare himself for the rigors of playing in the Big East.

Even though Foster and Patton have not played a minute for the Bluejays, they have created a stir within a fan base that already is excited about the improvement Creighton has made this season.

Picked to finish ninth in the league, the Bluejays are fourth with four games to play. They will return all but two players from this season’s team, and the thought of Foster and Patton joining the rotation has more than the fans buzzing.

“Justin and I are making sure we’re putting in the work so we can be ready for next year,” Foster said. “I watch how we’re playing now and I think about how I might be able to help the team next season.

“We’re a good team now, but with a couple of other pieces, we can be better.”

* * *

Creighton made a strong pitch to land the 6-foot-3 Foster out of high school in Wichita Falls, Texas, where he was a Parade All-American who scored almost 2,400 points in four years as a starter.

Foster visited Kansas State the week before he was scheduled to come to Omaha for his official visit in the fall of 2012. He never made it to campus, committing to Kansas State on his visit to Manhattan.

“Creighton was always my first choice coming out of high school, but they were in a smaller conference back then,” Foster said. “If the Big East had been there, I probably would have signed with Creighton.”

Foster made an immediate impact at Kansas State, scoring 514 points as a freshman. That total is the seventh-most by a true freshman in Big 12 history.

His production dropped during a rocky sophomore season in which he was suspended three games for violating team rules. His relationship with Kansas State coach Bruce Weber soured, and Weber dismissed Foster after the 2014-15 season.

Foster took some of the blame for what transpired in Manhattan, admitting that he didn’t always practice or play as hard in his second season as he did in his first.

That’s something he’s rectified since coming to Creighton. He’s worked consistently hard on the practice floor while running with the scout team.

“I’m just trying to do what I can to get my teammates ready for games,” he said.

In the process, McDermott said, Foster is broadening his own game.

“He’s improved, but there still is some room for growth, which is exciting,” McDermott said. “He’s been one of our best players, on a consistent basis, on both ends of the floor.

“Beside what he can do on offense, I think he can be a difference-maker on the defensive end.”

Foster is intent on doing just that. He said he wants to establish himself as one of the best defensive players in the Big East.

“I’ve always been a good defender,” he said, “but I’ve never pushed myself on that end of the court.”

Foster talks frequently with assistant coach Darian DeVries about how to improve as a defender.

“I told Coach DeVries I want to be the best defender in the conference,” Foster said. “I want to guard the other team’s best player. I want to be locked in on every possession.”

Based on what he’s done offensively in practice, Foster figures to add versatility to the Bluejays’ attack. He buries shots with great frequency from outside the arc. He has displayed good midrange skills, and he can be unstoppable when he takes the ball to the rim.

“I can create my own shot a lot better than I did at Kansas State,” Foster said. “I was more a guy that would come off screens and catch and shoot. I’ve improved my ball-handling here, and I think I can get open shots.”

Foster also has worked hard at transforming his body. McDermott said Foster has reduced his body fat by about 4 or 5 percent.

“I’ve cut out fast food,” Foster said. “I can’t tell you the last time I had fast food. That was one of my problems at Kansas State: too much fast food.

“I also like to drink a lot of soda, so I’m trying to lay off that, too. I want to come in next year with a whole new body, a whole new game and a whole new mindset.”

* * *

Like Foster, Patton can see the light at the end of tunnel when it comes to grinding his way through a year away from playing games. Unlike Foster, the 6-11 Patton’s decision to redshirt came by choice rather than NCAA rules.

Creighton has two experienced centers in Geoffrey Groselle and Zach Hanson. Finding playing time for a third center this season might have been difficult.

“I’m satisfied how this year has played out for me,” Patton said. “Deciding to redshirt was the best for me.”

That decision has allowed him to work on this game while battling Hanson and Groselle daily in practice. It’s also allowed him to work on adding some strength and weight.

He weighed 207 pounds when he joined the program last June. He currently weighs 223 after getting up to 227.

“He probably hasn’t put on the weight I’d like him to,” McDermott said, “but as long as the strength numbers keep improving, that’s a sign of progress.”

The most encouraging sign is Patton’s ability to play harder for longer periods of time.

“It’s still not where it needs to be, but compared to where he was when he got here last June, he’s 100 percent better,” McDermott said. “We just have to keep moving him forward on that track, because we’re going to need him next year.”

Patton has done things that leave observers going, “Wow!” He runs the floor like a deer, has the ability to be a force around the rim and has added some range to his shot.

Still, his game is raw. He signed with Creighton after going from a relatively unknown high school player as a junior at North to a five-star prospect before his senior season.

“His skill-set has gotten so much better,” McDermott said. “He’s much better at shooting the ball away from the basket, and defensively he’s made real good strides from where he first started.”

Revving his playing motor has been one of Patton’s goals.

“I’ve learned how to keep focused and keep going,” Patton said. “I’m getting more resilient. If I make a good play, it’s about getting back and ready. If I make a bad play, same thing. I’m just trying to make big plays all over the court.”

Patton’s development is typical for a redshirt player. He made steady development the first six weeks or so of Creighton’s season. His efforts then leveled off as the grind of practicing without the rewards of game day started to take a toll.

Recently, his performances have picked up, as he knows it won’t be long until he and Foster are a part of preparations for next season.

“There was a point about three weeks ago when I wasn’t satisfied with how I was doing,” Patton said. “Coach Mac and I talked about it, and he told me he was a redshirt himself. He had the same thoughts I was having.

“He told me to just to hang in there, because it’s going to be my time before I know it.”

McDermott can’t wait until it’s time for Patton and Foster to take the court because of the development he’s seen from each player. He also likes the way both players have handled sitting out this season.

“They’ve both worked hard to get better,” he said. “In Justin’s case, I think the redshirt year was the right decision. We would have had a hard time getting him on the floor. He’s been able to spend more time working on his own game.”

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