LINCOLN — Welcome to Nebraska basketball summer camp.
The new-look Huskers begin offseason workouts Thursday. With six new scholarship players, a new assistant (who brings with him a new defense) and an evolving identity, there’s a lot to learn.
Lesson one: “Building chemistry with a group (that has) a lot of new faces coming in,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We’re gonna start laying the foundation on both sides of the ball.”
The foundation begins with seniors Derrick Walker and Sam Griesel, who have quickly forged a bond since Griesel committed to Nebraska in March. Griesel said he has been at NU’s training facility “pretty much every day” since. He’s texting the newer players and hanging out with the returners — specifically Walker, his fellow super senior.
Walker (five seasons) and Griesel (four seasons) have played nine combined college seasons.
“It feels like we’re too old to be in college sometimes,” Griesel said. “But we’ve had those experiences — the fun times and mistakes that you make in college — and we’ve already lived (through) all that stuff. Being able to talk about that has brought us closer for sure.”
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That experience could be useful for newcomers Ramel Lloyd and Jamarques Lawrence, the lone true freshmen on NU’s roster. Hoiberg says the Huskers have high expectations for Lloyd, Lawrence and top junior college center Blaise Keita. Walker wants the newcomers to play like “dogs” this summer — “don’t act like a freshman,” Walker said.
But Griesel remembers how it felt to arrive at college for the first time. He remembers North Dakota State’s workouts being the hardest of his life. He remembers thinking, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“I lived it,” Griesel said. “I was like deer in headlights, especially the first summer. It can be overwhelming and hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel sometimes. But having lived that, I think there’s some good lessons that I can pass on.”
So can fellow grad transfers Emmanuel Bandoumel and Juwan Gary, who bring six college seasons and 115 wins with them. Walker hadn’t met either before they transferred to Nebraska, but he appreciates both players’ attitudes toward defense.
Bandoumel told The World-Herald he wanted to be “a defensive force.” Gary called himself “a walking nightmare” at that end of the court.
Walker, who has played on Husker teams that ranked 14th, 11th and 14th in conference-only defensive efficiency, likes the sound of both.
“I love it,” Walker said. “Not to say that our defense has been bad in the past (few) years, but to have that as one of our main focuses this year, I think we’ll be a more well-rounded team.”
Both Walker and Griesel said they haven’t begun studying new assistant Adam Howard’s matchup zone defense yet. Hoiberg said NU will need “awhile” to properly install it. Other assistants are working on projects designed to help the Huskers teach it.
“But to me, defense is all about heart and competing,” Griesel said. “Obviously, there’s some technical stuff, but I believe if you want to play defense and you have heart, energy and you talk, that’s really the basis of defense.”
That’s what the next two weeks are about. Talking, working and competing together will breed the chemistry NU needs. Hoiberg is planning a team dinner at his house. Griesel will invite teammates to watch sports at his. Walker wants to go fishing.
“We’re building team camaraderie,” Walker said. “Setting the culture for the fall. Learning, teaching, we’ll do it all together.”
Six years in, Walker isn’t changing the way he leads a basketball team. The oldest Husker has always preferred a show-not-yell style. Or, in his words, “I’m not going to force things.”
It’s not his nature, and to pretend otherwise would be counterproductive. Walker said good culture is born when teammates feel comfortable around each other, as each other. Naturally. And he feels responsible for setting that tone.
“I’m just gonna be myself and lead by example,” Walker said. “I’m just bringing everyone together and opening doors for people to be themselves, play their game, hold people accountable in a good way. Not everyone needs to feel like they’re being attacked when they’re being held accountable.”
Good first impression
Hoiberg can already tell watching Griesel interact with players: His transfer addition looks like a hit.
He had an inkling during the recruiting process. The Lincoln East grad only talked about winning, didn’t care what his role was. He looked unselfish on tape, too.
But the more Hoiberg interacts with Griesel — and the more he watches Griesel’s teammates do the same — the more confident he becomes. The Huskers’ lead ball-handler will know how to keep his teammates happy.
“You can just tell right now what he’s all about,” Hoiberg said. “Guys will feed off of him, especially for a guy that’s gonna have the ball in his hands as much as Sam will.”
Griesel praises Jacobsen
Griesel has known preferred walk-on Cale Jacobsen for years.
Jacobsen began playing in Griesel’s summer pick-up games when Jacobsen was a sophomore at Ashland-Greenwood. And among a batch of college players, Jacobsen stood out.
In the first game, Griesel said, Jacobsen scored 10 of the 11 points.
“Who is this kid?” Griesel remembered thinking.
“He doesn’t back down from physicality. He plays hard and plays for the right reasons.”