It’s been just a day, and the disappointment of falling to silver is still hanging around - kind of like a medal you’d wear around your neck. It’s a short-sighted feeling, but it is there nonetheless. It’s not so much that the Boilers played poorly, or that this was more of the same. It was that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, a memory fans and players would be able to cherish for the rest of their lives.
It really is hard to overstate just how cool it was to watch my university play for my country. They lost in the gold medal game, yes, against a team that was extremely talented, tall, and well coached. There’s no shame in silver. That’s the most important take away. This was still an incredible journey for all the players and coaches, all the fans and supporters, and it was still a huge step towards the ultimate goal of success in the Big Ten this year and into March.
The World University Games gave us a chance to see how much our players have developed - still the most impressive part about Coach Painter and his staff. But maybe even more importantly, it gave us a chance to take stock in four of the freshman that will be the backbone for this program’s success going forward after this Senior class graduates.
It’s not real surprise, but the most ready looking player was the one that played the most. Nojel Eastern was on the court for a total of 122 minutes and 40 seconds. He was the only freshman to play in every game for Team USA. This is for two reasons: he’s the most ready and he’s the most needed. There’s a spot for back-up point guard on the roster. At worst, you can expect Eastern to fill the minute void of Spike last year, but what we’ve seen in stretches is encouraging.
He came to Purdue as the most touted of all the recruits, and it’s not hard to see why. There’s not many point guards with a 6 foot 6 inch and 220 pound body. He’s a wizard in the pick and roll. He already knows how to use pace and change of direction to get into lanes and he’s equally capable of finishing with either hand. His length allows him to get clean looks when most guards have to worry about getting over taller defenders.
That said, he turns the ball over way too much. His handle could use some fine-tuning. He needs to adjust to the speed of college basketball, but he’s not far off. He sees the court well. He whips passes that will get more precise the longer he plays with this team.
Defensively, he’s aggressive, too aggressive at swiping after the ball and gets into some foul trouble. But with his minute load, it shouldn’t be an issue. If anything, his value could be being a big guard that can play when PJ’s size is being used against him.
He’s ready for minuts now.
Eden Ewing and Aaron Wheeler are not the same player, but they will fill a similar role this season. Ewing comes in as a redshirt sophomore transfer, but is still raw and prone to fouling. Aaron Wheeler looks every bit of 6’10 and might be one of the best athletes to ever stop onto the court for the Boilermakers.
In a blow out late against Estonia, Aaron Wheeler caught a laser of a pass from Cline and rose up into the air with two hands and brought down the Thunder of Zeus onto the rim. It was breath taking. It’s this tantalizing athleticism and positional variety that makes your skin crawl with excitement.
Ewing is bouncy and quick, he’s a great teammate, and is much more polished on the offensive end. He should provide rim protection and rebounding.
Neither of them played in Team USA’s two toughest games. They’re just not there yet. Both lack a jump shot that can stretch the defense. They both struggle with turnovers. They’re both still pretty sleight. They both play behind the best power forward in the Big Ten.
They’ll both probably have their moments in the season, but at this moment they aren’t trusted by Coach Painter. That matters. We’ve seen Coach Painter allow freshman more and more freedom over the last couple years, but he won’t give minutes to guys he can’t trust. They both have work to do.
Shockingly, it’s Sasha Stefanovic who looks closest to ready after Eastern. He played in every game but the gold medal game, and his 95 minutes was thirty five minutes more than both Ewing and Wheeler.
This wasn’t by chance. If anything, Sasha should have been the most blocked for minutes behind P. J. Thompson, Carsen Edwards, Nojel Eastern, Ryan Cline, and Dakota Mathias. But shooters are going to play in this new world of basketball and Sasha can absolutely sling it. His shot is nearly erotic. It’s quick and smooth and is out of his hands before you can yell Travis’s favorite saying - I won’t say it here.
But also, he’s quicker than I expected. His handle seems strong. He knows how to move. The word around the street about Sasha was that he was a more athletic Dakota. I thought that was crazy. He’s certainly smaller than Dakota, which matters, but he does appear quicker than the freshman Dakota and he was surprisingly impressive at times with the ball in his hands, attacking the basket.
He had two huge games: he scored 15 points in 16 minutes on 5 of 8 shooting from deep against the United Arab Emirates and then dropped 17 points while hitting 3 three’s in 20 minutes of playing time against Romania.
My head still tells me that Sasha should be red shirted this year. There’s just too much of a log jam at the guard position, but his performance makes that argument harder. You can’t have too much shooting. But the Boilers are stacked at guard with Cline’s improvement and we could use Sasha’s shooting in four years even more.