Unleashed: The Rapid Maturation of Tony Wroten
Jan. 18, 2012
By Gregg Bell -UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - For those who criticize Tony Wroten, did you happen to see this play on Sunday?
Wroten stole the ball yet again at midcourt and zoomed off. The Huskies' first lead over archrival Washington State since the opening basket was a few feet away. And admit it naysayers, as sure as you've been doing push-ups in his honor all season, you thought Wroten was taking it to the rim himself.
Yet Washington's high-scoring freshman did something midway through the tense second half that his critics claim he can't do - something even Wroten admits he may not have done a month ago.
Instead of bulling his way to the rim no matter how many Cougars were there, he coolly drew defenders to him. Then he left a hockey-like back pass for teammate Darnell Gant, who was sprinting behind the play. The Cougs didn't know what hit them.
The wide-open Gant took Wroten's selfless pass and slammed home the ball with two hands. The sold-out crowd at Alaska Airlines Arena went nuts. And the Huskies never trailed again in a rousing, comeback win.
"I'm just more mature," said Wroten, who endured lower-back, hip and elbow pain to have 13 points and four assists on Sunday - while enjoying teammate Terrence Ross'30-point barrage as much as any Husky.
"At the beginning of the year, I was all about fast. All speed. And I would just go out of control. Now, I am just more focused on the little things, the little things that help my team win, just calming down the team."
"I am just more focused on the little things, the little things that help my team win." - Tony Wroten
The maturation of the freshman who has the ball in his hands as much or more than any Husky is a large reason why resurgent Washington (11-6, 4-1 Pac-12) is playing California (15-4, 5-1) for the league lead Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Alaska Airlines Arena. ROOT Sports has the telecast in the Northwest, the Washington IMG radio network has the broadcast -- and there will be another game chat with exclusive pictures, video, play by play and analysis from courtside here on GoHuskies.com.
Wroten is second in the Pac-12 in scoring at 16.8 points per game. That is third among all Division-I freshmen. He is third in the conference in steals per game; his seven swipes at Colorado Jan. 5 were second-most in a game in UW history. And he is getting to the line as much as anyone in the Pac-12.
In short, Wroten is doing more than just shooting to win games.
"Scoring points? As you can see in the Utah game (when he took a season-low six shots in a win Jan. 7), that's not really a big deal to me. I just want to win," he said. "I just want to do whatever it takes for my team to get that win.
"I just let the game come to me (now). ... At the end of the day, I don't care if I score zero points or 20 points, I just want to win."
Not that his critics are noticing. They are too busy building workout programs based on his number of turnovers and made free throws.
If only their perspectives could grow along with their chests.
THE `CURSE' OF EXPECTATIONS
Wroten is already so gifted, so dynamic and so potentially dominant for the Huskies - after just 17 college games.
Yet he's also so scrutinized.
He doesn't pass the ball enough, critics say. He turns the ball over too much. He is a poor free-throw shooter. He doesn't play defense.
It's less the reality of Wroten's entertaining and at-times electrifying debut season than it is a commentary on the meteoric expectations people in his hometown of Seattle have heaped upon the teenager.
It's been this way for the 6-foot-5 guard ever since he was a freshman dazzling seniors for Garfield High School.
Make that, ever since 2007. That's when he was featured in Seattle's newspapers with area high school stars such as Joshua Smith (now at UCLA) and Peyton Siva (now at Louisville) - while Wroten was just 13 years old and an eighth grader at Washington Middle School.
Huskies coach Lorenzo Romarhas been watching Wroten since before then.
"I keep hearing `Tony has to take care of the ball better.' Yes," Romar says, rattling off the criticisms he's heard a hundred times.
"'Tony needs to be better at free-throw shooting.' Yes.
"'Tony needs to not have as many defensive lapses.' Yes.
"But I never hear anybody say, `Wow! No one can keep him out of the paint! (That it's) unbelievable that a freshman can come out here his first year and score 17 points per game, be second in the league in scoring. As a freshman. As a guard -- and shoot 50 percent while doing it.'
"It's not 40 percent. He's shooting (nearly) 50 percent, and most of those shots are around the basket," Romar said.
Wroten is shooting 48 percent from the field. He is third in the league with 1.9 steals per game and is among the conference's leaders with 132 free throws attempted. But, yes, he has made only 54 percent of those foul shots. It's a weakness Wroten knows he must improve, with as many opportunities he will continue to get to score easy points from the line.
"I know it's hard to stay in front of me, so they are going to foul me," he said. Romar thinks Wroten can eventually transform his game from being more than just a potent penetrator -- much like a former Seattle SuperSonics star did after he left Oregon State for the NBA.
"As much time as he puts into it, he can become a better shooter - like Gary Payton," Romar said.
THE LEARNING CURVE
"I've said this a million times this year - maybe not quite a million, but close to it," Romar said, "when Isaiah (Thomas) was a freshman, Isaiah turned that ball over quite a bit. And Isaiah didn't have the greatest shot selection, you know. He eventually got it.
"I think what Tony Wrotenhas been doing has been phenomenal."
The thing he's doing most right now? Learning.
He is in the first month of his first Pac-12 season, when teams study key opponents like a final exam and employ a scouting plan freshmen have never before had to combat. He is four months into his college life of time management and studying and classes on Viking history and English.
For those of you old enough to see Gary Payton play college basketball, think back to what you were like four months into college - and how much you (thankfully) grew from there.
Wroten is still learning what it's like to be on a team of guys who were like he was in high school - "The Man." He's still discovering the many ways to affect games beyond just scoring.
"Somebody like that, his entire basketball life has had the ball in his hand making EVERY play. And when you are that talented, when things don't go right the first thing is, `Give me the ball,'" Romar said.
"I rarely hear people talk about all that stuff that he's doing. You can count on one hand how many freshmen in the country are doing all that." - Lorenzo Romar
Romar played for the Golden State Warriors in the early 1980s as a teammate of World B. Free, the notorious NBA gunner and ball hound of that era. One night Romar, Free and Warriors were facing Utah and Darrell Griffith, who was nicknamed "Dr. Dunkenstein" out of Louisville and whom Romar remembers as a "phenomenal basketball player, unbelievable."
Free's assignment against the Jazz was to guard Griffith. So Golden State's coach, Al Attles, asked Free how he planned on slowing Griffith down.
"Give me the ball and I'll foul him out," Free told Attles.
"That's how he handled adversity - `Give me the ball!'" Romar said of Free. "It was interesting: Darrell Griffith picked up his third foul in the first quarter and didn't play the rest of the half.
"It's the mentality. Tony's solved all his problems on the court by, `Give me the ball.' And it's worked for him. Now, it's not that easy... and he is just learning how to do the other things."
That learning is coming quickly.
On Jan. 5 in the loss at Colorado, Wroten forced frantic drives that weren't there, one-on-three dashes into a clogged lane. Two days later at Utah, Wroten took that season-low six shots - and UW won in a way it wasn't supposed to be able to, in a 57-53 grind on the road.
Romar especially noticed in Salt Lake City that Wroten was "so fired up we won." Wroten was one of the Huskies having the most fun laughing and setting up teammates an impromptu, postgame snowball fight they had outside the Huntsman Center before they boarded their bus to the airport.
"Really, extremely selfish, `me' guys, they don't care if you win or lose as long as they get their shots," Romar said. "He wasn't like that at all. And I've noticed in games, in practice, he's becoming more selective. He's learning. He's a freshman.
"He's making progress."
Wroten was a key to the win over Washington State, even though most only noticed he was 3 for 14 from the field and 7 for 13 from the line.
In the first half, he was in his customary place on the wing against WSU's zone defenses. The Cougars extended outside to meet him and then clogged the lane behind that to combat Wroten's drives. Washington shot 29 percent in the first half and trailed by as many as 11.
In the second half, Romar moved Wroten to the high post against the 2-3 and 3-2 zones, at the foul line. WSU's defense sagged on him there, and when he did get the ball he found the open teammates -- Aziz N'Diayeunder the basket, Ross outside for 3. Ross bombed away for 26 of his career-high 30 points in the electrifying second-half comeback, and Washington had stumbled into a new versatility against the many more zones it will see this season.
"That was kind of on the fly," Romar said. "Obviously, Tony being at the high post made a difference."
It was another way Wroten can help the Huskies win -- a way no one on the Internet is measuring in sets of 25 push-ups.
"I rarely hear people talk about all that stuff that he's doing," Romar said. "You can count on one hand how many freshmen in the country are doing all that.
"I think he is so talented and so versatile, sometimes his ability comes back to curse him in terms of other peoples' perceptions.
"I don't know, I guess people think he should be perfect. But he's not perfect. I don't know who is."