BY MIKE LUCAS
UWBadgers.com Senior Writer
MADISON, Wis. – Before the first shot was taken, freshman Connor Essegian stood out. It’s gotta be the shoes, right? Neon coral basketball shoes. They were unlike what anyone else was wearing here Sunday during Wisconsin’s annual Red-White preseason scrimmage at the Kohl Center.
But what really caught everybody’s eye was the shot. Gotta be the Essegian jump shot.
“He can really shoot,” UW head coach Greg Gard said. “I don’t want to play him in HORSE.”
It’s very understandable considering Essegian finished a storied high school career – at Central Noble in Albion, Ind. – as the 10th leading scorer in state history. He accounted for more points (2,526) than the likes of Eric Gordon, Shawn Kemp, Steve Alford and George McGinnis. Just to name a few.
Only Damon Bailey, Marion Pierce, Deshawn Thomas, Luke Brown, Romeo Langford, Brody Boyd, Rick Mount, Eric Hunter and Trevon Bluiett scored more as Hoosier preps than Essegian, a rail-thin 6-4, 185-pound guard from Fort Wayne . In high school, he wore No. 10. Now, he’s No. 3. Fitting.
During Sunday’s scrimmage, he made 6-of-7 shots, 3-of-4 from beyond the 3-point arc.
“Just watch him – the technique – they all come off his hand looking like they’re going in,” Gard said. “He’s got great rotation. He has a very good feel for the game. He’s got to continue to get stronger which isn’t going to happen today or tomorrow. It’s going to be building over the course of his career.”
While the Team Red players were warming up before the start of the second half, Essegian picked up a loose ball near the time-line, took two steps and casually launched a shot from the “Ab Nicholas Court” logo. Swish. He may have unlimited range, but can he handle the rigors of the Big Ten?
“I saw some things in France in terms of his toughness,” Gard said last week. “You look at him and he maybe doesn’t look the part right now. He kind of looks like that skinny kid. But, man, he competed, and he knows how to find the basket.
“He made some plays over there in different games where it showed some scrappiness and some toughness and some things that get you on the floor and keep you on the floor here. Right now, his head is probably spinning from a defensive standpoint. And that’s normal.
“And the only way that he’s going to get through that is just continuing to guard Chucky (Hepburn), guard Jordan Davisguard Tyler Wahlguard whoever … His teammates are doing a good job of pushing him every day and the coaches are doing a good job of holding him accountable.”
Essegian wasn’t the only player hunting shots during the scrimmage. So were Wahl (13 points, 5-of-7 FG, 3-of-4 trebles) and Hepburn (12 points, 6-of-9 FG). Wahl’s ability to stretch the defense with more efficiency from the perimeter would obviously help create some more space for driving lanes.
Hepburn looms as even a bigger scoring threat with the departures of Johnny Davis and Brad Davison. Last season, as a true freshman, he shot 35 percent from the 3-point line. On Sunday, he showed that his step-back jumper was in mid-season form while converting on several post-ups.
“He’s so even keeled,” Gard said of Hepburn. “It’s very hard to tell whether Chucky is having a good day, a bad day … he won the Lottery … you can’t tell. And that’s very good and helped us immensely last year to hand the keys, so to speak, of the bus to a freshman.
“Now he had some help around him. He obviously had a terrific player in Johnny (Davis) and a steady and as good of a leader as I’ve been around in Brad (Davison), so that helped him transition. But now he knows it’s his time to step forward and use his personality and ability to relate with teammates.
“The leadership component will be a big part of us.”
Especially point guards who lead, he stressed. In this context, the Badgers recently heard from LearnToLead president Dave Anderson, an international motivational speaker and author of 15 books. Over the years, Gard has developed a friendship with Anderson whose message never fades.
In identifying the potential leaders on this season’s team, Gard told his players, “I told them a couple of days ago, I not only watch what you’re doing on the floor, I listen. Where are the voices? Where is the leadership developing from?
“I can’t anoint somebody a leader. It’s organic. They will naturally find their way. Find their voice. And leaders always come in different shapes and sizes. It doesn’t mean you have to be the most vocal guy. You can lead by example. It doesn’t mean you have to play 35 minutes a game.
“You can set good examples and be a good role model in other areas that will help our locker room. Obviously, Tyler will have a bigger role in that leadership. chucky hepburn is more comfortable with his voice. Max, for being a newcomer, I identified him right away.”
Max is Max Klesmit, the Wofford transfer. Sunday, he had 17 points (7-of-13 FG). Last season, he averaged 15. Joining him in the rotation will be Kamari McGee, the Green Bay transfer. A year ago, McGee was his team’s leading scorer (11.6). In the scrimmage, he had 9 points, 3 assists, 2 steals.
“The one thing that really jumps out about both those guys – and they’re obviously different players with different personalities – but they both have college basketball experience,” Gard pointed out. “I’ve always said the best teacher is experience. So, they’ve helped in that regard.”
Carter Gilmore had seven rebounds to lead both teams. He also had seven points. In one sequence, 7-foot-center Steven Crowlwho ended up with a scrimmage-high six assists, executed a perfect lob inside to Gilmore who scored, drew a foul and completed the 3-point play.
Gard has seen this building in Gilmore, who has been seeking his niche the last two years. Gard credited a phone call from Gilmore’s mother, Stephanie, a WIAC Hall of Famer at UW-Platteville, for lighting a fire under him this off-season. His dad, Brian, played at Platteville, too (for Bo Ryan).
“I’ve consistently referred to him publicly as the team’s – probably – most improved player,” Gard said. “A lot of that is much like Steve Crowl. He has put the work in, so he has confidence in what he has done. And trust that he’s prepared and worked and now feels good that he’s ready for this moment.”
Sunday was one moment, one snapshot for all the players. A big picture will crystallize in time.