Can Louisville's Wayne Blackshear deliver on last season's promise?
Blackshear was considered one of nation's top players coming out of high school
Injuries caused Blackshear to drift out of shape and lose his edge as a freshman
Now finally healthy, Rick Pitino & Co. are waiting for Blackshear to break out
There exists for many highly-touted athletes a complex and at times perilous relationship between expectations and reality, and when it comes to Wayne Blackshear, Rick Pitino knows that relationship well. In Blackshear's one injury-abbreviated year as a Louisville Cardinal there have been been brief, highly-visible snippets -- his unexpectedly productive debut at West Virginia last February, a nine-point outburst against eventual national champion Kentucky in the Final Four -- that suggest he has the makings of a star. But Pitino pairs those morsels with what he sees every day in practice, holds it up against the kid who in high school beat out Anthony Davis for the Chicago Sun Times' player of the year honors, and he finds the sum lacking.
"Wayne right now," says Pitino, "is about 65 percent of what I saw in high school."
Blackshear, a 6-foot-5 wing who averaged seven minutes in 15 games last season after tearing the labrum in his right shoulder last October, enters his sophomore year with buzz as a chic breakout pick. He represents an alluring reserve of mostly untapped talent to add to the No. 2-ranked Cardinals' well-established commodities, like senior point guard Peyton Siva, junior center Gorgui Dieng (9.1 ppg last season), and sturdy sophomore forward Chane Behanan (9.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg). Even newly eligible junior Luke Hancock, a transfer point forward, has a two-year track record from George Mason.
But more important for Pitino -- who, it should be noted, has stressed keeping his players humble this preseason -- is what Blackshear has that the others do not: body fat. "Most of our guys are in tremendous condition," says Pitino, pointing out that Blackshear's body fat percentage is about a point lower than the team's 10-percent requirement rather than four or five points lower like many teammates'. "[Blackshear] doesn't have the explosiveness that the other guys have. It's just gonna take some time."
Blackshear has had an ongoing battle with his body. Last October's labrum tear marked the first inauspicious event of his Louisville tenure, but he came to school with similar baggage, having injured his other shoulder seven months earlier. He'd dislocated the joint late in his senior season, played a spell in the 2011 McDonald's All-American game despite the weakened arm, then had surgery to clean out bone chips. Shortly thereafter was when the trouble with the rest of his body began. Unable to play that summer and swamped with work to ensure his college eligibility, workouts drifted out of his schedule and he quickly drifted out of shape. "I guess I was just sitting around eating all day," he remembers, laughing.
By the time he arrived on campus, he had ballooned from his usual playing weight of about 205 pounds to 240 with 17 percent body fat, and when he stepped on a scale and saw the reading, he was taken aback. "I didn't think I was that big," he recalls. The point was driven home when it came time for his first workout, a gantlet of shots and sprints and dribbling drills, and he blacked out mid-layup and collapsed to the floor.
Things were looking up by the final week of last October, when a slimming-down, no-pizza-and-candy Blackshear received long-awaited academic eligibility clearance from the NCAA. Then just two days later came the labrum tear, suffered when his shoulder caught a teammate on a screen in a morning practice, which the team initially announced would sideline him for the full season. Three months later he battled a stomach virus that he exacerbated with his affection for chocolate milk, leading Pitino to crack at a press conference that he'd hung a "missing in action" photo of Blackshear in the locker room.
Thanks to Fred Hina, Louisville's head of sports medicine, Blackshear's return was just around the corner. The season-ending prognosis instead became a mid-January return to practice and a chance to salvage a lost season. Hina had slowly re-taught Blackshear how to lift weights at an elementary level and deployed a battery of exercises designed to stabilize his shoulders: extensions, pull-downs, dumbbell work, and lots and lots of rows. Jokes Hina, "We could put him on a boat and he'd be a heck of a rower."
Blackshear made his collegiate debut at West Virginia on Feb. 11 and gave the Cardinals a big lift, scoring 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting and sinking three of his five three-point attempts. "It sort of blindsided us a little bit," Pitino says. Blackshear played double-digit minutes just once more, in a forgettable outing at Syracuse, before seeing the floor for 14 minutes against Kentucky in the Final Four. Under the Superdome's bright lights, his nine points were highlighted by a double-pumping, Davis-avoiding dunk in the first half. As the postgame narrative shifted to how well-stocked the Cardinals would be for another deep run the following season, Pitino told reporters, "We're only going to get better. You saw a glimpse of Wayne Blackshear."
Now that season approaches. The Cardinals have played three 40-minute intrasquad scrimmages this preseason; Blackshear has played all but six minutes of them, piling up eight rebounds and five assists in the first and leading his team with 18 points on 4-of-5 three-point shooting in the third. He happily reports that he's gone from doing five pull-ups to 50 since beginning rehab and that after re-learning to bench press with the empty bar he now does six or seven reps of 185 pounds. His weight is around 215.
But Pitino expects more. Blackshear can find a groove and make a few shots, but Pitino would like to see a player less likely to get winded and more apt to dominate on both ends of the floor. That will take more confidence and strength in his newly healthy shoulders, and Pitino knows that will take time.
"He's going to be an integral part of our team," he says. "He'll impact our team in a positive way. That day will come. I just don't know when it will be."
Blackshear acknowledges that he's aware of the hype. Google his name and the word "breakout" and you can have your pick of optimistic publications touting his impending success. As a strong scorer who can create his own shot and drive to the basket, he is capable of providing a punch the Cardinals' offense lacked at times last season. He seems like a missing ingredient for an already potent dish.
Yet ask him his goals for the season and his answer centers not on his game or statistics or even time frames, but on the state of his body. "My main point is for me to be healthy, period," he says. It is the simplest of goals, but there is none more important. Once he gets his body in order, the rest will sort itself out, and Blackshear can show a lot more than a glimpse.