With just five more Saturdays without football everyone is understandably getting antsy for the college football season. There is a lot of promise and intrigue around the Irish and everyone is dying to get a look at this team. But they are not the only Irish squad that we should be excited about. Notre Dame Men’s Basketball’s final summer practice was open to media on Tuesday. We got a pretty good look at some highlights from the practice itself and some statements from Mike Brey, Nate Laszewski, and star freshman JJ Starling.
JJ Starling (and the Freshman)
Let’s start with what is causing a lot of the excitement and intrigue. Blake Wesley was able to become the first Irish player to be drafted since Demetrius Jackson in 2016 and he was a one-and-done at that. The hype around being able to re-up with the highest-rated recruit Notre Dame has ever gotten in JJ Starling is quite high. From what we were able to hear and see on Tuesday it is not unwarranted. What stands out is his basketball IQ and the smoothness of his game. While not quite as much of a pure athlete as Wesley, his decision-making more than makes up for it. Taking his man to the hoop (making it look effortless), dishing to an open man, or pulling up all look decisive and deliberate. This will not only allow him to make plays for himself but also improve the players around him. This translated to his interview where he comes off as calm, collected, and loose. He mentioned adjusting to college life not only off the court but on the court with the speed of the players and the game. What stuck out to me was his enjoyment when speaking about his game. “I rather get a teammate a shot, than score. I love scoring who doesn’t, but at the same time I love getting my teammates a basket or an open look,” he said with a smile when asked about coach Brey realizing how well he saw the floor. He also gave a delighted smile when someone mentioned how coach Brey and Laszewski had said he was easy to play with. His love of the game (his game) oozes while answering questions. It doesn’t come off cocky or arrogant. It comes off as someone who loves to play the game. Whether that’s doing things himself or getting his team involved, he just loves to go out and ball with his squad.
After all that I was ecstatic, and that’s before mentioning either of the other freshman - 4-star Ven-Allen Lubin, and 3-star Dom Campbell. Lubin was another great addition to the team and his presence is felt. When you see him and watch him play you think of physicality. He looks every bit of 6 foot 8 inches 220 lbs and plays like it too. He stood out on the boards and even knocked down a three. Mike Brey also spoke on his mental maturity and the effort he gives. Even though these are brief looks into the team, things are looking up for the young Irish and their impact on the team this Winter.
While we were unable to keep Wesley there is still plenty of players that are returning for Notre Dame this year. The Irish have six graduate seniors which include key players like Dane Goodwin, Nate Laszewski, and Cormac Ryan. Having them back will be huge in combination with the young talent that was acquired. But after the loss of Wesley, Hubb, and Atkinson it will require them to take a step up to lead this team. This is apparent in Coach Brey’s approach to Laszewski. They both mentioned working on his aggressiveness. Something if you were tuned in the last month of the season last year, you would’ve noticed flashes of. He was six most in field goal attempts last year, which needs to increase greatly this year. They both spoke about him being more decisive in shot selection, while also using his size underneath. Nate has made an impression on JJ Starling who said “He can do anything.”He can shoot for you. He can set screens. He can roll.”, and he’s right. When Nate is on his game he is very talented. If he and the leading three seniors can step up, we are looking at a very well-built squad.
Quick notes and final thoughts.
Look for the Irish to get good production from junior Matt Zona. He and Lubin will be looked at to replace the production under the net left by Paul Atkinson. We also didn’t see a whole lot from Niagra transfer Marcus Hammond. His production at Niagra is proof enough for me for now and Brey mentioned his maturity and experience. “He’s 22 and played 100 college games,” Brey said.
It is only July, we only got a brief peek behind the curtain and there is a lot of time between now and November. From what I gathered and the reactions of other fans and writers, there is quiet confidence. I think we can see that this team has the pieces, but we know about the tournament drought we just broke and all the disappointment that came with it. If we put that aside though, I believe there is every reason to be excited for Irish basketball in 2022-2023. I think this team is going to be better than last year. And that my friends is a “way too early prediction”.