Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Feb. 28, 2014 | 2:45 p.m.
At the beginning of this season, everyone could see it and, more importantly, UNLV forward Christian Wood knew it. Like many freshmen at this level, the game was moving far too fast for the Findlay Prep product to keep up.
“I didn’t know what was going on on the court. I was lost,” Wood said. “Physically and mentally I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Fast forward a few months and Wood is delivering on some of the potential that has had fans excited for his arrival since he committed to coach Dave Rice in 2011. Over the last three games, Wood is averaging 8 points and 6.7 rebounds in 18.7 minutes per game.
Wood’s transformation from talented but overwhelmed newcomer to competent contributor has been a process filled with film sessions and practice. The best way to learn is to do, and Wood said he thinks the hours of court time he’s had in practices and games is the main reason he’s been able to develop.
While the change has been months in the making, it took one simple suggestion to bring it all together. Prior to UNLV’s home game against New Mexico, Rice suggested Wood use a pump fake to beat defenders off the dribble.
Wood takes 45.2 percent of his shots from behind the three-point line, but he hasn’t been very successful out there, making 26.2 percent of his attempts. To be effective, he needed to take advantage of the defense’s expectations.
The result? Multiple drives and dunks that will force opponents to spend more time trying to figure out what Wood will do.
“It’s going to be hard to play me,” Wood said.
Wood’s minutes have increased in each of the last five games, from seven to a career-high 23 in Wednesday’s victory against Colorado State. It will be hard to get him much more than that on Saturday, when UNLV (18-10, 9-6) attempts to avenge an earlier loss at Air Force (11-15, 5-10). The game tips at 1 p.m. Las Vegas time and will stream on ESPN3.com.
Wood looks far more comfortable on defense than he did early this season, and he said one of his biggest improvements has been on understanding screens — how to hedge, get through or over them as required. Still, Air Force’s constant cuts create matchup problems for Wood and the rest of the Rebels if they don’t stay in front of the Falcons.
Based on Wednesday’s win, UNLV may attempt to solve that problem with a zone defense.
The Rebels have run very little zone this season, but for several key possessions in the second half against the Rams, they went to a 2-3 scheme that provided positive results. This is the time of year that coaches try a few different things to keep everyone — opponents and their own players — on their toes, so it’s possible UNLV will throw some of that and other new looks at the Falcons.
“(Coaches) add one or two little wrinkles on offense or one or two little wrinkles on defense,” Rice said about things like double-teaming the post or picking up earlier on defense. “We’ve added a couple of sets to play against Air Force’s defense.”
Considering his recent upticks in minutes and production, it’s possible some of those new looks are designed for Wood. His emergence hasn’t exactly led to a breakthrough in the standings — 1-2 over the last three — but having a player as talented as Wood find himself on the court is a net positive.
“That’s been a big factor for us,” Rice said.