Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014 | 2 a.m.
During a UNLV basketball practice last week, freshman forward Chris Wood became so frustrated while struggling during a defensive drill that he hurled the ball into the stands at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The 6-foot-10 Wood is like most freshmen in their first season in the college ranks — he wants instant gratification and to equal his successes from a year ago in high school.
“It’s definitely challenging. I’m not going to lie, coming in here I thought I was going to dominate,” Wood said. “But I didn’t know how college was going to be like. It’s a whole different level of basketball. Definitely, being patient has been hard.”
After a slow start to his inaugural season, where Wood was often lost on defense and struggled finding consistent playing time, he is slowly starting to figure it out. He’s become a key contributor off the bench, helping UNLV win its past seven games entering tonight’s home game against Air Force at 7.
Finally, he’s starting to perform like the four-star recruit he was heralded as last season out of local high school powerhouse Findlay Prep, where he averaged 16 points and seven rebounds per game and was the nation’s No. 36 overall recruiting prospect.
“We think he is going to be a very, very special player in our program,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “He is a guy who needs more game experience, and he’s going to get that.”
When Roscoe Smith, the nation’s top rebounder and arguably UNLV’s best player, headed to the bench Wednesday with two quick second-half fouls at Fresno State, the Rebels instantly became vulnerable on the interior.
But Wood came off the bench and the Rebels didn’t miss a beat. He scored seven points on 3 of 4 shooting and grabbed three rebounds in 17 minutes, helping the Rebels fight off underdog Fresno State and eventually pull away for a double-digit win to open Mountain West Conference play.
Wood is lanky in build and still developing physically. At times, he’s more comfortable trying to score on the perimeter.
That changed against Fresno State. In the first half, he dunked over two defenders. In the second half, he used his length to battle for a tip-in after a missed shot; a few possessions later he received the ball in the post and scored on an offensive move.
Earlier in the season, one could argue none of the three baskets would have happened.
What a difference a few weeks makes.
There have been games this season where Wood didn’t play and other games where he didn’t see receive enough minutes to make an impact or become comfortable against a higher level of competition. And, especially early in the season, there were a few moments where he was out of place, not knowing where to be on the court and lacking confidence.
“If you remember those first games, I was lost defensively,” he said. “I’ve definitely gotten a lot smarter. Knowing where to be (on the court) is so key.”
He’s averaging 5.1 points and 3.3 rebounds in 12.5 minutes per game, and has shown enough flashes of good play to merit more court time. Against Radford on Dec. 18, he had a season-high 10 points and five rebounds. Four days later against Santa Clara, he had six points and five rebounds.
Wood’s development can be attributed to multiple factors, none greater than the post players with whom he competes daily in practice.
Smith leads UNLV with 13.1 points and 13.1 rebounds per game, and plays with an intensity that’s been tough for opponents to match. Center Khem Birch averages 11.9 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, and is one of the nation’s leaders in blocked shots with 53 in 14 games.
“Khem is a great guy. He’s always blocking (my) shot (in practice),” Wood said. “It’s tough to go up against Khem; you have to pump-fake it a couple of times. And Roscoe is just nuts in practice. Just how he is in the games. Big energy guy, running the floor and being a leader. He’s always telling me where to go and encouraging me.”
Some time midway through the first half against Air Force, Wood will get the nod to enter the game for Birch or Smith. He’ll do so with more confidence, knowing his role in the UNLV rotation will only get larger with the continued improved play.
It comes at the perfect time for the Rebels.
This is their home opener in Mountain West play. And while Air Force traditionally isn’t one of the league powers, Rice says the Falcons present a big-time challenge. They upset Utah State earlier in the week in their league opener.
“They played us extremely hard last year,” Rice said. “In fact, the one at Air Force wasn’t real competitive. They put it on us pretty good. They are hard to guard and underrated defensively. It will be a huge challenge for us.”