Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Marvin Menzies has an oft-stated goal when it comes to building his ideal roster at UNLV: He wants the Rebels to get old, and stay old.
It’s a way of saying he wants his initial recruiting classes to grow through the program and become productive upperclassmen, and when it’s time for them to graduate, he wants experienced underclassmen ready to step in and replace them. When he gets the roster to a point where UNLV is able to cycle juniors and seniors through the lineup year after year, the team will be ready to contend in the Mountain West.
The Rebels aren’t there yet. Due to some truncated recruiting classes and early departures, the 2018-19 team will skew heavily toward youth. Of UNLV’s 13 scholarship players, 10 are freshmen or sophomores (four and six, respectively). That’s one of the main reasons why UNLV was picked to finish sixth in the Mountain West preseason poll.
The good news for UNLV is that the team is experienced at key spots. Senior Shakur Juiston figures to be one of the most productive big men in the conference, and senior guard Kris Clyburn is the longest-tenured Rebel heading into his third season in Las Vegas. The squad will also get a boost from point guard Noah Robotham, a fifth-year senior who will play a big role as a walk-on this season.
At the Mountain West media summit on Tuesday, Menzies acknowledged the team’s unbalanced roster construction but said he expects the veterans to help the youth develop.
“We’re just starting to see the young kids perform,” Menzies said. “However, I do think there’s an anchor in our program in Noah and Shakur and Kris that is pretty strong. They have to have a good year for us to have a good year. All three guys are aware of that, and if they do and some of that young talent surfaces the way I think it will, then hopefully we finish a little bit higher than the projections.”
Juiston will be counted on to carry the biggest load on the court. The 6-foot-8 New Jersey native was a second-team All-MWC selection last year after bruising his way to 14.6 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, and he flashed a soft touch as well, as he shot on 63.9 percent from the field. But much of that production was recorded as the second option, with opponents devoting much of their attention to center Brandon McCoy (16.9 points per game).
Now that McCoy has moved on, Juiston will have to step up not just as a box-score stuffer, but as a leader as well. He’ll often be on the court next to young centers like Mbacke Diong (sophomore) and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (freshman), so he’ll play an important role in bringing them along. And sophomore Tervell Beck projects to take over as the starting power forward after Juiston graduates, so in a sense Juiston will help develop his own replacement.
That’s exactly how Menzies wants the cycle to work, with experience replacing experience. Juiston said he’s up to the task, and his advice to the youngsters is to forget about any perceived depth-chart hierarchy and focus on contributing in any way they can. If that happens, playing time and everything else will take care of itself.
“I know a lot of people like juniors and seniors on the court,” Juiston said. “When I was a freshman in junior college, people frowned upon me because I was a freshman playing starter minutes, and I just took that and ran with it. It was motivation for me. I talked to some of the freshmen and sophomores [at UNLV], like don’t get all caught up in the hype or even the critics. Just play your game and produce. Do what you can do, don’t do what you can’t do. Just try to be the best at what you can do and just contribute as much as you can.”
Robotham will take on similar leadership responsibilities in the backcourt. If he starts at point guard, he’ll often be playing alongside a pair of freshman shooting guards in Bryce Hamilton and Trey Woodbury. And sophomore guard Amauri Hardy could be in line to take over at the point next year, while also seeing minutes at shooting guard this season.
Robotham takes his job as a teacher seriously and will try to impart as much wisdom as he can over the next six months.
“I think I can speak from experience,” Robotham said. “I’ve been the freshman, deer in the headlights and trying to learn how to play the game. I just think the biggest thing is keeping their confidence up, kind of giving experience that I have because I dealt with some trials and tribulations that hopefully I can relay to them.”
While the Rebels appear to have rock-solid leadership in place with Robotham and Juiston, there’s still only one true way for Menzies’ program to get old.
“I think the best thing for them is going to be experience on their own,” Robotham said. “I can tell them a whole lot of stuff, but they have to go out there and experience it.”