By Chris Kowalczyk
For those people who were waiting for Wake Forest transfer Jamie Skeen to cast a long shadow and dominate VCU opponents in the low blocks, that time has arrived.
Nearly a year to the day, and against the same opponent that he made his Rams' debut, Skeen reminded fans what all the excitement was about, using a series of drop-step moves and flat-out muscle to frustrate Tulane's defense and stake VCU to a 13-point halftime lead. The Rams went onto a 70-67 win behind Skeen's 15 points.
Three nights later, Skeen dumped 14 points and 10 rebounds on UAB to record his third double-double of the young season.
The difference in the hulking, 6-9, 240-lb forward is hard to miss. Often lost in the shuffle behind future NBA First Round Draft Pick Larry Sanders last year, Skeen found his opportunities limited. To complicate matters, Skeen was adjusting to a brand-new system, the fourth head coach of his college career and a 21-month break between games. In 28 games last season, Skeen averaged 8.1 points and 4.5 rebounds in 20.7 minutes per game.
However, following Sanders' departure to the NBA, Skeen has become the Rams' primary and most consistent offensive option. Through 15 games, he is averaging a team-high 14.2 points and 7.7 rebounds a game.
"I'm getting a lot more touches because last year we did have an NBA player that played in the post," Skeen pointed out, matter-of-factly. "It was pretty much [Larry Sanders'] show and I was a back-up post, pretty much. Now that he's gone, I guess I'm the No. 1 big, so I've got to step up and make the best of my opportunities."
However, basing Skeen's emergence solely on opportunity is overly simplistic and likely untrue. Fans, coaches and players are clearly seeing a different player than the one they saw last season.
"He's more aggressive," senior guard Ed Nixon said. "Last year, he was a lot more passive. When he got the ball in the post, he wasn't sure if he should go score or pass, but now he's more aggressive and he's not thinking about what he's doing while he's playing and that's benefitted him a lot."
VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart agrees that Skeen is getting more comfortable as the guy.
"He knows that he's our go-to player around the basket," Smart said. "He's done a good job of taking advantage of that. Teams have mixed up their defenses with him."
The change in Skeen's play didn't happen overnight. It was a gradual process that actually began towards the end of the 2009-10 season.
Many people expected Skeen, a four-star recruit coming out of North Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, N.C., to burst onto the scene and eviscerate defenses just by throwing on a VCU jersey and walking onto the floor. But it wasn't easy. Skeen was rusty, maybe even pensive, early in the year. Additionally, while his offensive skills have never been in question, Smart wanted to see more out of Skeen in other facets of the game before the coach was willing to give him more touches in the post and more minutes on the court.
"At one time, I think he was playing around 20 minutes per game and he said to me, 'what do I have to do to play more,'" Smart recalled. "There was definitely a desire in him to play more and like any other player, you give him some things to do and some things to work on, and this year he's been our most consistent offensive player.
"A lot of times it just comes back to playing harder, getting in a stance, going after every rebound. When he gets the ball in his hands, he's always been good with that, but playing harder and rebounding more, defensive effort, those were some of the things we talked about."
As the season moved forward, Skeen started to show flashes. Although his performance was perhaps overshadowed by tournament MVP Joey Rodriguez during the College Basketball Invitational, Skeen's 12.2 points and 5.2 rebounds and .675 shooting percentage over those five games were no less important. Not only did Skeen help the Rams to the tournament championship, but he laid the groundwork for a successful season in 2010-11.
"I think it gave him a confidence level," Smart said. "Jamie knows he's a really good player. Last year, unfortunately, to a large extent, he felt like he was kind of waiting in line behind Larry. When you run a play to get the ball inside, you can only run it for one guy. More and more at the end of last year, we ran plays for Jamie, and in the CBI we ran a lot more of those plays for him than for Larry."
This year, Skeen's play is more critical than ever. VCU is blessed with incredible depth at the guard positions, but the Rams lost four experienced post players to the NBA Draft, graduation and transfers. That left Skeen as the only experienced big man. He's answered the call, which, in turn, is opening up opportunities for his teammates.
"He's big for us," Nixon said. "He gives us a consistent low post presence, especially on the offensive end. It's great because it really helps out the guards. You see it on nights like tonight. They collapsed when he got the ball. It opens up pass penetration and wide-open 3-pointers. It's great to have Jamie down there."