I talked to Arizona Wildcats guard Brendon Lavender for nearly 10 minutes in a quiet locker room after Arizona lost to UConn in last year’s regional final in Anaheim. Never used a word of the interview.
Got busy writing about other things. Meant to come back to it. Other news happened. The interview got old. I eventually deleted it from my voice recorder to clear up space.
But I remember what we talked about last March. His role. His acceptance of his role. How tough it was having to be that part-time player, knowing he had a lot of potential to help the team win. How he hoped to increase that role as a senior.
I bring this up now because of what Lavender did Thursday night in an 81-73 overtime victory against Oregon State. He hit five 3-pointers in the second half and then drew just about the highest praise you can get from a coach.
“I haven’t coached too many guys who have a better team-centered attitude than Brendon Lavender,” coach Sean Miller said. “He’s one of our hardest workers, one of our hardest practice players. …
“I’ve never been around a guy that commits to the process like he does. Every day it’s the same thing. Tonight, he was huge.”
Lavender has been easy to overlook throughout his Arizona career. He averaged less than five minutes per game as a freshman. He started eight games as a sophomore — Miller’s first season — but averaged just 3.2 points. Mostly, even this season, he has been clutching to the tail end of the playing rotation.
By the end of last season, as the Wildcats sat, stunned, in that locker room at the Honda Center, many probably thought Lavender was a goner. Arizona was loaded in the backcourt.
Star freshmen Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson were on their way to save the day. MoMo Jones, Kyle Fogg and Jordin Mayes were coming back. Kevin Parrom could play shooting guard, too.
Lavender? He’d be better off transferring in an upcoming roster squeeze, right?
But I remember I didn’t hear a hint from Lavender about wanting to bail. He said he had something to offer. As for the newcomers, he said it’s never as easy for freshmen as people think it is. I left the interview thinking it was possible he was deluding himself, but he was not lacking for fire or confidence.
Well, Jones ended up leaving and B-Lav was right. It hasn’t been as easy for the freshmen as everybody thought it would be. Aren’t you glad Lavender is still around?
For three years, Miller has been saying that Lavender is either the team’s best shooter in practice or close to it. That accuracy didn’t always translate into games. He shot 34.8 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore, 37.7 percent as a junior.
Good. Not great.
“I’ve been working really hard on my shot,” he said.
This is great: He made 5 of 6 3-pointers against Oregon State. He is shooting a Kerr-esque 60.5 percent from 3-point range (23 of 38).
“That’s my job,” Lavender said.
“When I come in the game, I’m one of the best shooters on the court. If I’m open, I’m going to shoot the ball. I’m just glad my teammates found me at the right time.”
His 18 points against the Beavers tied a career high. He also scored 18 against Bryant on Dec. 22. That was nice, but nobody much cared. Those points came in a blowout against the worst team on UA’s schedule.
Thursday night was different. Every shot he made was critical. In a conference game.
“It was definitely more meaningful to me because those shots came at a real clutch time and kind of sparked us,” he said.
That was the career highlight, but Lavender is still a role player. He is averaging 4.7 points and 10.5 minutes per game. The key part is that he is a role player who has accepted his role despite wanting more. Just like he talked about last March. That’s being team-centered.
And he might soon be getting a slightly longer taste.
“One of the things he has settled into doing is to come into the game not worrying about making mistakes or making shots,” Miller said.
“If he misses, it’s not like he has to look over at the bench. We believe in him. He has earned that. You look at him statistically, you can really look back at me and say, ‘Coach, does he deserve to play more?’
“And the answer to that is yes. Not by leaps and bounds, but giving him a bigger window is something that will make our team better at this point. That is a credit to Brendon.”