The Wolfpacker

November 2015 Issue

The Wolfpacker: An Independent Magazine Covering NC State Sports

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50 ■ THE WOLFPACKER 2015-16 WOLFPACK BASKETBALL PREVIEW BY RYAN TICE L ast year, NC State operated on a frontcourt by committee basis. Four players rotated between the two post positions and, while perimeter players Trevor Lacey, Ralston Turner and Anthony Barber provided the points, the big men were expected to han- dle the dirty work — mainly defense and rebounding. Forward Kyle Washington led the scorers down low with a clip of 6.8 points per game, but he transferred to Cincinnati after the sea- son. Junior forward Lennard Freeman paced the squad in rebounding, but had a 14-inch rod inserted into his shin this June, while classmate and defensive specialist BeeJay Anya continues to battle his weight and de- velop his offensive game. Freeman and Anya combined to average just 8.1 points per game last year, and that — coupled with the departures of Lacey and Turner — puts the onus on athletic sophomore forward Abdul-Malik Abu to become more of an offensive threat. He ranked fifth on the team last year with 6.4 points per game and also posted a clip of 4.8 rebounds, second on the team only to Free- man's 5.6, in an average of 19.1 minutes per contest. However, Abu made big jumps in his game and developed throughout last season. After logging 20 or more minutes just twice in the season's first 12 games, he emerged as a starter and played at least that much in 17 of the last 24 outings. In the 19 instances he played at least 20 minutes last season, Abu averaged 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds — pretty significant im- provements from his year-long clips. He also recorded all eight double-digit point outings during those 19 games. Head coach Mark Gottfried saw the light go on for Abu midway through the season, and it was hard to keep him off the court after that happened. He saw the bouncy sopho- more — whose 41.5-inch approach verti- cal jump recorded this preseason would be the best among power forwards at the NBA Combine since at least 2009 — continue those improvements this offseason. Gotffried did not shy away from admitting the Wolfpack needed more from Abu on the offensive end this winter, and it took only a few days after the team's elimination from the NCAA Tournament for him to relay that message to his player. "It's the next year for Malik, sophomore year, and I have much higher expectations for him now after being in our system," the coach noted. The 6-8, 240-pounder went through grow- ing pains in his debut campaign and did not get off to the start he had always envisioned. He didn't log 20 minutes or score double- digit points until the Pack had been playing games for nearly a month. On Dec. 12 against Charleston Southern, he played 20 minutes, tallied 11 points and also pulled down four boards with two blocks. In the five games prior to that breakthrough, Abu had played eight minutes or less in three contests and totaled just 12 points. That's where the four-man battle royale he competed in last year factors in. Practice wasn't easy; in fact, Abu estimates that it was more difficult than games with post players fighting for minutes and trying to prove themselves. "Iron sharpens iron," Abu said. "After you compete every day on this court for practice, you go out there and play someone else and it feels like a cakewalk. "I feel like the best guys are in the gym with me at all times. They're on my team. They're my brothers, and they're going to push me to another level; to something that somebody else couldn't." That hard work on the practice court accel- erated the freshman's development. Although Abu was always confident, the game started to slow down once he gained more experi- ence, and that made a huge difference. "I didn't have the best beginning to the year," he remembered. "Some things take time, and it takes time to get comfortable and find a groove. "I started to learn the game and think less. I feel like it's more natural when you're not thinking. Coming into freshman year, I'm thinking about everything because it's my first time playing in front of this many people, in this setting, at this level. When you start to be calm and patient, you get into your groove and everything starts to go your way." Abu's advancements really showed when the Pack needed him the most last March. In three NCAA Tournament games, Abu was the most used post player by a large margin. After playing time was pretty evenly divided throughout the regular season, the rookie logged an average of 29.7 minutes per NCAA game — an average of eight minutes more than Freeman, who played the next most. The increased minutes were warranted — Abu finished third on the squad in tournament play with a clip of 10.7 points per contest and led the way by pulling down an average of 7.3 rebounds per game. "It was something I knew I was capable of," he admits. "I was just proud to be able to be in the situation to showcase that to every- body. I came in with a lot of big expectations, so it felt good to show people I was capable of what they thought I was." Although Abu's role will definitely be dif- ferent this year, he approaches it the same as when he came to Raleigh as a four-star pros- pect from Boston looking to make his mark in a crowded frontcourt. "I'm going to have to come in with the same mentality that I did last year — just try to get better every day and to help lead this team," he said. "I have the mentality that I'm not good enough, so I can continue to get bet- ter. I try to be better every day." Abu made national headlines last year for coming through on his wedding present promise to an NC State graduate he became close with through Raleigh's Muslim com- munity — the late Deah Barakat, who was killed along with his wife and her younger sister in the tragic Chapel Hill shooting last February — with wins over North Carolina and Duke. Abu fulfilled that guarantee, and it will be hard to ever accomplish something of that off- the-court magnitude again. However, there's plenty of room to grow on the court and that's the promise Abu is focused on satisfying now. If he can do that, the jump in his produc- tion from freshman to sophomore year could dwarf his impressive vertical leap. ■ Taking OFF Ultra-Athletic Sophomore Forward Abdul-Malik Abu Is Ready To Break Out Abu averaged 29.7 minutes, 10.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game during NC State's NCAA Tournament run to the Sweet 16 last year. PHOTO BY KEN MARTIN "Some things take time, and it takes time to get comfortable and find a groove." ■ Abu on transitioning to the college level

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