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The evolution of Penn guard Jordan Dingle is in progress

"He’s grown into a leader. It always helps when the guy you look to on the court can verbally do that, and then walk the walk."

Jordan Dingle has his eye on the basket.
Jordan Dingle has his eye on the basket.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

From the beginning of his Penn career, there was no question Jordan Dingle could score. The Quakers opened the 2019-20 season at Alabama, pulling off a big upset, led by 24 points from a new freshman guard. Dingle hit the ground running at a deceptively full speed.

“That’s what people get confused — he’s an elite athlete,” Penn men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue said. “I mean elite. It’s mind-boggling how quick and explosive he is — 42 inches [jumping], at the rim.”

You don’t see it all the time, Donahue said, because Dingle typically plays at a controlled pace.

“It depends on the game, how the defense is playing me, but I try to never get myself sped up,” Dingle said recently, inside the Palestra. “I try not to let the game move too fast for me to comprehend because the game is pretty fast. There’s a lot of information that I have to take in, where the defense is coming from, where my guys are moving. I have to think two steps ahead.”

So how does an elite athlete, a scorer from the start, keep evolving?

Dingle and his coaches have those conversations. This is Dingle’s fourth year on campus, his third season playing since the pandemic canceled Penn’s 2020-21 season. His role within the team continually evolved since Penn already had strong leaders when Dingle arrived, yet the Quakers had only three players last season who saw meaningful previous Division I time.

Also, Dingle had the ball.

“Off the court, he’s grown into a leader,’’ Donahue said. “I think he came in here a little shy and introverted. It always helps when the guy you look to on the court can verbally do that, and then walk the walk. Sort of saying that he’s going to be that player, and he’s done that.”

Dingle’s Penn stats are already historically significant. Last season, he scored at least 30 points six times. Ernie Beck, a mere seven decades earlier in 1951-52, is the only Quakers player to have done that — also six times. Dingle also did it in the big games. Winning the home-and-home against Harvard gave Penn breathing room for one of the four Ivy League playoff spots, and really was key to keeping Harvard out of the playoffs. Dingle scored 31 and then 33 in those two, and had 31 in a big home win over Yale.

Dingle’s 880 points through two seasons? Only four players in Penn’s history have more (led by Beck with 1,154), and none in the last 40 years. His 20.8 points per game average last season was the most since Keven McDonald averaged 22.3 in 1977-78.

All historic stuff. The next question is the big question, can Dingle lead Penn back to the NCAA Tournament?

“He can score at every level,” Donahue said. “In terms of threes, at the rim, floaters. Top 10 in the nation in 12-foot floaters. And he gets to the rim as much as anyone in the country, and very few are guards.”

So what’s the next step?

“To me, he’s a great shooter, if he just concentrated on that,” Donahue continued. “We’re going to try to get him to be more of a facilitator and a catch-and-shoot guy because he can do that as well. He would average 20 in any league.”

This season, the experience factor is flipped. The Quakers got some last season, which is why they have been picked to win the Ivy League.

“We probably have top five in the country in terms of [returning] points, minutes,” Donahue said.

So the goal for Dingle, in addition to growing as a defensive player, is to “be a guy who can go get eight or nine assists, because people pay attention to him,” according to Donahue. “He does have that vision. … Last year, when we go 8-2 to start the Ivy League, he knew he had to go get 30.”

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The secret to his continuing development?

“Studying film, knowing the other’s team personnel, all those little things,” Dingle said, agreeing that improving his defense on and off the ball is a big focus.

Of evolving into leadership, Dingle said, “I was kind of pressed into a leadership position where it really was only my second year. I really didn’t know what to expect. I had to become more vocal, which typically isn’t the kind of person I am. I’m kind of quiet and reserved, [and I] let my work do the talking. I had to have more of a voice and learn that basketball is more than what looks good on the stat sheet. I had to improve in the intangible things.”

As he was becoming more vocal, what words were coming out of his mouth a bit more?

“Given that probably my biggest basketball idol was Kobe Bryant, some of the things that I said were a bit harsh, that I won’t repeat,” Dingle said. “I wanted to be a voice where people are like, ‘I really don’t want Jordan yelling at me, so I’m going to do the absolute best I can so he will shut up and he has nothing to say.’”

Yeah, that’s the Kobe model.

“I wanted to challenge everybody,” Dingle said. “I feel like this team has enough [players] who are mentally tough enough, who respond to challenges by getting better; they won’t shrink in the face of that.”

Dingle asked his teammates about his leadership approach and got feedback that his words were received as necessary, if, he added, not always looked at it that way in the moment.

More Kobe this year?

“So that’s the other part of it,” Dingle said. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started realizing, ‘OK, that was needed at the time …'”

Now, maybe a more educational tone, talking to teammates about “what I’m seeing vs. what they’re seeing.”

Does Dingle think he came in underrated by opponents? He’s kind of built like a linebacker, his coach said, which can confuse people. “I think so, 100 percent,” Dingle said. “I think even up to this point in my career, people probably underestimate the athlete I am.”

He’s always studied guards such as Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo, he said, how they “had supreme confidence with the ball in their hands,” their heads are always up surveying the floor, “and they would throw to a place where a teammate wasn’t yet, and it was a spot where they were supposed to be in. Whether they got to it or not, that was the open spot on the floor. LeBron James does a lot of that, too.”

Even for those players, a basketball career always is a work in progress.

“Jordan’s very analytical, cerebral,” Donahue said. “He’s very calm. He’s the kind of guy, when I start doing a play [during a timeout], I won’t have time to really finish it, he’ll just tap me, ‘I’ll tell those guys where to go,’ While everybody else is wired.”

Sometimes Donahue said he has found himself telling Dingle, “We need you to go here.” Meaning, let’s rev it up.

His pace, his coach has found, is a winning one.

“The moments aren’t too big for him,” Donahue said about that calmness. “I’ve learned to understand and appreciate that.”