Minutes before a recent Villanova practice was up and running, Wildcats forward Brandon Slater got out to the court, stopped momentarily at the entrance from the locker room at the Finneran Pavilion, and let out a primal scream.
Slater, for the record, is good at making noise, the kind of player who must have been an energetic child.
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“Extremely energetic,” Slater said after that practice. “I never wanted to be in the house. When I was in the house, all I did was break stuff. My parents wanted me in as many sports as I could to tire me out.”
The story of Slater’s Villanova career may end up being that one can’t keep an energetic man down. Imagine the careers of Villanova’s players as moving on a three-lane highway. A select few get out in the fast lane as soon as they arrive. Others move between the fast and middle lanes as freshmen, or maybe find all three lanes game-to-game. Plenty start out in the slow lane and stay there for at least a season. Slater was one of those.
“That adjustment period as a freshman, it was like a total shock to me,” Slater said. “Growing up, the basketball part came so easy to me. There were very few times I hit adversity like that, on this type of scale. Coming here, I’m playing against guys who would be in the NBA the next year, and the year after that, and the year after.”
“I’m in practice facing an NBA player,” the 6-foot-7 senior said. “I’m living with an NBA player. I had to understand who I’m playing with, being with, surrounding myself with. They’re professionals.”
Slater talked about the older guys telling him that development is all part of the learning experience, and when it doesn’t go your way, no tantrums, even internally.
“Our first scrimmage [Slater’s freshman year], we played North Carolina — I didn’t play,” Slater said.
“I played five seconds when they put in all the freshmen,’’ he said “That was the first culture shock.”
Older guys took him through what the process would be. Paschall and Phil Booth were the seniors that season. Slater talks up their help. Although Mikal Bridges had just left for the NBA, “he’s talked to me every step of the way. He made sure to keep in contact. He let me understand he went through something similar, to stay the course.”
Bridges has gone from redshirting as a freshman to being a key part of two NCAA titles to recently signing a four-year, $90 million contract extension with the Phoenix Suns. Yep, you might listen to his words.
The big lesson to Slater was obvious: “If they’re beating me up and kicking my tail every day in practice, I can only get better. Either adjust or it’s not going to work. They know by now it works.”
Easy to say all the right words, or even hear them. But living it …
“Living it is completely different,” Slater said. “It goes against every instinct that you have. Because you’re not like that growing up.”
Part of it was learning to be accountable for your mistakes. He also found little ways to mark improvement. The first time in a practice when he could bang his chest against Paschall and keep him away from the basket. “I finally stood my ground,” Slater said. “I felt pretty good about that.”
All this comes up because not only is Slater still at Villanova, he’s veering out into speedier traffic.
“He’s a starter,” Jay Wright said this week. “A lot of responsibility comes with that. You’ve got to earn that.”
Just understand, this Slater promotion makes sense. That morning workout, you couldn’t miss him on defense. He’s been that guy the last couple of years. He looks stronger this year.
I got ball. … I got ball. .... I got ball.
What was a bit eye-opening was what was going on at the other end. If you just saw this practice, you’d assume Slater already had been a starter, not working up from 3.5 minutes a game as a freshman to 11.6 as a sophomore to 16.8 last season. You might even wonder if he was returning All-Big East, just from this one snapshot.
The buildup continued even during last season, as Slater’s minutes were weighted toward the back end. He averaged 13 minutes over Villanova’s first 14 games, then 21 minutes over the last 11 games, officially in the rotation as the team headed for the NCAA Sweet 16 before losing to eventual champion Baylor.
That progress seemed inevitable, just by virtue of Slater being such a defensive presence. In games last season when Slater was on the court at least 19 minutes, he had 19 steals over those seven games. Elite stuff, with more than a couple of those steals turning into dunks.
Now that he’s out there more, his coach doesn’t just trust him to take a shot, more like demands it. That practice, Wright was talking to Slater one time after he got the ball at a mid-range spot and started pump-faking, then passed the ball.
“You’ve got to face [the basket] and be aggressive,” Wright said to him.
“It’s amazing,” Slater said sitting in the stands as Villanova’s women’s team took over the court. “They want you to take that shot, to be more aggressive.”
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If you take Slater’s path back further, growing up in Fairfax County, Va. — part of the extensive D.C.-area-to-Villanova pipeline (“Scottie Reynolds grew up ten minutes down the road from me”) — it all makes more sense.
“When I was 11 or 12, I hit a crazy growth spurt,” he said. “When I was 12, I was like 6-foot-1. They just put me in the post. I learned to play like a big man.”
He also had big-time athleticism, though, so his high school and travel team coaches often put him on the wing. Slater on a fast break is not a mystery exercise to anyone.
“I had to guard him [last season] in practice,” said Bryan Antoine. “It’s very hard to guard him.”
“Over the summer, we saw Slate confident, shooting the ball, making plays,” said Chris Arcidiacono, who joined Slater and Eric Dixon, another new starter, at a three-on-three tournament in France. Three-on-three, you’re going to need to show your offensive skills.
“That’s exactly what it was,’’ Arcidiacono said. “Maybe one action. Other than that, what can you do to score?”
If there’s a comparison for Slater’s career arc, it’s not bad to look at current Villanova assistant Dwayne Anderson, who averaged 3.9 minutes as a freshman, 9.2 as a sophomore, 21 as a junior and 26.2 as a senior on the 2008-09 Villanova Final Four team.
An Anderson comparison is fair?
“Yeah, really fair,” Wright said this week. “That would be nice. I would take that for anyone in our program. Because by the end, Dwayne Anderson was really one of our best players, captain on a Final Four team.”
“If you notice in practice, he talks to me constantly, 24-7,” Slater said of Anderson. “Trying to get the best out of me.”
That similar career arc … Anderson sees it, too.
“Just coming in to learn to play every possession,” Anderson said. “Figuring out how to do it for 40 minutes. He definitely has a big role this season. I’m not saying he’s going to average 20 points a game. But when he comes in, he should affect the game at both ends of the floor.”
That voice that was heard as soon as he left the locker room?
“I pride myself on being loud, trying to communicate,” Slater said. “The coaches, they actually do look to me to be that vocal leader on the floor. They want me to extend my voice, make sure my voice is heard whenever I’m on the floor.”
This man just has a loud story to tell younger guys, about life finally in the fast lane.