One in a series of player profiles previewing the 2020-21 City Six college basketball season.
So far, it’s all been behind the scenes. Call it The Eric Dixon Project. Seeing something in a player that maybe others didn’t, that maybe the player himself didn’t at first. Not a total makeover. But a project, with an end game in mind.
“We always look at what is the best possible outcome for each player,’' Jay Wright said when asked about Dixon. “What is his ultimate? What would it be?”
A progress report is about to be issued, as Villanova starts its season, after Dixon redshirted a year. Dixon had been a star at Abington High, on the AAU circuit, impressive at youth USA Basketball trials. Still, Villanova’s coaches wanted a different Eric Dixon.
“The best, to us, would be a hybrid of Omari Spellman and Kris Jenkins,’' Wright said. “He’s got the ability to be as good a shooter as Jenkins. He’s got the ability to rebound like Spellman. The guy I kind of think about, with toughness in the post, like a left-handed John Pinone.”
If you dig back into your Villanova history, it’s hard to find higher praise than that. Dixon, despite being state player of the year at Abington, was not an automatic Villanova recruit. If he’s got 255 pounds now on his 6-foot-8 frame, there was more then. Wright remembers watching him, not seeing the pace up and down the floor he expects, saying to an assistant, “I don’t know. He’s a great kid. He’s talented. I don’t know if he’s going to want to do the things …”
They came up with a simple solution on that thought, about the work required: Ask him.
“We learned both parents were educators,’' Wright said, noting that the questions from the family were always about long term goals.
“They never came off like, you’re going to be the best thing since sliced bread as soon as you step on campus,’' said Eric’s father, also Eric Dixon.
“I remember going to a game,’' Villanova assistant Kyle Neptune said. “He was so big compared to those other guys, but the things he was doing weren’t like the normal things, just overpowering small guys. He had so many transferable skills. A high-level IQ.”
“He said he wants that,’' Wright said of how they envisioned him playing. “Now, just because you want, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to do.”
It’s not like Dixon had to drop 80 pounds.
“I dropped 25 pounds, a fair amount,’' Dixon said of his year away from playing. “It wasn’t the main focus. I wasn’t too far out of shape but too slow.”
In some sense, Dixon ran into walls faced by every star athlete moving to high-level college ball. Fighting past fatigue. Don’t hunch over. Take longer to get to that point of exhaustion. And working on little things. Not changing his shooting form, which was pretty solid, Dixon thought. Just get the shot off quicker.
“It was just a different level of work ethic,’' Dixon said. “I felt like I worked really hard in high school, compared to other high-schoolers. Once I got here, it was very different. I was sore after the first two weeks.”
“Everywhere,’' Dixon said.
“Eric gave up everything at first,’' his father said. “He gave up ketchup. I was talking to Eric on the phone. He happened to be ordering dinner at the time, the first time I ever heard anyone order a chicken Caesar salad, hold the Caesar, hold the croutons. Basically, chicken and lettuce.”
“I think they’ll be surprised,’' Dixon said of what people see. “I don’t want to say I’m, like, something completely different. I still play my game. I play harder, defend better, move faster. But I’m not going to be crossing over, shooting crazy threes. I’ll be setting screens, rebounding.”
“He can pass,’' Wright said. “He really knows the game. He’s got an old-school post-up mindset that is so rare nowadays.”
At some point last season, those attributes could have helped Villanova. Did Wright consider burning Dixon’s redshirt year?
“Yes,’' Wright said. There were conversations. “It wasn’t close. But there were just times in practice, we had days we couldn’t stop him in the post. ‘Well, what do you think?’ We’d talk about it for like 10 or 15 minutes. Then we’d say, ‘No, we can’t.’ I can’t remember if we ever went to him. Ask him.”
“I was not included in those conversations,’' Dixon said. “I mean, it would have been a tough decision … Obviously, if Coach would have come to me and said, ‘I think we need to do this,’ obviously I’d do anything for my teammates.”
It was not easy to sit out. People calling the family, saying, what’s wrong? But getting on the court starting past the halfway point of a season is like jumping on a moving train. Dixon already had passed a stress test of sorts. He had committed to Villanova ahead of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. When Robinson-Earl said he was coming, it could have been easy for Dixon to say, “Hey, those are supposed to be my minutes. I’m out.”
“That’s not what we do,’' Dixon’s father said, noting all sorts of high schools had gone after his son, but staying at Abington worked out perfectly. “We kind of commit and go with that. We kind of looked at it, really looked at it, said, ‘Wow, this could be something big if he’s willing to work even harder than he’s ever thought about working.’ ’'
Wright has mentioned Dixon as a candidate to start this year, but he more likely will come off the bench.
“The first time since sixth grade that Eric won’t be at the top of the scouting report,’' his father said, framing that as an exciting development.
“We really look at him down the line as a potential big-time go-to guy,’' Wright said.
“What we really asked him to do, it’s not like anyone is saying, ‘Hey, Eric, we’re going to need you to grow four inches or put three or four inches on your vertical,’ ’' Neptune said.
Nobody is in the prediction business for how fast Dixon comes along.
“He does a little bit of everything out there. There is nothing he is not good at offensively,’' Neptune said.
Back to the initial recruiting talk. The conversation hasn’t really changed. Dixon lays out what will get him playing time.
“Doing all the little things with the same intensity I always did at the offensive end,’' Dixon said. “At both ends.”
He knows the story of all sorts of previous Villanova players who took their own path, previous projects. “You saw how they finished,’' Dixon said.