SEATTLE — The way Tony Wroten Jr. tells it, the most impressive aspect of the Pacific-12 Conference’s most dynamic freshman’s game came out of thin air.
The University of Washington freshman didn’t learn the art of offensive rebounding and the put-back while playing 21 on the blacktop or while dominating smaller opponents as a player at Garfield High School.
“I don’t know how it developed,” Wroten said. “I just started doing it the first game of this season. It just came out of nowhere.”
Already seen as a master at following his own shot, the 6-foot-5 point guard ranks second on the Huskies in offensive rebounds (36, one fewer than 7-footer Aziz N’Diaye) and has established himself as a thorn in the side of opposing coaches.
“It’s really hard to prepare for,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller, whose Wildcats were — by his own count — victimized by 38 put-back shots from the Huskies in two losses to UW this season. “He attacks the rim. It’s fun to watch, for fans, but it’s not very fun when you’re coaching against the University of Washington.”
With virtually no outside game — he’s made just four of 29 shots from 3-point range this season — Wroten has relied almost entirely on scoring in the lane en route to a 16.4 points per game average this season, which ranks third in the conference. A large chunk of those points have come on put-backs, many of which followed rebounds of his own misses.
UW coach Lorenzo Romar compared Wroten’s ability to follow shots and get to the foul line to that of former Arizona All-America Derrick Williams, a 6-8 power forward and recent NBA lottery pick.
Romar doesn’t necessarily coach Wroten to crash the boards as aggressively as the freshman has this season, but the Huskies’ coach does have a theory on how a point guard is able to get back off the floor for so many offensive rebounds and put-backs.
“One of our managers mentioned this. He said: ‘One thing about Tony when he makes those drives, he initiates contact when he leans, but he doesn’t jump really high off the ground,’” Romar said. “To block the shot, you’ve got to really jump. So he gets to the ground quicker than everybody else, and he just gets right back up. I thought it was a good point. He’s mastered it, though.”
ROOT Sports television analyst Marques Johnson explained Wroten’s ability to follow misses during the telecast of Saturday’s win over Arizona.
“You (as a defender) spend so much energy to get yourself in position for his drive that you’re just in no position to rebound — and he is,” Johnson said after Wroten followed his own miss with a layup to give UW a 33-23 lead 13 minutes into the game.
Wroten himself can’t really explain how he’s able to be such a force on the offensive boards, other than to point out that he’s got a size advantage on most Pac-12 point guards.
“So I feel like I have an advantage,” he said. “I love contact, so I always try to take my body and go into the contact.”
The former Garfield star added that he’s put greater emphasis on going to the offensive boards at UW than he ever had at any level.
“In college, every possession counts,” he said. “So whenever I go to the hole, I try to make sure I finish. That’s why I’m always around the basketball.”
Arizona’s Miller compared Wroten to one of his own former teammates at Pitt — Jerome Lane, a 6-6 small forward who led the NCAA in rebounding before getting selected in the first round of the 1988 NBA draft.
“We used to accuse him,” Miller said of Lane, “of intentionally missing his shots (to get offensive rebounds).”
A few of Wroten’s put-backs have also looked conspicuously like self-passes off the rim, as if perhaps he were setting up defenders before getting an easy follow.
“I never really purposefully set something up like that,” he said. “It just happens.”
With Wroten leading the way, the Huskies have risen to the top of the Pac-12, and ninth in the nation, at 12.8 offensive rebounds per game.
“Washington is the best team in our conference at getting second shots and offensive rebounds,” Miller said. “… You have to keep them off the glass.”
Both Wroten and sophomore Terrence Ross are projected to be first-round picks in the June draft should they decide to leave early. “Getting asked about the NBA every day obviously gets frustrating,” Wroten said Tuesday. “But reporters are just doing their job. You can’t really get mad at them. They’re trying to help. I just politely answer their question.” … Romar said N’Diaye, a junior big man, will “eventually” require surgery on his injured left wrist but added that he’ll continue to play through the pain this season. … Wroten, who has been nursing a sore thigh for most of this month, said Tuesday that he feels as healthy as he has in awhile. “This was the first week that I’m really back to my old self,” he said. “No more injuries, I’m close to 100 percent, so I’m feeling great.”