Culver, Tshiebwe Can Build on Promising First-Year Team-Up At WVU
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A year ago at this time, West Virginia assistant men’s basketball coach Erik Martin, the man charged with developing and coaching Bob Huggins’ big men, wasn’t sure of what he had, although the uncertainty nowhere matches that of this off-season that has been completely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
True, he knew he had Derek Culver returning after a promising freshman season that hinted at greatness and just as true he knew he had a McDonald’s All-American recruit in Oscar Tshiebwe who was physically gifted but rough around the edges.
Still, many questions existed.
Would these two players, each used to being the main man, be able to co-exist?
“Their personalities are different as night and day.” Martin said the other day as he continued to work through the challenges of our quarantined world. “When you’re Derek and you made second team All-Big 12 and led the team in rebounding and scoring, how are you going to deal with Oscar coming in, a McDonald’s All-American who is obviously being promoted for Freshman of the Year and a lot of other awards?”
How indeed? Did they need more than one basketball? Would their skills meld together or would they rub against each other?
Martin soon learned he need not worry.
“Know what, they got along great,” he said. “They didn’t have one issue.”
Culver surprised Martin as he sort of adopted the less experienced Tshiebwe and tried to help him along.
“Derek actually tried to lead Oscar, and I didn’t see that in Derek’s personality before Oscar got here,” Martin said.
It was a case of opposites attracting.
“They couldn’t be more different,” Martin said.
Tshiebwe came from Africa, had only played four years of basketball at the time. Culver was a kid out of as different a background as you could imagine, coming off the streets of Youngstown, Ohio.
“Oscar is always is smiling, always happy whereas Derek, he’s a little more calm, it takes a while for him to get fired up,” Martin explained. “But they really did play well together. What I tried to get them to do sometimes was ‘Hey, man, instead of waiting for the other guys to pass it to them, why don’t you guys pass it to each other?’”
They grew as the season moved forward, yet still are nowhere near when Martin hopes to lead them this season.
To Martin, that Culver averaged 10.6 points and 8.6 rebounds a game as he learned to play a different position and share down low with Tschiebwe, who averaged 11.2 points and 9.3 rebounds a game while becoming the Big 12 Freshman of the Year, was only a peek into their talent.
“Derek is more of physical kid. He was given physical gifts from God. You can’t teach some of the things he does. His work ethic improved last year. Plus, he had to go against Oscar every day in practice so his competitive side got a little bit better.”
If Culver had any a shortcoming it was in that work ethic, something Tshiebwe had no trouble with at all.
“I’ve been in this long enough to know the guys who really love the game, you don’t have to push them. They do it on their own. Derek does like basketball. Oscar LOVES basketball,” Martin said.
Tshiebwe was a unique project, a different kind of kid in today’s world and that may explain how he and Culver got along so well, not even once getting into a practice skirmish even though they would go hard against each other every day.
“Oscar, to be a McDonald’s All-American … what’s the word I want to use? Most of those kids who are McDonald’s All-Americans think they know everything and feel they don’t need to listen to anybody,” Martin said.
“Oscar is the exact opposite of that. He is always looking to learn … and if D.C. had something to say to him, he was all ears. He respected Derek and Derek respected him.”
Tshiebwe was like a sponge trying to sop up information.
“Last year was the first time Oscar became a student of the game. He came in last year and would tell the (graduate assistant) he wanted to watch guys, old school guys on tape like Kevin McHale, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett. He just wanted to learn,” Martin said.
“Guys who have that kind of interest in the game, good things always work out for them.”
And if Tshiebwe was learning from Culver, so Culver was learning from Tshiebwe … learning work ethic. The two seemed to be made for each other.
Martin did what he had to do to bring them along. He taught them what he could, but sometimes they couldn’t quite figure out such matters as spacing. That, Martin felt, was up to them.
“Sometimes your job as a coach is to teach a guy what to do and then let them figure it out. You can’t teach them everything. Sometimes they have to figure it out on their own.” Martin stressed.
That goes for skills and it goes for technique and it goes for approach, too.
“Once again, Derek has a high basketball IQ. Oscar’s basketball IQ is improving but you put them in the best basketball conference in America, you’re going to have some ups and downs, which we did,” Martin said.
Martin can’t wait to get them back together again on the court to see where they are now.
“I don’t think Oscar has come near what he will be,” he said. “He showed a little bit last year, but I’ve always said the biggest jump is between your freshman and sophomore year. That’s because now you know what’s coming, your body has matured – not that Oscar’s body needed to get any more college ready – but I think this is the year Oscar takes the big jump.”
And Culver is inching closer and closer to be the consistently dominant player he is capable of being.
“Moving forward, Derek needs to develop a go-to move. I’ll be honest, sometimes Derek gets the ball and I don’t know what he’s going to do while Oscar, when he gets the ball, I kind of have an idea of what he is going to do … but that’s because he worked on it,” Martin said.
“I’ve never had a great player like Derek. All the great players, I knew what they would do with the ball when they got it. It doesn’t mean it always worked, but that’s how it was.”
And once Culver develops that, his game will slow down as Coach Bob Huggins has stressed over the past two years and make a huge leap forward.
“Guys who work at their game tend to be more comfortable at going at a slower pace because they have a better idea of what they are going to do,” Martin said, indicating that the emphasis this year with Culver will be on that work ethic.
“I think sometimes when guys just get the ball and kind of do stuff, I believe sometimes that’s because they haven’t spent enough time in the gym honing their game. Derek worked on his game a lot more his sophomore year than his freshman year, but me being a coach and being critical, I believe there’s a couple more levels he can go to get better at that.”
The problem is that this off-season has been tough with the quarantine, with gyms closed and even with playground courts closed or having had the rims taken down.
Martin, however, senses this a breakout year for the pair and with them a Mountaineer team that should grow off last season’s return from mediocrity.
“This year, I think the sky is the limit,” the long-time Huggins assistant said. “This is the team we have all been waiting for.”
And while the present seems limitless, the future looks as good, even if this is the last year at WVU for both Culver and Tshiebwe for Huggins has recruited and assembled more big men who will benefit from the pair’s presence, particularly incoming freshman Isaiah Cottrell, a highly touted 6-foot-9, 200-pounder out of Huntington Prep.
“Lucky him,” Martin said. “He gets to go against two veterans every day. That’s what you want. You can’t get better unless you play against better people. It’s like they used to say. If you go to a gym and you are the best player there, you better go find another gym because those guys there aren’t going to make you any better.
“That’s what Isaiah has to look forward to.”
And as for Culver and Tshiebwe’s future?
“Let’s assume they both reach their maximum potential. I can’t guarantee that. No one can. But if they do they are guys who will playing in the NBA for 10-plus years,” Martin said.