When Darien Nelson-Henry committed to Penn, he knew he’d be playing for a defensive-minded coach.
He didn’t know he’d be playing such an active role on that defense.
“I did not expect to be out on the perimeter as much as I am and so active,” the freshman center said. “I’ve always just been the big guy in the middle that just kind of stands there and blocks shots.”
Under coach Jerome Allen, Nelson-Henry is expected to do much more than stand around with his hands in the air. It’s a change he’s come to embrace as a new learning opportunity that will benefit his team.
But Allen has set the bar high — at times maybe even too high — for this relatively young group.
“[Allen] is used to … a more experienced group over the last couple of years,” assistant coach Jason Polykoff said. “We may have, as a staff, taken for granted what some of the players know and don’t know coming out of high school.”
Those habits aren’t easy to break, and as a result the Quakers (2-6) have been slow to make progress.
Allen is extremely detail-oriented on the defensive end, and he doesn’t give out minutes based on offensive play.
“To come to Penn and play under coach Allen, you need to know that in order to get on the court and stay on the court, you better be locked into what we’re trying to do defensively,” Polykoff said. “When most high schoolers come in and say, ‘I need to score to stay on the court,’ that’s not how it is here. It’s the other way around.”
Jamal Lewis has learned that firsthand. Despite averaging just 4.7 points per game, he ranks third on the team in minutes with 27.7 a contest.
“Jamal is earning his playing time because of his defensive effort,” Polykoff said. “If it wasn’t for his effort on the defensive end, he wouldn’t see as many minutes as he’s seeing.”
While Lewis has excelled under Allen so far, the coaching staff realizes that — at least for now — others may be in over their heads.
“The stuff [Allen] does can be very complex when the players are ready,” Polykoff said. “But we’re just not quite sure they’re ready. It has nothing to do with their ability, it just has to do with their experience.”
The attention to detail is particularly challenging.
“[Allen is] so detail-oriented and focuses on the little things so much that getting it all right so quickly is really hard for me,” Nelson-Henry said.
Nelson-Henry identified ball pressure, fronting the post and hedging ball screens as areas for improvement.
Lewis’ challenge lies in learning his placements so that “when the ball is in a certain spot on the floor … [everyone is] in their exact spots.
“It’s a lot to get. But you just have to keep working and — we’ll get it.”
In Penn’s eight-day layoff over Thanksgiving, the coaches took a step back and stressed fundamentals.
“We went back to the drawing board,” Polykoff said.
In their next two games, the Quakers held their opponents under 60 points for the first time all season. Lewis attributed their success to an increased focus — exactly what leaders on the team like Fran Dougherty have been emphasizing the most recently.
“You can’t expect for those guys to either a) break bad habits, or b) have a full understanding of why teams win at a collegiate level in the span of two months,” Allen said after last week’s win over Binghamton.
Penn’s freshmen, and even those who have been around but not necessarily on the court much, have abounding resources on their sides.
Nelson-Henry has been looking up to Dougherty and junior Cameron Gunter for help with post moves, while Lewis said Dougherty and junior Miles Cartwright lead by example and “calm us down” when the coaches are on their cases.
Polykoff, as a former head coach at Friends’ Central School, recognizes weaknesses of players barely six months out of high school.
“He knows the habits and the characteristics that some high school players play with,” Nelson-Henry said of Polykoff. “But then he can also tell you what to work on to change them … instead of playing down like you were in high school.”
Polykoff also sets realistic goals for his squad. He knows his young guns will be ready when it matters most.
“Once it comes Ivy League time, especially that game on Jan. 12,” Polykoff said, “we need to be sure they’re prepared and locked in.”