IOWA CITY — Adam Woodbury had the numbers, which added to the pressure.
Woodbury, a sophomore, entered his Iowa basketball career as a top-50 recruit, the program’s best in 10-plus years. He has the 7-foot-1 height and the hype of turning down North Carolina Coach Roy Williams to stay in state.
But big men don’t just walk in the Big Ten and produce the numbers many expect. That added to the pressure on Woodbury as a freshman last year. He struggled at times to finish at the rim, and his scoring was marginal. He averaged 4.9 points in 16.5 minutes of action and only once scored more than eight points against a Big Ten opponent.
“Last year people expected a little bit too much out of him,” said Iowa junior forward Aaron White. “A lot of people do from a 7-foot freshman. You look at somebody like (former Illinois center) Meyers Leonard, who’s a big comparison because he was in our conference. Freshman year, he didn’t play. The kid played 6-7 minutes a game.”
Leonard’s minutes soared from eight per game as a freshman in 2010-11 to nearly 32 the following season. His points jumped from 2.1 to 13.6. Leonard, who also stands 7-1, left Illinois after his sophomore year and was drafted No. 11 overall in the 2011 NBA draft.
“It’s just so hard to come in and immediately impact the game as a freshman, especially when you’re 7-foot,” White said. “It takes a little bit longer to develop as a big guy than it does as a guard.”
Woodbury’s impact was felt in other areas besides scoring, however. He and White set a school record for single-season starts with 38. Woodbury was third on the team in rebounding (4.8 per game) and his 29 blocked shots were the seventh-most in team history.
Far beyond the numbers were the intangibles he brought to Iowa. At 7-1, he prevented opposing guards from driving to the basket without fear and guarded many of the nation’s best post players. Woodbury frequently set picks at the top of the key for his point guard, then retreated to the basket for lobs or post passes. Regardless of the play’s outcome, Woodbury changed his defender’s position.
“Our defense operates better when he’s in the game,” Iowa assistant coach Kirk Speraw said. “He protects the basketball. He’s one of the best team defenders for a post player, even as a freshman, that I’ve been around. There’s not many 7-footers that can get out and show on ball screens as hard and as aggressively and moving his feet as well as he does and then sprint back and recover and get to the front into the post as good as he does. He’s our best talker defensively. So the things that he brings to the table, both offensively and defensively, are a lot of the intangible things.”
This offseason Woodbury knew he had to improve at both ends, especially on offense. He put on five pounds of weight and gained strength. He worked on his quickness and added explosiveness. He watched video of himself against other centers and added comfort within Iowa’s offense.
“Just having a feel for when to attack and when not to,” Woodbury said. “You can’t attack every time because those guys are big and strong. You’ve got to know when to take the jump shot and when to drive it.
“I’ve been refining my right and left hand hook. Those are the big staples to my success. If I can get those down pretty much automatic, it’s going to help me a lot. Once those go, I can work on different moves, up and unders. Being able to step out to 10-15 feet has been a big key in my development as well.”
His teammates have noticed his improvement as well.
“This year he’s finishing a lot better,” White said. “A little bit more athletic. But I think the big thing is he’s finishing. When you’ve got a 7-foot kid and being able to finish like he’s starting to now, it causes some problems.”
It’s likely Woodbury will score more often this year, but that’s not how he or the coaching staff will measure his progress. As Woodbury refines his post moves and becomes more consistent with his hook, he’ll also open up his teammates. His added strength and quickness will allow him to play more physical on defense and prevent one or two fewer baskets a game.
“Maybe some people have expectations that he was going to score 20 points a game,” Speraw said. “That’s not what he brings to this team right now. But he is continuing to get better with his skill set. He’s a tremendous passer. He’s our best screener in getting people open. He’s shooting the ball very well from 15 to 17 feet, starting to gain and figure out a way to score over the size in the Big Ten in the interior. So most freshmen are going to be a lot better as a sophomore, and certainly Adam is going to be one of those guys.”
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