LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- With Wayne Blackshear, first there was the wait. After suffering a shoulder injury early last season, whispers began about when he might return to the University of Louisville basketball team. It became a weekly question. What have you heard about Blackshear?
Then, there was the weight. U of L coach Rick Pitino harped on it. Instead of staying in shape during his injury, Blackshear was shocked to see that he'd gained more than 25 pounds. And even in this offseason, Pitino has talked of getting Blackshear into better shape, so much so that he would hear about it when he was out in public.
Two games into a new basketball season at U of L, the weight is off, but the wait is not over for Blackshear. He still is not the player he was in high school, nor the player he expects to be. Recovering from major shoulder surgery is a slow process, both physically and mentally.
But Pitino sought to give Blackshear a mental shove in Thursday night's game against Samford.
He gave Blackshear his second career start, and first of the season, and the sophomore responded with the game's first points and his best rebounding game as a Cardinal. He finished with 13 points, five rebounds and two steals in 24 minutes in an 80-54 U of L victory.
"I had a little more in my step," Blackshear said at his locker after the game. ". . . I felt like I played aggressive enough and a little like my old self."
Blackshear operating at a high level could well be the difference between U of L being a very good team and an elite team. Since his highlight-reel double-pump dunk in the Final Four loss to UK, U of L fans have been excited to see him pick up where he left off. But Pitino warned that one dunk doesn't make a comeback, and that Blackshear wasn't ready for major minutes then, or even heading into the preseason.
But Blackshear has made steady progress in practice. Coaches are on him to rebound more and to attack the rim. On Thursday night, he began to do that a bit more at game speed.
Blackshear made just 1 of 8 three-point attempts, but made all three of his two-point tries. Instead of being a jump-shooter, coaches are hoping to make Blackshear a rugged player who doesn't mind mixing it up around the basket.
But at the same time, Pitino acknowledged Thursday night that Blackshear is one of those players who is going to have to knock down perimeter shots for the Cards.
"We need a lot of work with Wayne on his shooting," Pitino said. "Technique-wise we need to work with a lot of our guys on shooting. I thought he did some really good things. He has to pass the ball better, but he rebounded the ball, he went after it, he was very active."
In fact, Pitino says when the "Battle 4 Atlantis" resumes next week in the Bahamas, he expects Blackshear will start at the small forward spot with Peyton Siva at point and Russ Smith at shooting guard. Luke Hancock struggled again with his shooting on Thursday, was just 1-for-10 from three-point range and 1-for-12 for the game.
"He is pressing," said Pitino, who acknowledged that his own expectations for Hancock may have added to the pressure on the transfer. ". . . It happens. There are 22,000 people, you are coming off double shoulder surgery, and you are pressing to make your shots. It is almost like a hitter in a slump. You are dying to make contact and you will get out of it in a game, and you will be out of it for good."
As for Blackshear, he got a three-pointer to go late in the game, but began to look more comfortable as the game went on.
"He's playing a lot better," teammate Gorgui Dieng said. "He needs to improve his confidence. We just want to get him ready before the Big East starts. We need him to win. The way he played tonight, the way he rebounded, if he can give us that same effort every night we're going to be all right."
It's been a long wait, and Blackshear said he has learned something about patience.
"You can't rush anything," Blackshear said. "You've got to let the game come to you and take your time and let things fall into place. I talk to my stepdad a lot. He played basketball when he was younger, and he keeps telling me about the mental part of the game and staying patient. You've got to take baby steps. I really want to get back to how I played, but I know it's going to be little by little and it's a long season."
A long season, but Blackshear, Pitino and Cardinal fans hope it isn't that long a wait.
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