Rian Pearson, left, tries to stop J.D. Weatherspoon during practice. Weatherspoon sat out last season after transferring.
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J.D. Weatherspoon is ready to show University of Toledo fans he can dunk.
Not to mention pass, shoot from a distance, and attack the offensive glass.
PHOTO GALLERY: UT Rockets first men's hoop practice
The Ohio State import used the past year away from competition developing skills in a game formerly predicated on athleticism and little else. Early results are encouraging with Weatherspoon flashing a more complete package in Greece this summer and taking advancements this preseason to securing a starting spot when the Rockets begin playing games a month from now.
"I think his skill level has drastically improved," coach Tod Kowalczyk said Tuesday after his team’s third practice of the preseason. "It still has quite a ways to go, but when he’s active, and he plays hard, he’s an impact player."
Weatherspoon, a Columbus native who played in the shadows of two future NBA players at Northland High, is perhaps the biggest unknown on a team many expect to win 20-plus games in the wake of last year’s postseason ban. He is pushing returning starter Matt Smith at power forward, a competition that includes a third wheel in redshirt freshman Aubrey Williams. Kowalczyk said it’s too soon to announce the starter for the Nov. 3 exhibition against Hillsdale but acknowledged "it’s certainly open for competition." Smith, coming off knee surgery in the offseason, started all but one game the previous two seasons. He averaged 9.8 points last year and made 44 percent of 3-point tries.
All remaining spots have been set for some time, with transfer Justin Drummond replacing the graduated Dominique Buckley at off guard. Point guard Julius Brown, small forward Rian Pearson, and center Nathan Boothe will be in their second or third year starting.
Weatherspoon said he’s not concerned with cracking the starting five because "what matters is finishing." He did neither in two seasons at Ohio State, where he never progressed beyond a marginal contributor at the end of the bench. He averaged 6.3 minutes and did not appear in 14 contests in the Buckeyes’ Final Four season of 2011-12. In what was billed as a mutual decision, Weatherspoon and Ohio State parted ways that offseason. He joined Toledo after a brief flirtation with Temple, giving the Rockets a 6-foot-6 post equipped with front court athleticism uncommon on a Mid-American Conference roster.
"I was in my shell a little bit at Ohio State," he said. "Now I get a chance to show what I can do. I’m here to win basketball games and help my team go to the NCAA tournament."
At Tuesday’s practice, Weatherspoon, a left-hander, stood atop the key and skipped a pretty pass to Boothe for a layup. His shooting touch from long distance was off but was fine in the summer when he scored 14, 16, and 10 points in three blowout wins in Greece. Running the floor may be Weatherspoon’s most valued asset, as he moves well and can score in transition just like he did at Northland playing alongside future first-round talents Trey Burke and Jared Sullinger.
"That’s part of my game, being the most athletic guy in the gym," Weatherspoon said. "I think that helps the crowd get enthusiastic, and it helps my team even more."
Weatherspoon said he focused his efforts last year on honing his jump shot and his ball handling. That’s fine, says Kowalczyk, but the coach wants Weatherspoon to play to his strengths. That means offensive rebounding, scoring around the basket, driving, and getting fouled.
"He’s going to make some highlight-type plays," Kowalczyk said. "We’re just trying to get him to be a little bit more focused. But it certainly is coming."
FRASCHILLA SPEAKING: Former college basketball coach and current ESPN game/studio analyst Fran Fraschilla will serve as the guest speaker for Toledo’s annual Rocket Roundball Social being held on Thursday, Oct. 17 from 6 to 8 p.m. on the main floor of Savage Arena.
A silent and live auction will also be held during the evening with some of the items available for purchase including a “Roadtrip with the Rockets,” “All-Access Program Pass for a Game,” Toledo basketball apparel and assorted memorabilia. Advance ticket options are $75 for individuals and $1,000 for a table of 10. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 419-530-7739.