How Nate Adrian became West Virginia’s most important player

And why he’s the key for any post-season plans we might have.

Plenty of people were excited when we signed Nathan Adrian in November of 2012. We weren’t quite sure what we had, but he was a local lad, born and raised right here in Morgantown, WV, and just about anybody will tell you that it means a little bit more when we lock down some legit in-state talent. However, while I think it was clear to most of us that he was more than your typical homegrown roster fodder, I don’t think any of us, including Nate himself, could’ve predicted just how good of a player he’d turn into. So how did we get here?

There were actually signs early. Adrian played 18.9 minutes per game during a successful freshman campaign, showing potential as a “3-and-D” role player by averaging 5.4 points on 42/36/67 shooting, while also pulling down 2.9 rebounds and maintaining a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. The team was admittedly bang average that year, finishing 17-16 and getting bounced out of the NIT in the first round, but talent level aside it should’ve told us something that Huggs trusted him enough to play him almost half the time.

Unfortunately, whatever momentum was built up during that first year was derailed before the start of his sophomore season. Nate got the first 4 starts of his career, but his performance dipped across the board, with his shooting percentages falling to an anemic 31/18/65 while minutes and points predictably followed suit. This regression befuddled fans, and the cause was a bit of a mystery until it was announced in February that he’d been playing with an unreported wrist injury since October. However, he still managed to contribute, and it was actually late in that season that we got our first glimpses of his abilities as a passer and playmaker when he dished out 5 assists in a quarterfinal loss to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament.

Last year is when he really started to blossom though. Nate started 16 out of 35 games and saw both his shooting splits and per game averages quickly climb back to and surpass pre-injury levels. More importantly though, when combined with his length and a previously undeveloped physicality, that shooting made him a unique piece in the West Virginia puzzle. We had guys who could rebound and guys who could defend, but we only had only one who could do both of those things while knocking down over 40% of their 3s. Nate allowed us to stretch the floor without sacrificing size, which was crucial in those slog-it-out, half court hackfests where our defense wasn’t generating its usual points in transition.

And that brings us to the present.

After Saturday’s absolutely 100% predictable shocking egg-laying against Oklahoma State Adrian’s averaging 29.0 minutes, 10.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.3 steals, and 0.3 blocks per game, which rank 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 4th on the team respectively. As these numbers suggest, he’s our most versatile player; nobody else on the team can impact a game in as many ways as he can, and only Jevon Carter and Esa Ahmad are even comparable. Nate is the only guy capable of being our primary scorer, playmaker, rebounder, and defender, and the beautiful thing is that he can seamlessly transition between these roles on a game by game, half by half, or even possession by possession basis, making him an invaluable piece of any lineup that we put on the floor.

So why the senior year blow up? The easiest explanation is that this is just what Huggs does. Nate’s just the latest in a long line of 4-year guys that Huggs has turned from limited role players into highly effective college players. Honestly though, in Nate’s case more so than the others, a lot of it simply seems related to opportunity.

Take rebounding, for example. Last year Nate was routinely competing for rebounds with two of the best in the conference in Devin Williams (9.5 per game) and Jonathan Holton (7.6). This year he’s not, and since those rebounds are still going to exist it makes sense logically that someone’s numbers would go up. That doesn’t make what he’s doing any less impressive though. His 6.4 lead our team by a full 2.0 per game, and his 3.2 offensive boards per game are good enough to rank him 3rd in the conference and in the Top 40 nationally.

He’s also benefitted from Dev’s absence as a playmaker. So much of the good stuff in our half court sets is built around Nate’s passing ability from the high post and top of the key. We tried to do some of that stuff with Dev last year, forgetting that being jacked doesn’t necessarily help with things like passing, dribbling, and awareness. Having Adrian in that role this year has drastically improved our half court offense (though it’s still pretty awful), and his ability to see over the defense and reliably throw entry passes has turned that high-low, box-to-box switch screen we run into one our most effective plays in years.

One thing not related to opportunity is his defense. He’s been excellent at the head of our press, both in hassling inbounders and knowing exactly when to spring traps, but has also showed the ability to match up in the half court and make life difficult for a variety of opponents. The biggest improvement he’s made in this area though is with regards to fouling. Or rather, not fouling. Adrian had 103 fouls in 635 minutes last year, which meant he was committing 1 every 6.2 minutes or so. This year he’s at less than half that rate (48 fouls in 631 minutes, or 1 every 13.1), which allows him to stay on the floor and enables us to stay with our Plan A far more frequently than in years past.

The subliminal messaging in these previous three paragraphs is that Nate has a fantastic basketball brain. What I mean by that is, his intelligence is evident in how effective he’s able to be in so many different areas despite being an average athlete. The dude just knows how to play. He has an innate understanding of angles, timing, and probability that allows him to anticipate how a ball will bounce off a rim, or how a defense will react to player X moving to spot Y, or how a ball-handler might try to counter him if he positions himself here, which in turn allows him to react faster than others, which is why he always seems to pop up on the right spots at the right times. It’s a unique ability, and is the biggest reason why Nate is who he is.

Throw it all together and it’s easy to see that he’ll be a central figure as the season rolls on and games slow down. Our team is at its best when Adrian’s able to freely drift between roles and just do “Nate stuff”. High-post ball fakes leading to wide open 18-footers, setting off-ball screens to free up shooters two passes in advance, not touching the ball for an entire possession before coming out of nowhere to tip out an offensive rebound for a fresh shot-clock. It’s all gravy, and it’s the little stuff like that sets Nate apart. As simple as it sounds, he does what he does so that the other guys can do what they do, and if you look back at all the teams that make runs in March, every last one of them had guys like that. Your Shane Battiers and Draymond Greens. They may not always garner the most headlines, but if you ask their teammates who makes everything tick, you’ll always get the same answer.

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