MCGILL: Different Styles, Similar Numbers for Penava, Whiteside
The Word on the Herd
By Chuck McGill
These days, the Marshall University men’s basketball program has a reputation for offense. There’s the “Danalytics” style, which has led to consecutive years of the Herd setting the program record for points scored and 3-pointers made in a single season.
There are jokes about the D’Antonis and defense, but Marshall’s coach gets, well, defensive about that. The twist is that Dan D’Antoni, the energetic coach with an up-tempo offense, might be in charge of Shot Block U.
“Who says we can’t play defense?” D’Antoni said Friday morning before Marshall (6-3) traveled to play Toledo (5-3), Saturday, at 7 p.m.
Marshall’s Ajdin Penava, a junior forward, is No. 2 nationally in blocked shots with 38. He is averaging 4.22 through nine games this season, which might not be stunning to the Herd head coach or the player, but it is significant.
See, in 2009-10, Marshall had Hassan Whiteside, who has developed into an NBA star. Whiteside shattered shot-blocking records during his one season at Marshall, swatting 182 in 34 games – a school-record average of 5.35. That is, obviously, well ahead of Penava’s production this season, but it means Marshall could be in elite company by the end of this season.
In the past 10 years of major college basketball, only one program has produced two different players who averaged 4.0 or more blocks per game: Kentucky. Anthony Davis averaged 4.62 blocks per game in 2011-12, leading the nation. Nerlens Noel, another pro, averaged 4.42 in 2012-13, also leading the nation. With Whiteside and Penava, the Herd could join the Wildcats.
Penava is turning away shots at a career high rate, but he is piling up the rejections at 6 feet, 9 inches tall. Whiteside is 7-0 with a wingspan of 8 feet. Davis is 6-11. Noel is 6-10.
“Timing and length,” D’Antoni said. “He has the physical attributes because he has length. The other is timing. He’s smart and knows how to position himself. It’s timing and knowing how to do it without fouling.”
The Whiteside-Penava comparisons are not a reach. Whiteside was a freshman when he etched his name into the record books, but he was 20 years old at the start of the 2009-10 season. Penava is 20 now.
“I thought I would be playing like this my freshman year, but I wasn’t mentally or body-wise mature enough,” Penava said. “I always knew I had it in me, it was just a matter of time before it comes to the surface and I start showing it. I have so much freedom and Coach Dan lets me play my game.”
Through nine games, Penava has 153 points, 86 rebounds and 38 blocks. Whiteside had 112 points, 82 rebounds and 47 blocks through the first nine games of 2009-10. Penava has five double-doubles this season; Whiteside had five through his first nine games.
The numbers match, but not the style of play.
“Ajdin reminds me a little bit of Kevin Durant on defense,” D’Antoni said. “He used to try and guard it down low all of the time, but now he’s waiting for them to go up and he’s playing them up here instead of down there. That took him a while to figure out because he had been a guard. He was playing defense below the waist, but now he plays defense above the shoulders.”
Penava, who is from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, said Durant is who he tries to emulate.
“We have the same type of blocks,” Penava said. “We’re not going to get the ball at the top of the backboard. It takes anticipation.”
Penava is averaging 4.75 blocks per game since the season opener. After not blocking a shot against Tennessee-Martin on Nov. 10, Penava has blocked at least five shots in five of eight games, including nine in Tuesday’s win against Chattanooga. Penava barely missed a triple-double with 10 points, nine rebounds and nine blocks.
Whiteside had three triple-doubles with points, rebounds and blocks in his 34-game Marshall career.
“I watched some of his games at Marshall,” Penava said of Whiteside. “I know what he did and how he did it. He’s much bigger than me and I know my blocks are going to be different than his. It’s crazy to think I almost had a triple-double with blocks and no one has done that here since him.”
Penava has come a long way since he first picked up a basketball as a kid, when he was too small and too weak to even get the ball to the rim. Penava loved soccer, but his parents wanted him to find an indoor sport to keep him out of the harsh winter weather. Penava gave hoops a try, and he was hooked.
“I don’t remember missing a practice even when I’m sick,” Penava said. “It’s the best part of my day when I get to play basketball.”
He never had significant spurts in height, steadily growing through the years. He added bulk, from 180 pounds as a freshman at Marshall to the 220 pounds he is today. Plus, he has increased his confidence on the court.
“My mom always told me that basketball is about the mind,” Penava said. “I feel like from my freshman year, my mind has changed a lot. I have started playing more aggressively and being mentally aggressive.”
The rest of Penava’s game has been about steady growth, too.
“Blocking shots, it comes naturally,” he said. “I’ve always had a feel for it.”