Pitt's power forward combination young, talented

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Pitt has averaged 77 points per game through 15 games, and although the sample size is small, there hasn’t been a drop through the first two games of ACC play, either.

The Panthers (14-1, 2-0) scored 74 points in their win Saturday at North Carolina State and 79 in their win Monday night against Maryland.

And in both cases, they clearly could have scored more. They opened the game against the Wolfpack by missing nine of their first 10 shots. Against the Terrapins, they had such a large lead that they spent most of the final 10 minutes running the clock and trying to shorten the game.

There are plenty of theories as to why the Panthers seem to be a little more offensive these days, and while coach Jamie Dixon buys some and not others, one thing he does know is the power forward combination of freshmen Michael Young and Jamel Artis has been a bit of a game-changer.

Those two, Dixon said, fall into the category of the “stretch four” — a power forward who can step out to the perimeter and shoot, but also drive to the basket.

The Panthers haven’t had many, if any, true power forwards with that skill set in the past, but Young (6 feet 8) and Artis (6-7) are skilled and versatile enough to play outside and in the post.

Dixon said that while the two — who average a combined 11.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game — have a long way to go and a lot to learn, they clearly add another dimension to the offense.

“For us, the way we played, what your four man does has always sort of dictated what we can do offensively,” Dixon said. “And we were recruiting them, but just the skills that they brought were ideal for what I think they can do and you could sense that, but you don’t [know] that until they are here. The physical characteristics are there, and the mental ability to pick things up and adjust and understand things has been there.

“I think they may have learned some stuff in the Maryland game when we talked about a stretch four and a guy who can go out and shoot the ball. But, [before that], I don’t think they quite understood it to the level we needed them to.”

Dixon said having two players who are big enough and physical enough to defend traditional power forwards while being able to play on the perimeter on offense creates difficult matchups for most opponents.

And that’s because it stretches out defenses, opening things up for other players.

Young said he likes the role that he and Artis have carved for themselves, but knows there is a lot to learn.

He said their role has been slowly but surely expanding, and their ability to contribute offensively has grown as they become more comfortable and Dixon trusts them more.

“I think we are used to the pace and know our roles and what we need to do, and our confidence level just keeps rising every day,” Young said. “Right now, we are just taking shots as they come, but if I get the ball in scoring position I try to make a play. All of us freshmen are just trying to not be too aggressive but also not be too passive and taking what the offense presents us.

“We have a lot to improve on. We have been able to give a different outlook on the position and become a great 1-2 punch. Whenever we switch and I am in the game or he is in the game, there isn’t a drop-off, either, we both can do the same things maybe in different ways.”

Dixon said that while learning good shot selection is always difficult for freshmen to understand because most are used to being the focal point of the offense, freshmen forwards often struggle to understand the concept of defending on the perimeter.

He said Young and Artis have improved dramatically in this area from the start of the season but, as is always the case with any of his players, they have a ways to go to defend at the level he expects.

Young said learning how to play great defense has only been one part of the growth process for him as a freshman, and that he and Artis have committed to becoming great defenders. And he said the two make each other better every day in practice because they compete and work hard.

“We can learn from each other,” Young said. “I tell him every day, come at me as if you were coming at someone you don’t know. Play me your hardest and I will play you at my hardest every day and that is the only way that we are going to get better. Coach, for the most part, he just wants us to go out there and focus on playing defense and rebounding, so that is what we do. We run the offense and just try to play how we know how to play.

“Right now, the offense is flowing great. … If the opportunity presents itself for Jamel or I to make plays and put the ball on the ground, we will, but our offense is running smooth and we are moving the ball and all of us are trying to make plays.”

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter: @paulzeise.

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