When Pitt sophomore forward Durand Johnson was lost for the season because of a torn ligament, the bench lost its only experienced player and that meant a lot more would be expected of three freshmen.
One of those freshmen, forward Jamel Artis, has met that challenge, giving the Panthers a little spark off the bench in each of past two games.
But there is a catch for Artis — as much as the Panthers need some scoring off the bench, he needs to continue to work on his defense.
In an 80-65 loss Monday to Duke, Artis had a good first-half and hit two big 3-point shots, but the second half he barely got off the bench. He said coach Jamie Dixon made it clear to him that the reason he sat was because he wasn’t playing good enough on defense.
“I have to pick it up on defense so I can help my team out more,” Artis said. “If I can’t play defense, then there is no reason for me to be out on the floor. Most of that is just, I am too hyped. I need to focus on being in the gaps, help my teammates out. That’s basically it.
“I need to help more. I am physically able to guard anybody but it is more mental. I need to know where to be and know the offensive player [he is defending].”
Artis said he is trying to work through some of his struggles on defense and feels like he is getting better, but it is clearly a big jump for him to learn how to defend from the high school game to the college game.
He said the help defense, knowing rotations and understanding his assignments, are the areas he is working to improve. But he knows he is big enough to defend players in the post and athletic enough to defend players on the wing, so it is just a matter of time before he takes a big step forward as a defender.
Dixon said Artis has improved but needs to continue to work on that and his rebounding. Dixon said one of the reasons freshman Mike Young has started at power forward while Artis has come off the bench is that Young has been a better rebounder.
“He has done some things well on the defensive end,” Dixon said. “Guarding the ball screen he has been a little better at than usually big guys early though. He has been thrown in the fire, as has Mike, because they are freshmen playing significant minutes against really good people, but obviously he has done a good job in that area.
“Other things he needs to improve on, the rebounding of course. Mike came in as the better rebounder but [Artis] has done some good things for us on offense … he continues to get better. We ran some good sets for him on Monday [against Duke] to get some open looks for him and he knocked them down.
“But I’m sure since he made some shots, he is the guy everyone is saying should play more. But when we lose a game, everybody should be playing more.”
In the meantime, Artis knows defense is his ticket to staying on the court but his offense — and in particular his ability to stretch defenses with his shots — is something that will keep allowing him to get opportunities to play.
Johnson was one of the Panthers’ best 3-point shooters and provided that shooting punch off the bench. But without him they have lost a little bit of that element on offense.
But as Dixon said, they ran three sets against Duke to get Artis open 3-pointers and he made two at critical times to keep the Panthers in the game before the Blue Devils made a run.
Artis said that his ability to step out and be that “stretch four” that creates mismatches for opposing power forwards is something he knows he can bring to the table every time he plays.
“I know I can do everything on offense pretty well, I can shoot it, pass it and dribble it. It just has been a matter of my confidence level, I have to have confidence every time I step on the court,” said Artis, a 6-foot-7 standout from Baltimore. “For me to step up and have a big game shooting was huge for this team and it is huge for us to be able to win games.
“My teammates are telling me to shoot the ball when I am open. At the start of the season I was kind of shy, I guess, but now I am here and I am focused and I have to do what I am being asked to do.
“I feel like teams are more focused on stopping Lamar Patterson, so if they are focused on him I get focused on finding the open spot and I just catch and shoot. I just need to be confident when I shoot, and when I am, I know I am going to make them. And that’s, again, what the team needs me to do.”
Artis, who is averaging 4.7 points and 3.2 rebounds in 15 minutes per game, said he has had to make some adjustments offensively to the college game. In high school he was able to go one-on-one all the time and score, but those opportunities don’t come his way often now because teams are too good at playing in the gaps and playing help defense.
But he said that is something he also is adjusting to, and, much like playing defense himself, it is more a matter of recognizing things that are happening in front of him and responding to them accordingly.
“Coach Dixon said I am getting there, I know I am getting there,” Artis said. “I just have to keep playing hard every game and keep making sure that I improve at practice every day. I feel like I am learning and the more I learn, the more confidence I gain in my abilities.”
Pitt (18-3, 6-2 ACC) next plays Sunday at home against second-place Virginia (16-5, 7-1).
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.