Defense, rebounding, energy.
That has been the theme of the preseason talk surrounding Fred Hoiberg’s 2022-23 team, and one player who fits that bill to a tee is redshirt freshman Denim Dawson.
The 6-foot-6, 193-pound wing from San Bernardino, California, made his Pinnacle Bank Arena debut in Nebraska’s exhibition win against Chadron State. It was his first organized game since the 2020-21 season, his senior year at Orange Lutheran.
“It was pretty exciting,” Dawson said. “Since I redshirted and left prep early, I hadn’t played an actual basketball game in almost two years. So that feeling was great, to see fans and when I got out there, it was like a surreal feeling.”
Dawson said he felt some butterflies early on, but after a few trips up and down the floor he was able to settle down and play. He scored four points, grabbed four rebounds (three offensive) and recorded one steal in 12 minutes, and Hoiberg credited Dawson and Juwan Gary with providing a big spark for he team after slow starts in each half.
“When he got here last year, and it’s what I saw when we went out and recruited him out in in Southern California, you saw a guy that just flat out competed on every possession,” Hoiberg said. “There are some things that we’re still working with him offensively … But I thought he just went out there and really played within himself, impacted the game in a huge way even though he didn’t have a big offensive game. That’s going to be something that, as far as a role that he can fill, give great energy and turn the game around with his defense and then hopefully get us out in transition where he can really finish.
“You see Denim’s athleticism. He’s a high-flyer, going after it. He did a good job getting himself to the free-throw line a couple times today. But I’ve been really pleased with Denim and his progression.”
Dawson scored his first point at the free-throw line in the first half, splitting a pair of foul shots. He showed off his athleticism on his first bucket, skying for an offensive rebound then taking it back up for a layup plus a foul.
“It was like a surreal feeling,” Dawson said. “My parents and I talked about what we thought my first bucket would be, and the and-one happened and I didn’t even think about it really until after the game when everybody’s was like ‘How did your first bucket feel?’ That’s when it really kicked in that I really scored of my first bucket in a college game.”
Dawson originally committed to Nebraska as part of Hoiberg’s 2022 recruiting class. He planned to spend a post-grad year at Southern California Academy but changed course, enrolling at Nebraska following the 2021 fall semester and redshirting. Hoiberg said that experience has been key to Dawson putting himself in a position to see the floor this season.
“Coming in last year was great,” Dawson said. “I guarded people like Bryce McGowens, Trey. They’re at the point where I want to be, so guarding them helped me where I am now, where I’m picking up full court, being a big energy guy, just doing the little things. Since I wasn’t able to play, just doing the little where I could help practice and know I’m making a difference.”
Dawson also spent that redshirt year working on his shot, logging countless reps under Hoiberg’s watchful eye, focusing on footwork, body positioning, follow-through and all the important parts of developing a consistent jump shot. He didn’t attempt a jumper against Chadron State, but he said he’s a lot more comfortable in catch-and-shoot situations than when he first arrived in Lincoln.
“Denim has come a long way in that; now it’s about carrying that over into the game action when the speed increases,” Hoiberg said. “Denim is shooting a very solid percentage in all of our live action. We’ve charted everything. When Denim has open catch-and-shoot 3s, we want him shooting those. He knows he’s gotten to the point where if he’s guarded, you go to the next action, but the thing that we’ve really worked with Denim is working on his catch-and-shoot when he’s open, being shot-ready, having his footwork propel him into his shot.
“We watch film on his shot when he’s falling out of it, when he rushes it, when he falls off balance, which happens. When the speed of the game picks up, that’s sometimes when you go back to old habits. So just trying to get a lot of repetition with Denim. He’s been very diligent in his work in he has come a long way.”
The jumper is the swing skill that could unlock an even larger role down the road, but it’s the defense that will get him on the court early. Hoiberg wants to exert more pressure on opposing ball-handlers, and he’s looking at Emmanuel Bandoumel and Dawson to be the ones at the point of attack as they look to defend the length of the floor more often.
“It starts with Emmanuel; he’s got great feet, he’s got great anticipation picking the ball up,” Hoiberg said. “If you can force the offense to get into their set further up the floor, that really helps you. And then obviously what Denim did in that same position, just being the head of the snake on the defensive end of the floor, being a ball hawk, making them uncomfortable. We’ve got two really good guys that can help us with that, so a lot of a lot of that with the higher pickup point is based on our personnel.”
Dawson wasn’t the most highly-rated member of Nebraska’s original 2022 recruiting class, but he looks poised the play the biggest role early on thanks to the work he put in during his redshirt year and his willingness to embrace everything that Hoiberg and his staff have been preaching all offseason.
“When Coach was recruiting me, he came and saw that’s what I’ve always done,” Dawson said. “Defense, talk, trying to be a leader, do anything where I can be on the floor. Because talking and being a defensive guy helps other people, so I’m just doing that to help my teammates.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.