Cam Mack wasn’t practicing. A JUCO transfer point guard — the top-ranked point guard from the 2019 JUCO class and the No. 3 overall prospect by JUCORecruiting.com — had one more class the Huskers needed to hear back from to get him academically eligible. So half of what is presumed to be the Huskers’ starting backcourt for Fred Hoiberg’s first season in Lincoln wasn’t on the court when Nebraska opened practice No. 4 up to the media on Tuesday.
But Jervay Green, the No. 2 overall JUCO prospect in last year’s cycle, was out on the floor. A relatively huge body for the off-guard spot, from a mechanics standpoint, from a skillset standpoint, from a physical standpoint, Green looks the part of a go-to guy on a good team. Green had an up-and-down practice and it’s entirely too early to call him a star in the making, but he looked like the most talented kid on the floor.
Yet my eyes kept watching Haanif Cheatham.
Cheatham took guys one-on-one before practice started, a handful of stepbacks over smaller guys that led to made 3s off the dribble and a few other set-up moves from the triple-threat spot that gave him a step on his guy and saw him finish at the rim.
When practice started, the 6-foot-6 grad transfer wing from Florida Gulf Coast settled in as almost the team’s glue guy.
“I see Haanif as being one of our leaders,” Hoiberg told the media after practice. “He’s always talking and that’s where it starts with your guys. If they’re going to lead they’ve got to be able to talk out there on the floor and you’ve seen that. He’s only been out here for three practices but you’ve seen early on that’s a guy that really will try to talk to the team.
“I think leadership is a big thing, where it starts with him. He’s a tough kid. I do think, defensively, he’s going to go out there and battle. He’s another guy that can make a shot. We’re working a lot of fundamentals, especially with the guys that are just starting with our practicing, but I’ve loved what I’ve seen out of Haanif. I think he’s got a chance to have a great year.”
Talking is an issue right now, Hoiberg admitted. It’s early and the team is completely stitched together with guys from all over the place, so it’d be a shock if it wasn’t, but Cheatham was the guy directing things. The point guard of the team without really being the point guard on the ball, so to speak.
Cheatham projects as a wing who can either spot of or handle the ball and run some pick-and-roll. He’s only averaged about two assists a game throughout his first three full seasons, but Cheatham is a smart player with a nice feel for the game. In Hoiberg’s read-and-react system, he seems a guy comfortable with the ball in his hands.
More: Practice Gallery | Observations | Practice Report | Team Bonding
He had shoulder surgery in December, then spent the entire offseason down in Florida working with friends and his trainer to get ready for the upcoming season. He’s been on one overseas trip before — Venice his freshman year — and has advised his teammates about the plane ride there and back. He’s already talking about “controlling what you can control” with regards to setting expectations for this team.
“I come in every day trying to come in and lead us, be vocal, just pick everybody up when times feel a little down or we turn over the ball a little bit,” he said. “Just understanding that, ‘Listen guys it’s early, we’ve still got time to improve but let’s just do it with improvement and make sure we’re going hard with everything we do.’ You play how you practice.”
Cheatham is a self-professed “food guy” who currently doesn’t know where any of the good food spots are in his new home. That he’s already comfortable enough out on the court and in the locker room being the voice of the team is something special considering how unknown his environment is to him.
“Can you teach those little things? Can you teach guys to be better communicators? It’s an innate quality in Haanif, he’s got it in him,” Hoiberg said. “A lot of that probably stems from the fact that he’s played at a high level. He started at Marquette, and to get closer to his mother he went down to Florida Gulf Coast. But he’s played in two very good systems where I think he’s probably been forced to do that. You can tell he’s got it in him. We could tell when we were recruiting him that he was going to be one of our better leaders.”
Both he and guard Dachon Burke — the two guys made available to the media after practice — talked about their experiences transferring. They agreed the most important thing a new team can do is just get comfortable being uncomfortable. They’re almost going to have to force the issue a little bit when it comes to building this team.
The fast-approaching Italy trip will help in that regard, but it seems so will having a guy like Cheatham around.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.