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Creighton Bluejays center Ethan Wragge has shot at celebrity in final season

Ethan WraggeEthan Wragge (Mitchell Leff/Getty)

The camera stands in position at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, ready for Ethan Wragge on this, the first Wednesday in February.

He has earned some celebrity from the three-pointers he has drained for Creighton this season and the viral catchphrase they have spawned: #wraggebombs. Now he is set to give his first endorsement, a commercial for the school’s Heider College of Business.

Wragge is an unlikely star: A bearded 6-foot-8 graduate student whose image inspired the athletic department to create a Lumberjack Night promotion on Feb. 7. But the business school dean directly requested Wragge as a spokesman. After all, who better than one of college basketball’s premier marksmen to discuss long-range plans?

“Finance, Marketing, Entrepreneurship,” Wragge says into the camera, referencing his major, “the best three I ever made.”

In his final season for the Bluejays (18-3), Wragge has a shot to validate everything: His persistence to battle back from injuries, his patience while backing up an All-America teammate, and his hours spent honing his lethal shot everywhere from a cul-de-sac in Minnesota to the Creighton practice floor. His 12 points, 4.2 rebounds and 26 minutes per game are all career-bests, as is his 49.7 percent accuracy from three-point range. That rate ranks third in the nation – even as Wragge attempts nearly twice as many shots from behind the arc as the guys in front of him.

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Wragge is also doing something few considered possible: He makes people stop talking about Doug McDermott, the national player of the year favorite. Following Wragge’s nine three-pointer detonation at Villanova on Jan. 20, Bluejays teammates swore he received a louder ovation than McDermott during introductions at the next home game.

“Especially the last couple weeks, we’ve been clowning him about his newfound celebrity,” Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said. “We’ve been telling him he’s more popular than Doug is right now.”

Wragge knows that's not the case and is content to even be in the discussion. Mostly he’s satisfied with the rhythm he has forged as his career winds down.

“It’s happened really fast, it kind of came up quickly, but my teammates make sure it’s nothing I can’t handle and give me enough crap for it,” Wragge said. “I’m extremely grateful for it, because I’ve never been in this position before. I tip my hat to Doug and how he’s handled this for three years, and how he does it so humbly, like it’s nothing.”

Earlier this week, Creighton sports information director Rob Anderson filled Wragge’s docket with a television sit-down as well as two or three phone interviews.

“Rob, are you kidding me?” Wragge asked.

“Wait until you see Doug’s Tuesday,” Anderson deadpanned.

“He’s been so unselfish so long and has been willing to come off the bench and play the role we’ve asked him to play,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “You feel good for a kid like that, that’s doing all the right things, and now he’s getting some of the attention he deserves.”

The idea of Wragge Bombs traces to two longtime friends and the nickname they gave his three-pointers early in his Creighton career, before it took off via social media. It originated on Revere Court in Eden Prairie, Minn., at the neighborhood basketball rim hanging over the cul-de-sac. There, Wragge didn’t want to jeopardize his form for better distance, so he shot almost exclusively from within 15 feet until high school.

He developed that form from two basketball-playing parents. Brush your hip with your elbow, they’d say, so you know it’s underneath you. Hold your follow-through until you make it. Roll it off your hands, roll it off your fingers. “As I’ve gotten stronger, I didn’t need to compromise my shot anymore, and the range just kind of followed,” Wragge said.

Wragge’s upper-body operation is nearly flawless, which explains the 302 career three-pointers. What defies explanation -- even for Wragge -- is how he accomplished this with nontraditional foot placement. Rather than aligning both feet with the rim, Wragge plants on his left with his right toe pointed inward at almost 90 degrees.

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“I mean, fundamentally, his lower body is awful,” Greg McDermott said. “But he’s so good from the shoulders up – everything is square, his finish is incredible, it’s high,  his release is quick, it comes off his hand soft. When I first came and watched him shoot, I was watching his feet and shaking my head, not being able to believe the guy could continue to make shot after shot with a setup like that. But I was also smart enough to know when they go in at the rate he makes them, we’re not going to mess with that shot.”

Wragge shrugged at the unconventional setup. “That feels as natural as it can,” he said. “It feels more weird when I line my feet up straight to the hoop.”

It just adds to the lore. Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel recently dubbed the senior forward a “cult hero.” That one was low-hanging fruit for Creighton teammates to rag Wragge about, though they were not starved for material.

He cannot escape the digs about his beard. It started as a joke: Former teammate Greg Echinique grew one and doubted Wragge could match it. He did, and then he shaved it in the offseason, and then everyone started asking if it would return for 2013-14. So teammates call him a caveman and others see a giant lumberjack, raining threes on opponents.

A Wragge Bomb, meanwhile, has come to mean a different kind of shot: A couple of local bars have dubbed beverage concoctions as Wragge Bombs, though one of Wragge’s roommates had to explain to him what goes into that (it’s a Jaeger Bomb topped with the bartender’s favorite rail drink).

Still, it is not that Wragge looks or plays much different. It’s that he’s playing better while the new Big East’s television package has enhanced Creighton’s exposure and therefore his own.

Wragge played a reserve role for almost his entire career until early this season, when Creighton’s coaches sought extra pop and made him a starter. But they were only able to do so because of Wragge’s strides as a defender, something his coach calls “a great understanding of scouting report defense.” Wragge better digests the plan and executes it while also bringing enough physicality that he can occupy the nominal five-man role while Doug McDermott remains a four.

Asking career centers to defend Wragge is like asking them to solve quadratic equations on the first day of math class. Trained their entire lives to sprint back to the paint, they must instead find a deadeye shooter in transition. “He’s a weapon because a 7-footer has to guard him,” Greg McDermott said. “No matter how much you practice it, it’s easy to get lost.”

Just ask Villanova, which was carved up last month by Wragge firing away from 25-plus feet on the break en route to 27 points. Or even younger Creighton players, who trail a 6-8 center in practice only to have a bomb dropped on them. This is followed by a well-worn protest: But I had my hand up!

“You have to take away his shot,” Gibbs said. “He has to not be able to get it off. Because just having a hand up and him being wide open – there’s not a whole lot of difference there.”

Big East adjustments to Wragge the second time around – the 10-team league has a full round-robin schedule – could determine if Creighton remains atop the league standings. The Bluejays ranked No. 2 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency as of Friday per kenpom.com, averaging 125.4 points per 100 possessions. So much of that is predicated upon McDermott and Wragge playing off each other and seeing how the opponent defends it, and adjusting accordingly.

How Wragge handles his new notoriety could shape Creighton’s aspirations. “I’ve put a lot of work in, I’ve put a lot of years in at Creighton,” Wragge said. “Just to finally see all those extra shots and stuff pay off, it is a rewarding feeling. But at the same time, I don’t want it just to end now. I want this year to be good and magical for our whole group.”

Though they kid him, Wragge’s teammates appreciate where he came from. As Gibbs put it eloquently, Wragge is “just a pretty simple dude who shoots deep threes.”

Mostly, though, they just kid the guy getting all the attention at long last by giving him attention he doesn’t want.

It was before practice Wednesday that Gibbs and other Bluejays shot around and began to mimic Wragge’s cockeyed toe positioning. They turned their feet inward and let jumpers fly, and it felt weird. They laughed about how his strange arrangement produced such good results. They didn't realize this was the story of Ethan Wragge's life.

“We’ll see who’s laughing in 10 years,” Wragge told his teasing teammates, “when everybody shoots like that.”
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