Inside the rapid rise of Bluejays big man Justin Patton

Wednesday January 18th, 2017

In June 2015, Creighton coach Greg McDermott invited Justin Patton to take a tour of the campus and meet in the coach’s office. Patton had just completed his junior season at Omaha North High School, which is located four miles from Creighton’s campus, so he had been to the university countless times. He had no reason to believe this visit would be different—that is, until McDermott surprised him by offering a scholarship. “I accepted instantly. He couldn’t even get the sentence out before I said yes,” Patton recalls. “I didn’t have any other offers. I was just sitting there hoping that I could play at this school.”

Last week, Patton returned to McDermott’s office for a much different kind of meeting. McDermott had invited Patton, his family and his AAU coach to discuss how they should handle the quickly escalating speculation over whether Patton, now a 7-foot redshirt freshman center for the seventh-ranked Bluejays, will enter the NBA draft this spring. McDermott has long sensed that Patton had that kind of potential, but he could never have imagined it would be realized so quickly. “When he first got here, he was so far away from being able to play in a college game,” McDermott says. “I’ve never coached anybody who has come as far and as fast as he has done it.”

That is quite a statement considering McDermott’s son Doug, who also played for Greg at Creighton, evolved from being a lightly recruited high school player out of Ames, Iowa, to the 11th pick in the 2014 NBA draft. Doug, however, took four years to make that ascent. Patton has traced that same arc at warp speed, and he is still barely tapping his potential. At 7 feet and 230 pounds, Patton has the agility and coordination that is usually found in guards, a tantalizing blend that is the result of a late growth spurt. He excels at tip dunks and delicate passes. He can put the ball behind his back in the open floor and finish the pick-and-roll with authority. He runs the floor like a gazelle. His touch is so deft around the rim that he is making 72.7% of his shots (which ranks third in the country) while averaging 13.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. Through Creighton’s first 19 games, Patton has made five three-pointers and tallied 24 assists and 20 steals. He had 47 of the team’s 87 dunks. And he has done it all with the joie de vivre of a carefree 19-year-old college kid who knows he is holding a winning lottery ticket.

College Basketball
Expert predictions: SI writers make midseason picks for Final Four & more

Or, to put another way, a ticket to the lottery. Patton had his coming out party on Nov. 15, when he scored10 points and grabbed seven rebounds in 29 minutes during a 79–67 win over Wisconsin. Ever since then, NBA scouts have flocked to his games, and they have come away greatly impressed. “I mean, holy moly. He runs the floor, he’s got good hands, he can shoot a little bit,” one Eastern Conference scout says. “He had a play against Xavier where he stole the ball, put it behind his back and passed it ahead to a guy for a layup. Guys his size should not be able to do stuff like that. He’s going to have a decision to make [about turning pro] if he keeps playing like this. At this point, he’d be the second- or third-best big man in the draft at worst.”

Patton’s abilities will be even more critical now that the Bluejays’ starting point guard, Maurice Watson Jr., who was leading the nation in assists at 8.5 per game, has been lost for the season after tearing his ACL on Monday. If past is prologue, Patton will exceed expectations. He was average height for much of his childhood, so when he started playing basketball he was usually a shooting guard. Unlike many young big kids who are pushed into basketball because of their height but never really love to work at it, Patton has long had a passion for the sport. His love for the game was fostered during regular trips to watch Creighton play at CenturyLink Center, where he would sit in the top few rows and wonder if he would ever be good enough to step on that floor.

Patton’s life started to change dramatically when he was around 14 years old. Between the end of his freshman season and the start of his sophomore season in high school, he shot up from 6' 2" to 6' 9". Bob Franzese, who runs a local youth basketball program called Omaha Sports Academy, watched Patton during his sophomore season at Omaha North and invited him to try out for his traveling AAU team. Justin was lanky and raw, but he was still impressive. “In our first tournament he had four tip dunks,” Franzese says. “I called Darian DeVries [an assistant coach] at Creighton and said, ‘I don’t recommend a lot of players, but you have to look at this guy.’ From there, they performed their due diligence and did a phenomenal job recruiting him.”

College Basketball
Bracket Watch: No. 1 seeds hold spots, but Gonzaga, Kentucky are close behind

Patton had a lot of growing up to do off the court as well. His first big tournament for OSA was in Las Vegas. That was the first time he had ever stepped on a plane. Franzese recalls having to wait a long time for Patton to say goodbye to his mother and step out of the car. He had some decent moments at that event, but he was awkward, out of shape and totally lacking lower body strength. His mom used to joke that she would give him fifty bucks if only he could get through a game without falling down.

Patton’s high school team always got a free invitation to McDermott’s summer camps at Creighton, so the coaching staff there had plenty of opportunities to monitor his progress. Even after watching him throughout his junior season, McDermott wasn’t sure what to make of him. “He wasn’t a dominant player, but you could see occasional signs of maybe what was to come,” he says. Once Patton got better control of his body, he became more of a force, but he was still a project. Later that spring, Franzese took his team to a national tournament in Kansas City. With hundreds of Division I coaches looking on, Patton played superbly. Franzese was sure he would be getting a ton of phone calls from recruiters. Instead, he got none. “It was odd,” Franzese says. “The guy was 7 feet tall, but everybody missed him.”

McDermott, however, had the luck of geography. Once he saw Patton dominate at Creighton’s camp later that summer, he decided to make the scholarship offer—the first and last Patton received from a Division I school. Franzese got plenty of phone calls after Patton stood out at a prestigious national tournament later that summer, but Patton told his coach to let everyone know his commitment to Creighton was unwavering.

Eric Francis/Getty

After Patton arrived on campus, McDermott started to consider the possibility of a redshirt season for his freshman. As a June baby, Patton was already young for his age. Not only did he need to develop his game and his body, he was also going to receive limited playing time behind 7-foot center Geoff Groselle, a fifth-year senior. Patton was skeptical of the idea at first, but after he played just six minutes and struggled during an exhibition game against Upper Iowa, a Division II school, he was fully on board.

The decision to redshirt proved necessary to develop Patton’s growth away from the court as well. He needed to learn how to train and how to practice. He needed to appreciate the importance of sleep and a good diet. “He would eat french fries seven days a week three meals a day if he could,” McDermott says. Mostly, he needed to build up his strength. Patton, who weighed a spindly 200 pounds when he stepped on campus, had never lifted weights before. He dove into a rigorous strength and conditioning program that included downing protein shakes in an effort to gain weight. At first, the shakes were 260 calories each, but Patton has worked his way up to 1,300-calorie drinks. As a result, he has gained 30 pounds of muscle.

Midway through last season, Patton could feel his work paying off during practice. “It wasn’t every day, but there were some practices last year where he just made spectacular plays,” McDermott says. Patton spent last summer in Omaha continuing to train and play in open gyms around town. As his redshirt season began, he felt confident and effective, and he surprised himself by how well he played in a closed scrimmage against Missouri. Even so, as Patton was sitting in the players’ lounge talking about the upcoming season with Watson and 6' 3" junior guard Marcus Foster, he told them he hoped he could be a valuable supporting player this season. They replied that they thought he could be something more.

College Basketball
Wooden Watch: Duke's Luke Kennard says 'great teams deal with adversity'

Their prediction panned out that night against Wisconsin, and Patton has been improving ever since. He evinces the classic traits of the late bloomer, which has drawn comparisons to Pelicans star Anthony Davis. Having learned the value of working hard and being coachable, Patton is not likely to abandon those habits just because he is enjoying his first taste of success. If anything, his delayed progress has given him a deeper appreciation of how far he has come. “Creighton was always my dream school,” he says. “I went to all those games, and I was sitting so high up I couldn’t even hear the ball bounce. Now, I’m playing and there’s a kid up there watching me.”

The more things have changed, the more he has tried to stay the same. The message McDermott delivered in his office to Patton and his family last week was not all that different than the one he gave the day he surprised Justin with a scholarship: Work hard. Stay humble. Trust your coaches. Most of all, keep your inner circle tight. Patton says several agents who hope to represent him in the NBA have approached him, both directly and through friends, but each time he has referred them to McDermott. Patton knows he will have a big decision to make when the season ends, but until then he wants to do all he can to help Creighton get to the Final Four. Still, it’s hard to blame him if his head drifts into the clouds every now and again. “It’s unreal that I’m in this position,” he says. “Coach Mac is always telling us not to get distracted. But who doesn’t get distracted when the future is so bright?”

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.