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September 26, 2013Jamie Dixon prefers to play freshmen because he wants to, not because he needs to.
With this year's crop of newcomers, the Pitt coach is comfortable that he'll be doing both.
Jamel Artis, Josh Newkirk and Mike Young, the Panthers' three true freshmen this season, are all slated to contribute as the team enters its first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. With several offseason defections - some expected and some not - the new faces will be forced to learn on the job.
"I think we really have guys who are seasoned and good, good players, and able to pick up things quickly. And talented at the same time," Dixon said. "The three guys, the true freshmen, those guys have really played well, really picked things up."
Dixon started two freshmen last season, point guard James Robinson and center Steven Adams. Robinson remains to anchor the backcourt but with Adams choosing to leave school for the NBA Draft, Dixon will have to rely on at least one young big man again as Talib Zanna slides over to the center position from power forward.
Young, a four-star recruit who is from McKeesport originally but played at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J., last season, could be first in line to start alongside Zanna in the post.
"[Dixon] hasn't talked to me too much about my direct role, we haven't had that talk yet," said Young. "But as a freshman, he just wants me to play hard all the time, play defense and rebound the ball. And to run the offense to the best of my abilities, that's all I think he's asking of me right now."
With Zanna the only returning contributor in the frontcourt after the departures of Adams, Dante Taylor (graduation) and J.J. Moore (transfer), someone new will have to start inside. Rutgers transfer Derrick Randall, a junior, is another option but is better-suited to back up Zanna. Junior college transfer Joseph Uchebo is still recovering from an early-2012 knee injury and has not yet practiced with the team.
That leaves Artis, a 6-foot-7 Baltimore native whom Dixon compared to former Panther Nasir Robinson as the type of undersized forward the program has succeeded with in the past.
"I think he's really a great teammate. I think he really wants to please, wants to do what's best for the team and wants to do the right things," Dixon said, adding that Artis lost 18 pounds to hit the staff's target weight for him of 225.
While Young might be the most touted addition to the roster - the type of player who impresses with a combination of size and offensive ability - Dixon spoke highly of Artis' skill set and natural talent, as well. Artis said those skills allow him to play just about any position, a sentiment echoed by multiple teammates, but primarily he envisions himself and Young subbing in and out for each other at the power forward spot.
"I think you're going to see two guys, Jamel and Mike, yes they're freshmen but I think they have great instincts, they have great skills that we really haven't had in a couple years at that position - ability to pass, ability to shoot, stretch the defense a little bit more," Dixon said.
"I think it's going to be a nice addition to our team, especially on the offensive end. Defense, they have some work to do but that's to be expected."
Defense is what made Robinson a staple in the backcourt early in his career, Dixon said. In Newkirk's case, it's a different trait that will make him hard to keep off the court despite his inexperience.
"Josh brings a real extra, higher gear to us offensively, I think, that we've never had," Dixon said of the 6-1 guard from Raleigh, N.C. "I think he's probably the quickest guy that we've ever had. Doesn't mean he'll be the best guy we've ever had, but it's a good thing to start with."
Newkirk knows his role is to bring that speed and athleticism to the floor when he gets an opportunity, especially with the graduation of last season's scoring and assists leader, Tray Woodall.
"I just want to bring energy, just be a great leader on the team and push the ball in transition," Newkirk said. "I see myself as a point guard and a [shooting guard], whatever coach Dixon needs, I'll do it."
That could mean spelling Robinson when he needs a break, or even playing with him in the backcourt at times.
Whichever roles Young, Artis and Newkirk end up in, Dixon certainly isn't shy about what he has in his 2013 recruiting class.
"Obviously we have some youth in the frontcourt," he said. "But if you're going to recruit good players, guys that are ready to play, they need to play."