MORGANTOWN — In the end, Derek Culver holds West Virginia’s future in his hands.
Not just this year, but this year and beyond.
See, even playing on a team with the other ultra-talented big man Oscar Tshiebwe and the dynamic guard Deuce McBride, he is the focal point of the team.
Don’t believe it? Ask Bob Huggins, the coach, who has been dominating his practices.
“The person who dominates practice is Derek,” Huggins said. “Derek’s team generally wins all the time. Derek gets the majority of the rebounds. And they look to throw it inside to Derek quite a bit, particularly when it’s a close situation in practice.”
Derek Culver is an impact player, and has been since he arrived in Morgantown and will be until he leaves, which most believe will be after this season.
But his legacy will live on even after then, for Culver is not a selfish person out to only push himself to the NBA.
He has worked hard with Tshiebwe, who was a raw talent when he arrived, and helped him move forward.
And, while he spent the off-season and now the preseason working on his game, he also is working with the Mountaineers young big men, players like 6-10 freshman Isaiah Cottrell from Las Vegas via Huntington Prep and 6-10 freshman Seny Ndiaye from Dakar, Senegal, also via Huntington Prep.
How good can Cottrell be? This is the way Culver put it and he should know, for he’s been going against him all pre-season now.
“Isaiah, he has all the tools,” Culver said. “Isaiah can do anything Isaiah wants to do. If Isaiah really, really wants to take it serious he’s a guy who can play in the NBA for sure.”
Think about that. Here’s a guy who has yet to play his first college game and the key big man on the team is talking about him being a sure NBA player.
“He has all the tools.” Culver said. “He can put the ball on the floor. He can shoot. He can rebound.”
Huggins is in total agreement.
“He’s a very skilled guy,” Huggins said when practice was beginning. “He passes it well, shoots it well, handles it probably better than most of our bigs.”
But it doesn’t come easy at this level.
“I think he would be the first to tell you it’s hard particularly for a big because people are bigger, strong faster,” Huggins said. “They get to the ball so much faster. They’re so much harder to move and he’s finding that out. I think it’s great for him that he gets to play against Derek and Oscar, to play against Gabe Osabuohien. You’re playing against men. it’s not high school anymore.
“You’re playing against real men and I think that can do nothing but help him.”
See, skills are great here, but as Culver notes, you need more than that.
“Isaiah has to get tougher. I’ve told him that,” Culver said. “That’s just him being younger. If you are young and are equipped with those type of tools, a lot is going to be expected out of you. I told him that because that’s how it was my freshman year. Therefore, when you get hit by a team’s defense with all they can offer you, you have to weather the storm and figure things out.”
That’s what Culver is trying to help him do every day in practice, and it’s no different with Ndiaye, who has further to go than Cottrell.
“Seny is a very high-energy guy. He’s going to play 110 percent every single play,” Culver said. “He’s still a little rough, he’s young, he’s going have his little ups and downs, but he’s a hard worker. If he doesn’t get it the first or second time, you can bet the third or fourth time he will not mess it up at all.
“That’s the type of person he is. He’s always going to try and get better.”
So Huggins has loaded up big guys to move in when Culver and Tshiebwe move on, but first there’s a matter of the upcoming season and Culver has worked hard to improve his game.
“[I worked on] playing — stretched out a little bit more. I’m accustomed to playing on the block. I’m talking about playing on the wing, catch the ball, one dribble, two dribbles to the rack or dish the ball to one of my teammates. Just being able to play outside my comfort zone,” he said.
Culver said he believes he is more comfortable with an outside shot now, which will allow him and Tshiebwe at times to trade place on the high and low posts.
“I can feel comfortable taking an outside shot. Last year ... eeeeh. But this year, for sure, I’ve been taking time to work on my jump shot, one fluid motion, no hitch in my shot, looking at the rim, finding something to shoot for. I’m pretty comfortable shooting the ball this year and in practice I’ve been shooting at a pretty good rate,” Culver said.
Culver believes you will be able to see a lot more on offense out of both him and Tshiebwe.
“Last year it was all for the benefit of the team,” he said. “Now everything has worked out for the greater good. For the most part, we are gelling a lot better this year. [Oscar] has worked on his passing and his high post game is a lot more fluent. I’ll be able to get him the ball and he’ll be able to get me the ball.”
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