While talking about the Arizona Wildcats’ newly restored groove Wednesday, center Kaleb Tarczewski managed to string together five of coach Sean Miller’s favorite phrases in one swoop.
“I think what we’re trying to do is just honor the process every day,” he said. “Trying to take it one practice at a time. One game at a time. Trying to really maximize our potential. … Just trying to get better every day.”
Especially for Tarczewski himself.
It’s not exactly exciting to phrase it in those well-worn terms, but Tarczewski’s head-down, day-to-day focus has been a good thing for the Wildcats.
Not only has he become one of Arizona’s most consistent players this season — elevating his game even more since the loss of forward Brandon Ashley four weeks ago — but his patience also might even mean he sticks around for a while longer.
Tarczewski is currently projected as a late first-round pick in the 2015 NBA draft, according to Draft Express, and may not see fit to leave before then. Former Celtics coach John Carroll, who was Tarczewski’s travel-ball coach, said he’s advised him that there’s a difference between being drafted and making an impact in the NBA.
“A lot of people are in a rush to get there and they don’t understand the demands and accountability that’s required at that level,” Carroll said. “So my message to him consistently since I’ve been around him is that ‘you’re going to have that opportunity but be ready when it comes.’ ”
It could be a difficult transition, just like the one Tarczewski has been going through at Arizona, coming in last season with high expectations as a 7-foot high school All-American and drawing plenty of scrutiny.
“Each kid has a path and the microscope they’re under sometimes doesn’t really stop the progression,” Carroll said. “People say, ‘How come he’s not doing this and that?’ They don’t understand there’s a process.”
Especially for big guys. Tarczewski started immediately for the Wildcats last season but had to compete for time, and the ball, all season. He averaged 6.6 points and 6.1 rebounds, but was able to average only 4.5 shots a game.
This season is different. A focal point of UA’s offense, Tarczewski is averaging 10.1 points and 6.7 rebounds, taking 6.2 shots a game.
“I’m definitely getting a little more comfortable and at the same time the team’s doing a great job of getting me the ball in scoring position,” Tarczewski said. “That obviously makes it a lot easier on me, catching the ball a little deeper and knowing everyone has confidence in me.”
Tarczewski isn’t just being nice with those words. He’s talking about his lifeblood.
“You have to understand the psychology of being a big guy,” Carroll said. “If you’re a guard, you can come down and shoot. Big guys are dependent on other people throwing them the ball — not only at the right time but also the right place, to maximize their ability to score.”
Then again, the way Miller sees it, a lot of Tarczewski’s recent production also has to do with himself.
“Kaleb’s been one of our hardest workers from the day he stepped on campus,” Miller said. “That quality doesn’t always transcend to a 7-footer; you always think of guys like (guards) Nick (Johnson) and T.J. (McConnell) as the gym rats on the team but Kaleb puts his time in.”
Tarczewski’s transition has been not just on the floor but also in the weight room. He had just 220 pounds on his 7-foot-frame before he arrived at UA, then gained about 30 pounds before his freshman season.
He’s still listed at about 250 pounds today, having learned to play with that bulk.
While doing so, he’s also improved his shooting. Tarczewski has gone from shooting 63.3 percent from the free-throw line last season to 78.6 percent this season.
Tarczewski recently said that was partly a matter of getting used to the pressure of shooting before five-figure crowds that were staring at him, while Carroll said there were other things involved.
“He’s always been a very good shooter,” Carroll said. “But what happens when you’re a freshman is there’s so much coming at you. You’re learning how to guard, and playing the intensity of big-time basketball.
“Last year, although Kaleb played well, he had a lot of ups and downs. I think this year for the most part he has been very consistent. He’s been very consistent defensively since the first day, and offensively he’s starting to show more diversity and more sophistication, which is hard when you’re on a very talented team.”
During UA’s 87-59 win over Cal on Wednesday, Tarczewski’s offensive game appeared more diverse than ever.
He was assertive with his inside baskets, hit both free throws he took, and nailed two midrange jump shots. He finished 7 for 9 from the field with 16 points.
“He’s a smart player, No. 1, and he’s more sure of himself in the post,” Miller said. “It took him a while to take a 10- to 12- footer but he’s added that to what he does.
“It’s a lot easier for a post player when you can take an open 10-or 12-footer. You don’t always have to be in a crowd or depend on a teammate.”
Now, Miller said, there aren’t many players who can match Tarczewski’s size, strength and agility.
And, of course, Miller says it’s a combination that gets better every day.
“The more that he practices, the more that he plays, he improves,” Miller said. “I think the best is really yet to come for him.”