HOUGHTON - Midway through a five-on-five scrimmage at practice Monday, Michigan Tech freshman Luke Heller ripped down a rebound one-handed, took three dribbles to half court and fired a cross-court chest pass that hit senior Ali Haidar in stride for a lay-up.
There are several factors to note from this particular play, but Heller's control of the ball - from gathering the rebound to releasing the pass - calls attention first.
The first thing that stands out about Heller on the court are his hands. They are massive. Eye-poppingly so.
According to the Weston, Wis. native, he has been able to palm a basketball since eighth grade and there is little reason to doubt after watching him pump fake passes with one hand in the post. Heller averaged nine rebounds per game in his First Team All-State senior year at D.C. Everest High School and much of that comes from a superior ability to win the ball in traffic.
"He has got a set of mitts on him, huh? Wow." Tech coach Kevin Luke said. "He has great hands. Just great hands."
And Tech is going to need the 6-foot-6 Heller to translate that high-school rebounding success immediately this season.
Right now, Heller appears to be the first forward off the bench in Luke's rotation, the primary backup for starting '4' sophomore Phil Romback (who is currently not practicing due to an infected blister). With the Huskies usually going with three guards - most of whom are 6-foot-2 or under - the onus will be on whatever forward is opposite of reigning Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year Ali Haidar to clean up the misses Haidar does not get to.
Weighing in at a solid 215 pounds - trailing only Haidar (240 pounds) and 6-foot-9 freshman James Wezensky (220) - Heller has the necessary bulk to bang in the physical GLIAC right away.
"That's not a problem for him," Luke said. "He is not a weak person. He has the mass to hold his own."
What currently is a problem, however, is Heller's defensive deficits.
Like many freshmen, Heller played mostly zone in high school (a 1-3-1) and was such a superior athlete to most of his competition, he does not yet understand the effort and instincts needed to survive on the defensive end in the college game.
In fact, Luke had the team practicing in a 2-3 zone for much of Monday - cue the gasp - due to Heller and redshirt freshman Kyle Stankowski's current struggles in straight man-to-man.
"It's not that he can't do it, its just right now the defensive intensity needs to pick up," Luke said, adding the zone installment was just a precaution. "Now it's not an effort thing. Coming from high school, you are not counted on to be a stopper and at this level you have to be a stopper right away to be successful. He is trying and we have to just be patient. He has to stick with it and we have to stick with it."
Merely getting used to the increased speed and physicality of the game will go a long way to improving Heller's defensive influence.
And there are few better in the GLIAC to bring a player up to speed than Haidar.
"It is a lot more physical than high school, and AAU is pretty physical and pretty quick but this is still a step up from that," Heller said. "I'm getting stronger in the weight room, but it is still a jump and I still have to get used to it.
"Everything is quicker, every player is more athletic so you just have to try and anticipate in advance what is going to happen. going up against Ali every day will definitely make me better."
The flip side to all this of course, is Luke wouldn't bother worrying about Heller's effort on 'D' if he wasn't going to be a factor in the rotation this season.
The freshman's advanced and well-rounded offensive skill set ensures he will be.
Able to play the '3' or the '4' - though he will primarily play '4' this season due to the team's personnel - Heller can shoot from behind the arc and score with his back to the basket. Heller and Haidar have already developed some initial chemistry, passing well from high to low post between each other and Heller understands the value of moving without the ball when Haidar has it down on the block.
Tech won the GLIAC North Division last season mostly due to a pick-your-poison offense with Haidar down low, surrounded by four shooters. Heller will fit right into that scheme.
"It is nice because your guy is going to leave you (to double Haidar) and give you a wide open shot," Heller said.
"That is going to be my main role, just going in and giving solid minutes and playing as hard as I can for those minutes I get. Helping the team out, however I can."