UNLV freshmen still need to grow

This is how the game is played: A college basketball program signs a highly rated recruit who also considered a program of superior stature and tradition. In this case, Kentucky.

Coaches from the team that landed the player — in this case UNLV — go out of their way to publicize directly or through news releases the fact they beat the other school on the kid. Their hope is to create a buzz that energizes local fans while also gaining national exposure.

Once all that is achieved, they switch into a different mode when discussing the player.


It is where things stand for the Rebels and a few promising-but-untested freshmen centers. Beas Hamga is the one who considered making Lexington his college home two years ago, and Brice Massamba is a product of local Findlay Prep.

They are all potential and no proof, exceptionally tall sponges who have yet to enter a Division I game. They are more about what the future might hold than what the present can guarantee.

The best part is that they know it.

"Some days it is very hard, where you feel like you are doing well but there is always new stuff that must be learned," said the 7-foot Hamga, who was born in Cameroon and sat out last season as a redshirt.

"I hear how good everyone expects me to be right away, but I know it takes time. The big part for me is still the language problem. I’m trying to adjust, to feel more comfortable every day, but the language part sometimes makes it difficult to understand everything I need to."

UNLV coach Lon Kruger’s perfect world at center this season has the Hamga-Massamba duo backing up junior college transfer Darris Santee, who at this point tops the other two in maturity and experience and most everything else when it comes to who should start.

Different games create different issues — foul trouble, matchups, possible injuries — but Kruger would prefer at this stage to play Santee 20 to 30 minutes a game and the team not lose much of anything when the junior sits and one of the freshmen enters.

It would be the ideal formula because the transition from prep to college center can be like that of egg to butterfly. You don’t go to sleep one night all unrefined and inconsistent and wake up all dominant and dependable. Kevin Love wasn’t even that good, and he was as terrific a college center as we’ve seen in a while.

It’s tougher for high school centers than guards to make the Division I jump. There just aren’t as many outstanding prep big men. Most nights in high school, Hamga or Massamba competed against either smaller players or those their size who weren’t nearly as good. Guards are different. Quality guards are like Miley Cyrus. They’re everywhere.

"Of course, it varies with the individual, but I like what I’ve seen from the (freshmen centers)," Kruger said. "Right now, the game at the offensive end typically is (tougher) for them. It moves faster and quicker than what they’re perhaps used to.

"It’s only natural fans want all higher-name recruits to have an impact right away. I’ve told Beas to not worry about the expectations of others. Stay the course. They’re both doing a great job."

Massamba has been slowed the past week with a sore left Achilles, meaning every practice the freshman sits decelerates his progress. Hamga, too, fights the roller-coaster most freshmen are sure to ride — two days up, one down, always more twists and turns approaching.

But if anything, proof is in the NBA. Louis Amundson and Joel Anthony are playing in the league, which for anyone who saw either during their UNLV careers is sufficient evidence as to how far big men can come under Kruger.

UNLV had no size last season and made a second straight NCAA Tournament. It has more than enough now, which is a good problem to have. It has two freshmen that a few years from now could be considered among the better Mountain West Conference centers.

But today, they are greener than your average eco-friendly advertisement.

"I am Beas Hamga," the center said following practice Monday. "Freshman. Never play college basketball. Have long ways to go. Have to get bigger, stronger, better. Need to focus on the right things to do."

The best part: Everyone that matters (meaning UNLV coaches and players) knows it. First you have the publicity, then the expectations, and now the reality.

It’s how the game is played.

Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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