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Versatile freshman Wood earning spot in Rebels rotation

In Chris Wood’s dreams, he’s in a one-on-one matchup with Kevin Durant and matching the three-time NBA scoring champion shot for shot.

At this moment in time, that’s just fantasy. The 6-foot-10-inch UNLV freshman looks a lot like Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder star, and plays somewhat like him. Wood has a 7-3 wingspan and an ability to shoot from long range.

But to compare the two now is unfair to Wood, who turned 18 in September and still has a long way to grow as a player.

“I have a lot of work to do. I think I’m getting better,” Wood said. “I’m practicing well and doing well in the games, so I think the sky is the limit.”

Wood just recently started earning meaningful minutes as a reserve in the Rebels’ rotation, where he figures to stay for the remainder of the season.

UNLV (4-4) plays four games in the Las Vegas Classic in the next six days, a stretch that begins against Radford (6-3) at 7 p.m. today at the Thomas &Mack Center. The Rebels host Sacred Heart on Friday before facing Santa Clara in Sunday’s semifinal round at Orleans Arena.

Radford, off a 75-62 loss at Santa Clara on Monday, is considered a contender in the Big South Conference. The Highlanders have one of their league’s elite players, junior forward Javonte Green.

But at this stage of the season, UNLV coach Dave Rice is more focused on improving his own team than he is scouting opponents, and developing players such as Wood is a major part of his game plan.

“With game experience, which is the only thing that he was lacking, he has emerged as a very capable backup,” Rice said. “I figure Chris would be a guy who would play double-digit minutes for us the rest of the way.”

Wood played a tiny role in the first two weeks of the season, but he got a total of 46 minutes in the Rebels’ past three games and recorded nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes in a 73-51 win at Southern Utah on Saturday.

A broken middle finger on his right hand and a case of strep throat forced Wood to miss a majority of the preseason practices, which he said “set me back a lot” in early November.

“He got a little bit of a late start,” Rice said. “He has played well, so I’m excited about his progress.”

UNLV assistant Todd Simon, who coached Wood at Findlay Prep, sees a young player who is picking up the learning curve.

“You can see the growth every day with him,” Simon said. “He’s come a long way, and he’s still playing catch-up. But he’s well on his way to being a player for us. I think he’s close. He’s got a great basketball feel. He’s got great confidence about him.”

Wood, ranked among the nation’s top 50 high school seniors, helped the Pilots finish 35-1 last year. But he was not the best player on the team and not always regarded as a high-motor type of player.

“It’s a little bit of misconception at times that he’s not necessarily going hard,” Simon said. “He’s so long, he never looks like his feet are moving 100 miles per hour because he covers the court in about four strides. He’s a glider.”

Another UNLV assistant, Stacey Augmon, played the biggest role in recruiting Wood, who was a sophomore in Palmdale, Calif., when Augmon struck up a relationship with him.

Most of Wood’s one-on-one skill development work is done with Augmon, and Rice credited senior Carlos Lopez-Sosa for mentoring the Rebels’ promising first-year forward.

“Coach Rice is giving me the opportunity,” said Wood, who made 4 of 8 3-pointers in the past three games. “(Augmon) has been been teaching me things. I’ve been working mostly on my defense and driving to the basket.”

Wood, a slender 210 pounds, has the versatility to fill multiple positions. He might project as a 3-man on the wing, but for now Rice is using him as a backup to forwards Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith.

“He’ll add strength. He’s working hard in the weightroom,” Rice said. “He’s starting to understand what we’re doing defensively.

“He has a lot of potential to be a very good player here, and with the way he’s playing, I think it’s sooner rather than later.”

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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