College basketball's challenging transition: From prep star to college role player

By Allen Moff | Staff writer Published:

Nothing humbles a star athlete quite like the bench.

That dreaded dose of reality nearly every player absorbs at some point in their career, when you're no longer elite -- or even one of the best on your team -- is extremely difficult for standout performers in any team sport to gulp down.

But how players cope with riding the dreaded pine often goes a long way toward shaping their career, both on and off the field of play.

The first benching always seems to cut the deepest.

LeBron James pouted and complained so vehemently after being left out of Team USA head coach Larry Brown's starting lineup at the 2004 Athens Olympics that the powers-that-be nearly left him off the roster entirely for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. But by then he was the best overall player on the planet, so he was ultimately welcomed back with open arms.

Still, even James found out the hard way that going from the star to the standby is extremely difficult to handle, in every way imaginable.

CULTURE SHOCK

Khaliq Spicer arrived on Kent State University's campus in 2012 as the 41st-best center recruit in the country, according to ESPN.com. He was fresh off a stellar career at Robichaud High School near Detroit, leading his squad to the state tournament quarterfinals as a senior.

Like every high school star fortunate enough to earn a Division I college scholarship, Spicer entered his freshman year with high expectations. He anticipated receiving consistent playing time, and held out hope for starting as a rookie.

Instead, Spicer got buried on the depth chart behind a slew of other forwards. He stood 6-foot-9, but weighed only about 190, and had a difficult time competing physically with stronger and older power forwards.

Spicer wound up shooting the ball 17 times from the floor during his entire freshman season, averaging a point and a rebound in six minutes of action per game. Needless to say, that's not what he'd envisioned.

"To be honest, the whole year last year was very frustrating," said Spicer. "I was just thinking so much as a freshman. My frame, I was too small; I came in at 193, and I wasn't that strong. But the frustration, that was my biggest weakness last year."

This year's Spicer for the Flashes is Marquiez Lawrence, a 6-8, 200-pound former Columbus Marion-Franklin High School star forward whose behind was practically bolted to the bench for the first half of his freshman season at KSU.

After producing six points and five rebounds in a season-opening win over Ohio Northern, Lawrence scored two total points in the Flashes' next 14 games. He did not see the floor in 10 of those contests, including six straight from early December through mid-January.

"It really humbles you," Lawrence admitted.

Becoming a bench player for the first time not only tests your confidence, but forces you to practically learn how to play the game all over again.

"What makes a good bench player are guys that bring energy to the game, and that can do something to help you win -- whether it's score, rebound, offensive rebound, or make some sort of hustle play," said KSU coach Rob Senderoff. "There's an art to being a (bench player), and some guys can't do it. Because they've been stars all their lives, they don't understand that now I've gotta be a role player -- defend, rebound, run the floor -- and they struggle with it.

"If you're good at that role, you can blossom. But it's not easy to do."

PASSING THE TEST

Being relegated to the bench for the first time has triggered a slew of transfers and trades through the years. But those who gut it out are typically rewarded.

"Sometimes the fifth guard eventually becomes a starting guard," said Senderoff. "(Junior Devareaux) Manley was our fifth guard last year, and now he's one of our starters. Randal Holt (three-year starter, KSU's all-time leading 3-point shooter) was a fifth guard as a freshman. Justin Greene (2011 MAC Player of the Year) was a fourth post as a freshman."

A huge part of succeeding as a bench player is understanding and accepting your role.

"Last year, (Manley) came in for one thing, to try to make (3-point) shots," said Senderoff. "When you're coming off the bench as a fifth guard or as a fourth post, you've gotta understand that maybe my minutes are six minutes a game, but I've gotta make those the best six minutes possible. Maybe I only get a two-minute run, but I've gotta impact something positively during those two minutes."

The faster that realization hits home, the quicker players will succeed off the bench.

ACCEPTANCE

Spicer admits that he struggled with his role as a freshman, but he eventually began to realize the adjustments that needed to be made.

"(Coming off the bench) is hard. After awhile, I'm not gonna say you get used to it, but it gives you a lesson," said Spicer. "Competing for the starting spot makes you work harder."

Spicer is still coming off the bench as a sophomore this season, but is vastly improved. He's added over 20 pounds of muscle to his frame and plays with much more strength and confidence, averaging 3.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and over a block in 13 minutes per game.

"I was getting stronger as the season went by (last year)," said Spicer. "I knew I needed to get stronger so I could play more, even if I don't start. Now since it's my second year, I'm more mentally prepared (to come off the bench). I feel I'm getting better at controlling my frustration. I've got a better mindset to work even harder than I did last year."

Lawrence seems to have accepted his role as a reserve quicker than most, and it's paying off. He played three active minutes at Northern Illinois on Jan. 15 before suffering an eye injury, then returned to action Thursday night and produced three points and three rebounds in 11 minutes.

"It felt good to be out there with my team," he said. "If I'm called on, I'm gonna do whatever it takes."

Selflessness is another key trait to a successful bench player, which once again is very difficult for many former high school stars to accept and embrace at the college level.

"(Coming off the bench) gets you to think about not just yourself, but what's best for the team," said Lawrence. "At the same time, it gets you better because you're also competing for a spot on the floor; so at practice you wanna go hard, do whatever you can to be noticed."

Playing against tougher competition always exposes your weaknesses, and working on those areas rather than pouting about a lack of playing time also speeds up the development process drastically.

"(Coaches) work on a lot of defensive stuff with me," said Lawrence. "I'm really learning how to chest people up without fouling. I'm also getting my weight up and starting to develop my skill level on the offensive end, so I can be more productive and efficient.

"I've been here since June 10 and I've gotten way better, gained probably 20 pounds, my strength and conditioning are way better. Guys aren't throwing me around, I can hold my own. I definitely see a lot of improvement, and I see me getting better and better as my days at Kent State go on."

DIFFICULT DEMOTION

While most players begin their high school or college careers on the bench, every once in a while a starter is relegated to a reserve role for one reason or another. This demotion can be quite a shock to the system.

Unfortunately for Darren Goodson, he can tell you all about it.

The senior forward from Cincinnati was considered one of Kent State's top players heading into the 2013-14 season. But after starting the first 11 games, the struggles of the team in general and Goodson in particular triggered his move to the bench.

Goodson admitted that being yanked from the lineup was a blow to his pride.

"The first game when (Senderoff) told me I wasn't gonna start any more, I felt some type of way about it," said Goodson, choosing his words carefully. "I didn't say nothing because that's the coach's decision. Being a starter all your life, it is kinda hard coming off the bench. But if it's the right move for the team, it would be selfish for you to keep being mad."

Goodson still knew he'd see significant action in every game even though he was coming off the bench, which certainly helped him cope with the move.

"I've never been a bench player that played like 10 or 12 minutes. I'm still getting my minutes, so it's really not that big of a difference for me," said Goodson, who was back in the starting lineup Thursday night. "But it was tough at first, knowing that you're not playing well. You can't argue it because player's play. If you're not (shooting) well, you've gotta do something else (to help the team).

"Helping the team win, that's what it's all about."

BUMP IN THE ROAD

Becoming the player every fan comes to see to the one few even recognize, sometimes in the span of a few months, is a challenging hurdle that the vast majority of athletes must clear at least once as their career progresses. But those that do typically find themselves back in the beloved starting lineup before their playing days are over.

Like Manley, Holt, Greene and countless others that came before him, Spicer's bench days are likely numbered. He's in line to start next year after senior Mark Henniger graduates, although he's not taking anything for granted.

"I'm not gonna stop competing and let somebody beat me out," he said. "I'll just keep doing what I do, so the freshmen and sophomores coming in (as bench players) can learn from that."

Email: amoff@recordpub.com

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