Competing against stars will help John Shurna earn his stripes

Of all the college upperclassmen chosen to train alongside the U.S. national team in Las Vegas this week, none have come further faster than Northwestern forward John Shurna.

At this time last year, Shurna had just completed an innocuous freshman campaign in which he averaged 7.1 points and 3.0 rebounds for a Northwestern team that finished below .500 in the Big Ten. Now the 6-foot-8 forward is holding his own against the likes of Lamar Odom and Kevin Durant following a breakout sophomore campaign in which he earned second-team all-conference honors and led the Wildcats to the brink of their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance.

"He came out of nowhere," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said Tuesday by phone. "There were signs as a freshman because he had some pretty decent games, but then he also had some bad games. When I look back, I only played him 18 minutes a game as a freshman and he averaged about seven a game. He probably played twice as many minutes as a sophomore but he got three times as many points."

It would have been difficult to predict Shurna's speedy rise when he was in high school because his accomplishments often were overlooked. The Glen Ellyn, Ill., native averaged 22.9 points and 12.1 rebounds as a senior, yet he received minimal interest from marquee programs, choosing Northwestern over Washington State, Wisconsin Green Bay, Davidson and Penn.

Shurna's transformation from unheralded recruit to budding star began last summer when USA Basketball surprised him with an invitation to try out for the U-19 World Championship team in New Zealand. He didn't dominate, but he didn't look overmatched either, making the team and emerging as a key contributor off the bench to help the U.S. to a gold medal and a 9-0 record.

Buoyed by the confidence-building experience overseas, Shurna honed his low-post game and his unorthodox shooting stroke once he returned to Evanston. He averaged 18.2 points and 6.4 rebounds and shot 36 percent from 3-point range, taking over as a go-to scorer when star Kevin Coble suffered a season-ending foot injury just days before Northwestern's season opener.

"He really worked on his shooting and he also got to be a pretty good low-post player," Carmody said. "As a freshman he'd get it down there and he wasn't as aggressive as he could have been. He'd always look to pass. We told him score first and then when they double you, then you're helping the other guys."

Carmody is hoping Shurna's experience at USA National Team camp this week will encourage further improvement from the junior-to-be. Coble will be healthy and point guard Michael Thompson also returns, yet Shurna will likely have to shoulder the biggest load if the Wildcats are going to improve upon a 20-win season that ended with an NIT berth.

"What this week will do for him is show him, 'Man, I still have a lot to work on,'" Carmody said. "He's going to have some nice moments where he makes some shots or grabs some rebounds, and other times it will be like, 'Whoa, these guys are so good.' You realize you can play with them, but to really play with them you have to do it consistently."