Hurricanes freshmen playing larger roles as Miami gets deeper into ACC play

Hurricanes freshman Paul Djobet was getting ready to start practice Friday afternoon, but he had a new task he needed to take care of first.

“Coach DJ Irving told Paul that he needed to be on the court at 2 o’clock for the scout team,” Miami coach Jim Larrañaga said, “and he said, ‘Sorry, coach, I have to do a press conference.’ So that’s kind of unique for him.”

Djobet, a first-year guard from Lille, France, is part of a group of three freshmen — along with guard Kyshawn George and center Michael Nwoko — who have seen their usage increase lately, due in part to injuries to more experienced players but also due to their own skill.

“I feel like we’ve learned a lot from the veterans,” Djobet said. “We’re just trying to listen to the older players and do what the coaches ask us to do and just play hard and play defense.”

Guard Kyshawn George has played the most of the three, graduating into the starting lineup. He has played in all 21 games this season and is averaging 30 minutes per game since the start of January. The 6-foot-8 guard is averaging 7.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and two assists this year. If he ends the season with 7.5 points per game, it will be the highest average for a UM freshman since Earl Timberlake notched 9.3 points per game in 2020-21.

“Kyshawn has moved into the starting lineup and has progressed just about in every category of the game, especially the defensive end,” Larrañaga said. “I’m really impressed with his basketball IQ and his ability to listen and learn.”

Nwoko has also gotten into the rotation, playing in 18 games. He also got a start in place of an injured Norchad Omier, playing a career-high 33 minutes in a road loss to Syracuse on Jan. 20. Larrañaga said the 6-foot-10 center has needed more time to get prepared to play at the ACC level, but he has progressed. Nwoko is averaging 2.3 points in nine minutes per game.

“He’s making steady progress, moving forward now,” Larrañaga said.

Djobet has played the least, getting into seven games thus far. He stepped in for an injured Matthew Cleveland in the last two games, playing 19 minutes in a win against Pittsburgh and 23 in a loss to N.C. State. Cleveland returned to practice Thursday, so Djobet’s minutes could be reduced again.

“I think he’s enjoying the opportunity that he’s been given now, and he’s really taking advantage of it,” Larrañaga said. “He’s playing well; he’s playing very, very hard. I think the guys appreciate the effort he’s providing, the energy he’s providing.”

Fourth-year guard Nijel Pack, who was a key part of the Hurricanes’ Final Four run last season, knows the freshmen will need to play a big role in getting Miami back to the NCAA Tournament.

“We knew we were going to need a big help from them from the beginning of the year,” Pack said. “Seeing the guys develop since they first came in in the summer to what they’re doing for us now, watching their improvement, has been great for us.”