It’s not clear where freshman Jamari Wheeler will fit on the court with Penn State this season, but the impact Wheeler has already had on his teammates became evident immediately at the program's media day Thursday.
Wheeler’s intensity challenges several Nittany Lions in practice, but it’s clear his sights are set on Penn State’s star point guard.
“He’s the best thing that’s happened to Tony Carr,” head coach Patrick Chambers said of the freshman. “He gets after Tony Carr from the time he walks into practice to the time it ends.”
Carr, coming off a true freshman season in which he led the Nittany Lions in points and assists and was named honorable mention All-Big Ten for the effort, is the centerpiece of Penn State’s program. But Wheeler, who had only three high-major offers as a recruit, hasn’t shied away from testing Carr on the practice court.
The freshman’s tenacity is not lost on senior guard Shep Garner, who recalled an effort play in practice that left him particularly impressed.
During a live scrimmage, Wheeler began guarding Carr once the ball was inbounded, Carr got across mid-court and aggressively posted Wheeler up on the low block. Wheeler took a charge, and despite not getting the call, beat everyone down the court on the other end to score a fast break layup.
That wasn’t the only time Wheeler made such a play — Garner said he did something similar on the very next possession.
“That was just something that we’ve never had here before,” Garner said. “I think other teams have it, but we’ve never had it. So now, being as confident as he is, it brings us a different element.”
Wheeler and Carr’s relationship is far from one-dimensional, though.
Off the court, Carr said he’s taken Wheeler under his wing, seeing him as a brother. On the court, however, they’re purely competitors.
“He just drives me to be better,” Carr said. “Him being a freshman and coming in at the high level of play and intensity that he plays with just shows me a lot. I try to teach him as much as I can every day, but every day he teaches me things too, like how to compete harder.”
Chambers is asking Carr to work on his body language and hone his leadership skills this season after he displayed moments of immaturity during his freshman campaign. Wheeler makes for the perfect mentee.
A scrappy, three-star recruit committed to Duquesne before ultimately deciding to play for the Nittany Lions, Wheeler is already benefitting from the tutelage of Carr.
“He’s been teaching me tweaks and things like that,” Wheeler said. “We go through practice and stop a little bit and he’ll tell me what I did right, what I did wrong. He’ll be a leader as he is on the court with all of our teammates.”
While it’s Wheeler’s style of play that has grabbed the attention of his coaching staff and teammates, his physical prowess is the tangible evidence.
Chambers said the 6-foot guard is the fourth-strongest player on the team when it comes to the bench press, and his speed compares to that of former Penn State star Tim Frazier.
“He’s got toughness beyond his years,” Chambers said. “He’s a physical freshman... his speed is going to give him a whole other pace to the game, which I think fans should be excited to watch.”