AMES — Same AAU team. Same Milwaukee neighborhood. Yeah, ISU’s high-flying big man Jameel McKay knows Deonte Burton as well as the corner store and the playground hoop.
“He lived a block away from me,” McKay said on media day — more than three months from the hyper-athletic 6-4 Burton’s long-anticipated debut Saturday against Northern Iowa. “I’ve been knowing Deonte since he was little, I guess, but he was always big.”
Burton’s first appearance as a Cyclone since transferring, like McKay did, from hometown Marquette should be both celebrated and viewed with cautious optimism.
“The closer it gets, the more I’m going to feel it,” Burton said.
On one hand, fifth-ranked ISU desperately needs the added depth he provides.
On another, he’s fit, strong and agile, but he hasn’t played in a real game since transferring last December, so expectations should be tempered as he steps on the floor in cardinal and gold for the first time.
“Add something, give them a little toughness, be able to get a stop,” ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said last month when I asked about Burton’s eventual impact. “Another guy that’s a matchup problem. I think the most important thing for him is just to fit in.”
Sure, there’ll be rust. He may be winded earlier than expected. Heck, he may not even play that much initially.
That’s why Cyclones coach Steve Prohm takes the long view as Burton sits on the edge of his seat, poised to spring from it.
“I think he’ll add some depth up front,” said Prohm, whose Cyclones enter Saturday’s 6 p.m. Big Four Classic game at 9-0 this season and No. 3 in the RPI rankings. "I think he’ll add some toughness and some depth up front.”
As for minutes? Hard to peg. Burton himself said quantity won’t trump the overarching quality of another triumph.
“If I play one minute, if I play 20 minutes, I just want to win,” he said.
That won’t be easy against there well-coached Panthers (6-3), who toppled then-No. 1 North Carolina (minus former Linn-Mar star Marcus Paige) last month, but endured a 19-point loss Saturday at New Mexico.
“It’s going to be a tough game and then obviously being in Des MoInes they’re going to have some of the their fans there, and I’m sure the (Iowa) Hawkeye fans are going to be cheering against us also, so it’s going to be a tough crowd, but we’re going to be prepared for it,” ISU All-American forward Georges Niang said.
Oh, and of course Niang’s candid comments extended to speculation on Burton’s potential impact.
The duo tangled often — to the point of near fights breaking out — in preseason practices, so Niang’s happy to know Burton will play alongside him, not against him.
“The thing about him is, when he’s locked in, there’s really nothing that he can’t do,” said Niang, who’s averaging 17.3 points and 6.3 rebounds. “He’s really good at beating people to a spot. Blocking shots. And then on the offensive end, when he wants to put his head down and go to the rim, I’ve seen him nearly break the rim a couple times at Sukup (Practice Facility). So he’s just a freak of nature, I think is the best way to put it — and an unbelievable person too, so I’m just excited to grow with him as my teammate for the rest of the season.”
Growth, as Prohm indicated, could come with baby steps as opposed to loping leaps for backboard-rattling dunks.
Game conditions matter. He’ll need to readjust to them. Yet the potential impact of his addition can’t be overestimated.
“He’s by far the second best shot blocker on the team,” McKay said. “He can block shots. When he wants to, he can be an elite defender. It’s up to him. Honestly, Deonte is another dude who the sky’s the limit for.”
Same goes for the team, which showed signs of being stringent defensively until the past two games — and especially the 78-64 win over lowly Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
“We’ve had to learn how to win in a bunch of different ways,” Niang said. “Illinois game we had to learn how to win with Jameel out, The Iowa game we had to learn how to win being down 20. Out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff we’ve got to learn how to not get back cut on every play. So I just think we’ve learned a lot throughout this whole year and I think mainly it just comes back to how are we going to respond?”
Burton’s got his down pat.
“Just go all out,” he said. “I’m going to get tired no matter what, so I’d might as well put my best foot forward.”
Those feet were rarely more than a block away from McKay’s growing up. Saturday, they may be side by side. However the rotation — and playing time — shakes out, they’ll fully be together again in the arena.
“I think when he wants to be, he can be the most dominating player on the team,” said McKay, who’s averaging a double-double with 15 points and 11.2 rebounds. “And I think that’s honestly a big compliment, considering the players he’s playing with.”