Strength in humility: Wyoming’s Cooke focuses on what he can do for team

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Troy Babbitt | USA TODAY Sports Images
Wyoming forward Derek Cooke Jr. is averaging 7.0 points per game, a career-high.

LARAMIE, Wyo. — Derek Cooke Jr. isn’t trying to do it all.

A senior forward at Wyoming, his greatest strength, perhaps, is acknowledging his weaknesses. He is not a ball handler or jump shooter. His skill set cannot be confused with Riley Grabau’s, or even Larry Nance Jr.

‘s.

That isn’t to say, however, that Cooke’s contributions aren’t valuable. The springy 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward is a menace around the rim, employing superb bounce and athleticism to throw down emphatic one-handed dunks and swat opponents’ shot attempts as if they’re volleyballs.

When it comes to his skill set, Cooke is trimming the fat.

“He’s doing more of what he can do and less of the things he struggles with,” head coach Larry Shyatt said. “For DC [Cooke] and his guards, they recognize, what does DC do best, and what should we stay away from? That has had something to do with his improvement.”

That improvement, through 11 games, is apparent. He is averaging 7.0 points per game, a career-high, while shooting an obscene 80.5 percent from the field. He has scored in double figures four times this season, including 15-point performances against Montana State and SMU.

The numbers aren’t entirely surprising when one considers his shot selection:

Tomahawk dunk. Two-handed dunk. Layup. Alley-oop dunk.

“The best thing I added was just being able to see the game,” Cooke said. “I see myself as a role player. I’m not Larry Nance, where the ball should be coming to me every time. I’m not Riley Grabau or Josh Adams, where I can have the ball in my hands at all times.

“I’m more focused on what I can do for the team to make the team better. Right now, for me that’s defense and finishing around the rim.”

Cooke is finishing with contact better than he has in previous seasons, a testament to improved conditioning and training in what Shyatt likes to call “physical confrontations.”

As painful as it might be to admit, not every basket can be an untouched, highlight-inducing, rim-rattling spectacle.

“In practice, we’ve been working on just playing through contact,” Cooke said. “We’ll mess around where guys pull down one arm, so you have to go up and make it with the other arm.

“During the game, you never know what’s going to happen.”

If there’s one weakness Cooke has actively improved, though, it’s free-throw shooting. Wyoming’s most athletic big man knew that if he continued to be a liability on the line, opponents would exploit that by fouling with intent and Shyatt would be forced to bench him in key situations.

For DC [Cooke] and his guards, they recognize, what does DC do best, and what should we stay away from? That has had something to do with his improvement.
— Larry Shyatt

This summer, he first worked out hard, reasoning that he would be tired in games when he was forced to shoot free throws.

Then, he shot, and shot, and shot, and shot.

“He has taken it very seriously,” Shyatt said. “Right now, it’s a work in progress. But it’s good to see him confidently walk up to the line. That’s a big difference.”

Of course, he isn’t threatening any shooting records, currently checking in at a luke-warm 57.1 percent from the charity stripe.

But for a player who shot 44.9 percent in 2013 and 33.3 percent in 2012, those strides — though modest — are significant.

“I was always trying to correct something, because people told me I wasn’t doing this, or I wasn’t doing that,” Cooke said of his previous approach to free-throw shooting. “I’m just confident in my shot.”

And as for the rest of his game, Cooke knows what he does well. As the Mountain West Conference season approaches, Wyoming basketball fans can expect Cooke to keep dunking, rebounding, blocking shots and running the court.

He’ll fulfill his role, and let the rest take care of itself.

“I like to dribble. I like to shoot 3’s. I like to do a lot of stuff,” Cooke said. “But when it’s game time, I just want to do what’s best for the game plan.

“So I finish around the rim and be the best teammate possible.”

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