Sheldon Jeter was supposed to be the feel-good story of the Pittsburgh basketball season, the local athlete who gets a second shot at playing for the local school and plays a major role in an NCAA tournament run.
All of that might still happen, but the feel-good part of the story, at least early in the season, has not quite developed the way Jeter and coach Jamie Dixon imagined.
Jeter, a 6-foot-8 sophomore from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania who transferred from Vanderbilt after sitting out a year at Polk State College, was supposed to be a major part of the rotation and even compete to start at small forward.
Instead, he struggled on defense and with his role and got buried on the bench behind a couple of freshmen.
Jeter’s minutes diminished from an average of 15 through the first five games to just five in the sixth game against Kansas State, three against Indiana and zero against Duquesne and St. Bonaventure.
It was at that point that Dixon, apparently tired of inquiries about Jeter’s lack of playing time, declared that he needed to do a better job of getting Jeter in the game and would start to work him in.
That came with the qualifier that “the player has to perform once he gets an opportunity.” And Dixon admitted that Jeter’s struggles on defense were holding him back.
The message apparently got through, and Dixon has been true to his word. The past four games, Jeter has seen his time increase, and he is showing glimpses of being the player Dixon hoped he would be.
In the 71-54 win Tuesday against Florida Gulf Coast, Jeter played 13 minutes and was more active than he had been on defense. Jeter finished with 2 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist and a steal.
“It felt a lot better,” Jeter said of his second consecutive game of double-digit minutes. “The past couple games, I would get in and come right back out. This game, I was able to get in, start getting a rhythm and make some plays. It felt really good. I had to give more of an effort defensively.
“That what was holding me back and keeping me on the bench. The past couple weeks, I have picked it up.”
Jeter, who averages 3.2 points and 2.3 rebounds in 10.3 minutes per game, said he wasn’t as committed to playing defense as he needed to be early on, but that is starting to change.
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“It wasn’t the system,” Jeter said. “The system doesn’t teach how to keep somebody in front of them. That was my problem. I wasn’t keeping anybody in front of me. That was my problem, and I think I fixed it.”
Senior Cameron Wright said it is no surprise Jeter is playing and contributing more because his teammates have seen his improvement each day at practice.
“I am so excited about how [Jeter] is playing lately,” Wright said. “He is in the gym every day and working. He wants to be out there and wants to contribute. I am glad he is finally getting his opportunity, because he deserves it.”
Dixon said Jeter’s improvement is a big help to the Panthers because they needed at least one more player to step up to complete their rotation and provide quality depth.
And he traces the early season struggles on defense back to not having enough confidence in his bench to give the starters breaks during the game.
Now that the light appears to have come on for Jeter, Dixon expects him to play a vital role as the Panthers enter ACC play.
“I thought Sheldon did some good things [Tuesday],” Dixon said. “Guarding on the perimeter is something that is new to him, but he’s done a good job. We’re continuing to get him going there, and offensively, he’s just got to find ways to get baskets around the rim, layups and free-throw line.
“I see him getting better and better. He’s worked hard and is being rewarded for it.”