Washpun finding his way
Becoming a man
The holiday season is a natural time for people to take stock of their personal growth. Time spent around family, celebrating at church or home often provides a perfect opportunity for people to admire what they or their family members have become.
As Wes Washpun sat in his grandparents' house on a dreary morning of one of the three days he had away from the Northern Iowa men's basketball team for the holidays, the growth he's shown in the nearly-four years since he left Cedar Rapids Washington High School could be seen in the pride on his parents', Troy and Angie Washpun's, faces.
The brash, confident ball of energy who didn't always have his priorities in the right place back when he was a Warrior sat with a small, somewhat embarrassed smile on his face as his parents gushed about the still-confident ball of energy who has made himself into something different than he was in 2011.
Something much more.
“I think watching him become a man – more responsible, that part of taking care of the bills and staying on top of things like that makes me the most proud,” Angie said.
That may seem obvious – that's kind of the point of college, to become a responsible adult and a productive member of society.
But the laundry list of college athletes who haven't made that step and haven't grown into men and women, but stayed immature kids, shows it's easier said than done. The decisions Wes has had to make in the last few years were ones that put a significant push on him – a push that could've been in the right or wrong direction.
He went through two recruiting processes inside of three years. He turned down several offers, including one to play for Fran McCaffery at Iowa. He left for Tennessee and then-coach Cuonzo Martin because of a relationship he and his parents had built with Martin as he'd doggedly recruited Wes – originally from Missouri State – at Washington.
Then, after averaging 0.9 points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 17 games as a freshman in Knoxville, Tenn., Wes wanted to transfer closer to home. He got a call from Iowa the second time around, too, but with recently signed Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons, there were no scholarships to offer. It was an easy choice, he said, to end up a Panther – another program who'd recruited him the first time around – and play with so many former AAU teammates and friends.
And after ending his first season playing for UNI as a starter, he was asked by Coach Ben Jacobson to move into a sixth-man role – even though he was consistently performing as one of the best players on the team.
At each of those moments, the choices he made could've sent him down a road much-traveled by cautionary tales. Instead, he ended up there, wearing that UNI stocking hat and listening to his parents talk about the man he'd become.
“There have been a lot of learning experiences,” Wes said. “I've learned a lot and grown up a lot, for sure. And this is where it's taken me.
“I learned it's going to take more – more than I had at the time (I left high school). I really had to work really hard to be where I wanted to be.”
Role found, role accepted
Where he wanted to be translates – at least in the wake of a win against the Hawkeyes on Dec. 20 – to 11.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists so far in the 2014-15 season.
The decision to bring him off the bench has Panther fans consistently curious, but Jacobson has a plan of attack, and UNI's 10-1 record – plus a few NCAA Tournament berths – suggests he might know what he's doing. Jacobson said when he told the players about his decisions for the starting lineup headed into this season, Wes didn't hold back how he felt.
“I told him, 'Look, this isn't something I expect you to like,' and he said, 'Good, because I don't,'” Jacobson said. “And I said, 'That's good.'
“He was real honest about it, as he should've been.”
Confidence in his ability, his contributions to the team and the person he'd become were clear in how he handled that interaction. Having a coach who is open to hearing how players really feel helps, but seeing the bigger picture helps even more.
“Every person on the team has a role and a distinct purpose,” Wes said. “Coach Jake is a very open coach and you can speak your mind to him whenever you want. I was able to say what was on my mind at the time and express the way I felt. He knew some guys weren't going to like coming off the bench – the guys that are starting, if they had to come off the bench they'd be feeling the same. It's all about putting that behind you for the good of the team.”
The maturity that started to take hold because of his desire to be the player that could provide the most good for his team permeated into his classwork and everyday life.
It's been a circle of benefits for the 21-year-old that everyone around him has seen. Realizing what it would take to be a better player made him a better student and young adult. That made life and practice a little less stressful and a little more fun.
“I think he would be one of the first to tell you, certainly in the past, he's been very willing to put things off and take the approach, 'I'll get things done, but at the last minute.' And I think most of us have been in that position in our lives,” Jacobson said. “Now he's taken a different approach. That, to me, is where the biggest change has come, where the biggest growth has taken place.
“Because he's doing that, it's taken a lot of the stress out of his life. He's able to do everything else, just in a better mood.”
'More responsible, more on time...staying focused'
Obviously, this version of Wes may be more mature, but it's not like he's lost the fire and passion for the game that makes him the player and person he is. The screams, chest-pumping and trash-talking aren't going away any time soon.
"I don't know what they did to him, whether it was down there in Tennessee or up here (at UNI), he's just grown up"
- Troy Washpun
But they're purposeful acts nowadays. There may not have been tragedy or tremendous adversity that brought him here, but they were life lessons he easily could've botched.
As a father who has watched – maybe a little too closely sometimes, by his own admission – what his son has done on and off the court, to see how Wes has handled himself at each of those turns is something any parent would ask for. Sitting around that kitchen table, Troy and Angie were still watching, even as they talked about him.
The talent they see on the court has always been there, and now the talent they see off it is starting to catch up. It makes what's ahead for Wes and the Panthers even more exciting for him, his teammates, family and friends.
“I can see the difference in him. He's more responsible,” Troy said. “I don't know what they did to him, whether it was down there in Tennessee or up here (at UNI), he's just grown up. He's more responsible, more on time, doing what he's supposed to do, staying focused.
“I just think him, as an individual, he's just growing up and maturing. It's been terrific to see.”
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