Jaron Pierre arrived in Wichita State with a reputation as a pure scorer, known for chasing his shot and hitting tough ones on the basketball court.
But in his third season of college basketball, and his first with the Shockers, Pierre is starting to embrace the dirty work of the game on the defensive end.
Wichita State’s culture regarding defense has rubbed off on him. He didn’t fight through screens; he now he crosses them to blast the passes on the wing. He didn’t want to get into position and stand guard; now he’s taking over defensive duty for the other team’s top scorer.
Offense motivated Pierre for so long, but he now says defense is what motivates him for Wichita State entering Thursday’s showdown with Memphis at Koch Arena.
“I’m much more proud of my defense,” said Pierre. “We always watch a lot of movies and the coaches show the guys scoring a lot for the other team and I’m proud to protect those guys. The coaches taught me that defense leads to offense, so that’s where I focused.”
There was no better example of that mentality than in the first half of WSU’s 79-65 victory at Temple last Thursday.
Pierre had just taken a careless turn on offense, coming on the sidelines out of bounds. In the past he would let the frustration of the offensive mistake affect his intensity and desire for him on defense.
But this time, Pierre had no trouble locking himself up on defense. When Temple star Damian Dunn went for a field goal, Pierre assisted and dunked his shot to start a fast break out the other end for the Shockers. Pierre sprinted down the left field, where James Rojas found him with a quick pass for a layup to the other end.
“This was a perfect example of my defense leading up to my offense,” said Pierre, who finished with eight points. “That’s why you go after it in defense because you will be rewarded.”
Pierre is still looking for the consistency to be labeled a blocked defender, but the effort he is making on the defensive end is a step in the right direction of his development. He is averaging 9.5 points, third highest on the team, with the most 3-pointers made on the team.
There are still things to improve on defense — like getting stuck every second on defense, shooting wide when a shot goes high, and fighting through screens on the ball — but WSU coach Isaac Brown is proud of the improvement Pierre has made since when he arrived on campus.
“Defense is what keeps him on the floor,” Brown said. “He is defending himself at the top of his lungs. He has developed into one of the best defenders in the league. He’s really athletic, so when he’s blocked on defense, he’s pretty good. He just has to keep making good shots and eventually they will go down, but you always have to defend yourself.
Nearly all of Pierre’s 23 minutes on the pitch against Temple was spent guarding the Owls’ dynamite duo of Damian Dunn and Khalif Battle. Pierre’s combination of athleticism and length helped annoy both, as Dunn went 3-for-13 from the field (and 0-for-8 inside the arc) and Battle was held scoreless for the first time in his career to the Temple.
“When I saw (those stats), it made me very happy,” said Pierre. “The coach has been telling us about those fights all week and how someone had to step up and play against a pro. This is what others think those guys are, but I’ve never seen them play before. The coach kept saying if you want to play against a pro, then there’s your matchup. I just did what I had to do.
The Shockers (14-12, 7-7 AAC) are in the fray for a first-round bye in the AAC tournament, but need to continue racking up wins to keep pace with Cincinnati (18-10, 9-6 AAC) and Temple ( 15-13, 9-6 AAC). A win over an NCAA Tournament caliber team like Memphis (20-7, 10-4 AAC) on Thursday would go a long way towards achieving that goal.
The Wichita State team’s defense has regressed in American Athletic Conference play, but the Shockers still rank 18th in the country in field goal percentage (39.8%).
WSU has the potential for one of the best perimeter defenses in the conference with point guard Craig Porter generally regarded as the team’s best overall defenseman and 6-foot-7 junior Jaykwon Walton featuring even more length. When Pierre is stuck on the defensive end, he can be on that level as well.
“I’m proud of Jaron because even when shots don’t fall, I know he’s going to play great defense for us,” Walton said. “When he takes him on defense, our team improves a lot. It’s difficult to score against us because we have a lot of length with me at 6-7 and him at 6-5. It’s difficult for smaller guards to score against us.”