SOUTH BEND - Initial impressions about what Notre Dame had in guard Eric Atkins formed in a rather peculiar place.
Atkins never took a shot, threw a pass or made a play in an actual college basketball game before some realized - amid the cacophony of the weight room - that he had the makings of someone special.
Enrolled in school the summer before his freshman season, Atkins was working out one day with strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski, who noticed how the kid carried himself with a quiet confidence in a room full of often outspoken veterans.
On the road recruiting, coach Mike Brey received a text message from Rolinski.
“Eric Atkins is going to be a great leader for us.”
“I see that happening,” Brey said. “I’m excited about him.”
When the first official day of practice commences Friday afternoon, the ball will be placed confidently in Atkins’ hands. And there’s every reason to believe the sophomore will run with the same expectations placed on every Irish point guard to play for Brey - run the team, be an extension of the head coach while on the floor, and seldom check out of a contest.
Fifth-year seniors Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin may dominate the cover of the media guide this season as co-captains, but Brey believes that once late December arrives - and maybe even earlier - he can add another name to the Irish leadership ledger.
“Eric will be like a captain by the Big East regular season as far as his voice, his input,” Brey said. “By February, he’s going to be one of the better guards in the league.”
Atkins enjoyed a solid freshman season that should have earned him a spot on the Big East all-rookie team. He averaged 5.8 points, 1.8 rebounds and was second on the squad in assists at 3.2 in 25.4 minutes a game. He played in all 34 games and made six starts. He led the Big East in assist/turnover ratio (2.6).
His demeanor helped Notre Dame win games against Marquette, Providence and Wisconsin. After each, Atkins simply shrugged as if he’d done it all before. Nothing fazed him as the Irish ripped off 27 wins.
To say that Atkins might be a surprise this year would be to short-change a solid debut.
“Eric stepped us for us last year,” said Martin. “I look for him to keep improving on that.”
Atkins understood the plan as soon as he committed to Notre Dame during the spring of his junior year at Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore. He would play an important but reserve role as a freshman, then step into the starting spot as a sophomore.
He would be the guy to make it all go, a guard who, like those before him (Tory Jackson, Kyle McAlarney, Chris Quinn, Chris Thomas, Martin Ingelsby), would play a whole lot.
“Now that the ball’s in my hands, it kind of forces me to be a leader,” Atkins said. “I am the point guard and I am calling the shots. I’m ready for it.”
Yet he’s still adjusting to the increased workload. As well as he’s been able to value the ball, Atkins will have to look to score more than last season.
That means carrying consistent confidence in his perimeter game, getting into the lane to finish with his trademark floater and boosting his shooting percentages (he shot 40.7 percent from the field last year, 34.8 percent from 3 and 69.7 percent from the foul line).
To prepare for the pounding guards absorb in the Big East, he added 10 pounds to his 6-foot-1, 182-pound frame. A guy who averaged 23.0 points as a prep junior needs to be reminded that it’s OK to occasionally look for his shot.
“He’s so focused on running our team, which is great,” Brey said. “He’s going to have to score for us. That’s going to be a learning curve for both of us through November and December - how do we get him stuff?”
Atkins, who turns 20 in December, made a seemingly seamless transition into his leadership role this summer. The previous one, he often kept opinions to himself as sides were chosen and pickup games were run. The second time around, he voiced his thoughts about, well, everything.
If he missed a shot or threw a bad pass, he’d scold himself. If a teammate did the same, he’d speak up. A win was OK, but a loss was unacceptable, even in July.
It all came naturally.
“I was very comfortable doing it, just with a year under my belt, knowing the guys a little bit better to get on them a little bit more,” Atkins said. “I just feel like everything last year and the summer has helped me be ready for the season.”
Staff writer Tom Noie:
Notre Dame men's basketball: Atkins' confidence gives Irish an edge
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