Abdul-Malik Abu has figured out how to start quickly. The N.C. State freshman is still learning how to finish.
At the midpoint of N.C. State’s ACC schedule – the Wolfpack (13-8, 4-4 ACC) hosts Clemson on Wednesday night in its ninth ACC game – Abu is emerging as N.C. State’s best post scorer.
The 6-foot-8, 240-pound freshman from Boston scored N.C. State’s first 12 points in its 65-60 loss at Miami last Thursday. Against Notre Dame on Sunday, Abu scored seven of the team’s first 14 points.
Abu was a scorer in high school, averaging 24.5 points as a senior at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H.
“I’ve got to get back to that,” Abu said after he finished with a season-high 19 points against Miami.
Abu’s development has been normal for most freshmen. He came off the bench for the first 14 games and then moved into the starting lineup. For the season, his averages – 5.6 points per game, 4.0 rebounds per game – are modest, but he’s just beginning to tap his potential.
“A lot of it is confidence,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “Sometimes it’s just getting comfortable and relaxing. At that point, you start playing at a higher level.”
The higher level is where Abu has been for the past two games, at least when he has been able to stay on the floor. Foul trouble cost him against Notre Dame. He scored seven points in nine minutes in the first half but played only two minutes in the second half before fouling out at the end of regulation. He finished with eight points in 11 minutes.
While Abu’s confidence has grown as the season has progressed, so has Gottfried’s confidence in Abu. With the score tied at 71 with 1.8 seconds left in regulation, Gottfried set up a play for Abu to win the game.
Caleb Martin threw a long inbounds pass the length of the floor to Abu, who was at the foul line in front of N.C. State’s basket. Notre Dame forward Pat Connaughton was in front of Abu, and referee Tony Greene called a push-off on Abu, who caught the ball cleanly from Martin.
“That was the play we wanted,” Gottfried said.
N.C. State ran the same play for Abu at the end of the North Carolina game on Jan. 14. Abu caught that pass and was fouled. He made the first free throw, then intentionally missed the second. Cody Martin had a tip at the buzzer that would have won the game, but it went wide.
Abu, who was rated as the No. 32 prospect in the country by ESPN coming out of high school, said he’s been thankful for the confidence that Gottfried and his teammates have shown in him as he has adjusted to the college game.
“I just want to play like myself and help the team any way that I can,” Abu said.