SLU’s Yarbrough already is good, even if he has ‘no clue’ what that entails
ST. LOUIS — As Milik Yabrough emerges as the main man for the Saint Louis Billikens, his coach is being asked more and more about his star freshman.
SLU coach Jim Crews’ response tends to include the same assessment.
"There’s a lot of things I like about Milik when you’re talking basketball," Crews says. "I’ve told him three or four times, ‘Milik, you’re a really good kid and I’m 100 percent convinced that you want to be a good player.’"
Pause for effect.
"’And the third thing I know is you have no clue how to be a good player.’"
Good being a relative term, that is. A strong case can be made that the 6-foot-6 forward out of the Chicago area already is a very good player. Still, Yarbrough doesn’t let Crews’ critique bother him.
"He does not bat an eye," Crews says. "And that’s why he’s going to be a good player. He’s willing to learn and he knows he doesn’t have the answer to things. He’s trying to figure it out and go forth. I really like that combination."
Yarbrough is figuring it out quicker than most. He seems to be getting better every game and now has taken over the Billikens’ scoring lead with an average of 10.8 points. He also trails Ash Yacoubou by one rebound for the team rebounding lead and has led or shared the team lead in assists in three games. Perhaps most impressive, Yarbrough is shooting 55.7 percent, sixth best in the conference. He is shooting better from the field, in fact, than on free throws (52.4 percent).
Despite SLU’s struggles, Yarbrough’s play has begun to attract attention from outside Chaifetz Arena. He scored his first Atlantic 10 rookie-of-the-week honors Monday after averaging 22 points and five rebounds in SLU’s losses at George Washington and Davidson last week.
Yarbrough came to SLU (8-8, 0-2) from Zion-Benton Township High, in the north suburbs of Chicago. He started and made all-conference for four seasons and left as the all-time leading scorer in Lake County prep history with more than 2,600 points. One of six freshmen who have seen extensive minutes this season, Yarbrough did not crack the starting lineup for the first nine games. He figures to remain a fixture in it, though, after averaging 14.6 points in seven games as a starter and leading the Billikens in scoring the past three games.
He has not acted much like a freshman in postgame interview sessions, either. While his classmates tend to rely on cliches, Yarbrough has stepped out of such shyness. He has said he’s one of the best all-around players on the team along with Yacoubou. He has said that other players need to step up their scoring. He even admitted that SLU relaxed because "we knew we had the game" after it allowed Vermont to mount a last-minute charge to turn a convincing victory into a one-possession win. He does not come across as cocky, but rather as someone trying to answer questions thoughtfully and honestly.
What makes his future so intriguing are his size and versatility. Unlike most freshmen, Yarbrough did not arrive at SLU needing to add 15 pounds before he stepped on a college court. Listed at 230, Yarbrough already possessed the heft to hold his own under the basket against older players. Though he has shot only 12 3-pointers, and missed nine of them, Yarbrough also has shown the skills to be effective on the wing.
"He’s a very flexible player," Crews says. "He’s good in the post and he handles the ball pretty darn well. He’s a unique player that way because of his size. We’re very excited about that."
The Billikens aren’t sure what that means for Yarbrough down the road, though. If he puts on more weight, he could become a low-post threat a la Dwayne Evans. For now, the Billikens are looking for him to help as much on the outside. Crews, in fact, says the coaches have asked Yarbrough to drop a pound or two to better use his quickness and maintain endurance.
As SLU enters its second week of conference play with a home game against Duquesne on Wednesday night, it will be interesting to see how opponents adjust their game plans. Austin McBroom and Yacoubou were considered the Billikens to watch most closely a month ago. But the way Yarbrough has been playing, that strategy could change.
He clearly is figuring out the clues required to be a good — make that, an even better — player.