Sophomore guard Isaiah Sykes ready for a bigger role
Published: Saturday, October 22, 2011
Updated: Sunday, October 23, 2011 17:10
Last year, UCF men's basketball coach Donnie Jones referred to Isaiah Sykes as "the glue guy."
As a freshman from Detroit, Sykes did a lot of things well; a lot of the little things that are often overlooked by those who focus on points per game and shooting percentages.
Sykes struggled in areas like shooting, specifically free throws, but he excelled in rebounding, having a nose for loose balls and playing lockdown defense.
Multiple times last season, Jones called on Sykes for tough defensive assignments and the freshman played some significant minutes in big games, most notably 25 minutes off the bench in a victory over then-No.16 Florida in December.
Now, heading into his sophomore season, he said he's ready to elevate his game, and his teammates and coaches have taken notice.
"He's taken his game to whole [new] level," senior point guard A.J. Rompza said.
While at the team's media day, Rompza had been asked about which of his teammates to look out for. The point guard, who has been a vocal leader on the team for most of his UCF career, didn't hesitate with his answer.
Other players were asked similar questions, and Sykes' name was a popular choice.
"I got to go with Isaiah Sykes," redshirt sophomore forward Tristan Spurlock said. "Just seeing him in the gym, working hard on his jump shot every single day, it's going to be huge. He can just come in and score in different ways."
Jones added that he's impressed with what Sykes has done in the offseason and the shape he has showed up in for the start of fall practice.
"He's really gained a lot of confidence. He's gotten stronger," Jones said.
This offseason, specifically, was a time where all of the Knights focused on themselves individually by working on conditioning, strength training and weaknesses.
"Coach Jones, he lets you know that the offseason is definitely about the individual and getting better, getting in the best shape you can so come practice time he can really mesh us all together," junior guard Marcus Jordan said.
It's a message that wasn't lost on Sykes, who said he enjoyed putting in the extra time and work with his teammates.
"I'm feeling really good," Sykes said. "We stay lifting, [we are] staying in shape. Everybody's running, coming in and getting extra work in and just giving a good effort."
Over the summer, the team took a tour of Canada and played three exhibitions. The trip was beneficial in a variety of ways, as the freshmen and transfers played their first games in a UCF uniform. Sykes also benefited from the extra games and practice time, and he found himself getting looks at a couple of different spots.
"He can play multiple positions," Jones said. "We played him at the point-guard spot a lot over in Canada. He makes great decisions."
One area of concern for Sykes, though, is his shooting ability. Fans may specifically remember his struggles at the free-throw line, shooting 47.5 percent on the year and 30.4 percent in conference play. On the perimeter, opposing defenders would often ease off Sykes with no real fear of his ability to spot up and shoot.
These are concerns the sophomore worked hard to address.
"He's shooting the basketball better, but that's never going to be his forte as a basketball player," Jones said. "He's one of those few guys you talk about: ‘Can he impact winning without scoring?'"
For Jones and his coaching staff, the answer so far appears to be yes.
"He can rebound, he can defend, he makes the right pass [and] he's tough," Jones added. "He brings a lot of intangibles to our team."
These are intangibles that Sykes said he enjoys bringing to the table, noting that at the end of the day what he cares about is his team winning no matter how he and his teammates make it happen.
Sykes, along with the rest of his teammates, will get the opportunity to start winning games soon.
The Knights open the season Nov. 12 at home against St. Thomas. Another home game, an exhibition, is scheduled for Nov. 5 against West Virginia Tech.
"Whatever coach asks me to do I just go out there and try to give it my all," Sykes said of his mentality towards how he plays. "One day, you're going to have to give it up [playing basketball], so you might as well make the best out of it every day."