Men’s Basketball: Sanjay Lumpkin shifts from mystery man to key contributor

Sanjay Lumpkin

Annabel Edwards/Daily Senior Staffer

Sanjay Lumpkin

Alex Putterman, Assistant Sports Editor

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A few months ago, even Northwestern’s coach didn’t know a lot about Sanjay Lumpkin.

“I didn’t get a chance to see him much as a high school player,” Chris Collins said this week. “So everything I got was word of mouth, and then I really had no tape to go by from last year’s games.”

Now the coach is well-acquainted, but Lumpkin, a redshirt freshman wingman from Minnesota, remains a mystery to most outsiders — even as he prepares for an essential role on the Wildcats’ team.

Last year, Lumpkin was visible primarily on the bench, seated cheerfully next to the rest of NU’s brigade of the debilitated. A mistimed blink might have obscured Lumpkin’s entire season on the court, as he scored only four points in 26 minutes between injuries.

The trouble started early, when Lumpkin was diagnosed with mononucleosis following the team’s 2012 preseason exhibition game. After recovering, he saw action in four games in just more than a month, including a three-game stretch during mid-December when his minutes increased with each contest, culminating in a 13-minute outing against Brown.

Just as Lumpkin seemed to have earned a place in then-coach Bill Carmody’s rotation, the freshman broke his wrist in practice and was relegated to a medical redshirt.

“With the injury and everything it was pretty frustrating,” Lumpkin recalled Monday. “I really, really wanted to play.”

Once his wrist healed, Lumpkin returned to the court as soon as he could. In August, he and teammate JerShon Cobb toured Europe with a Global Sports Academy team of college players from the Big Ten and other major conferences.

In’s blog posts about the trip, Lumpkin fawned over Belgian waffles, flaunted his new-found Flemish vocabulary and called London “absolutely amazing.”

Most importantly, the basketball was good.

“It helped me with everything,” Lumpkin said. “I got to play with referees, got to play against some good talent, got to meet a long of new players. … It was the best to get some game experience and get our feet wet.”

Now, after a nonstarter of a true freshman season, it’s time for take two — or as Lumpkin called it, “a new journey to start this year.”

The commencement of Lumpkin’s second chance coincides neatly with the arrival of Collins and his emphasis on a “fresh start” for the team and a “clean slate” for all the players.

Lumpkin has taken advantage of the opportunities born from the regime change. According to the point system NU coaches use to measure players’ successes in practice, Lumpkin has been the team’s best practice player, using offensive rebounds and hustles to accrue gaudy totals.

He started in the team’s exhibition game against Lewis on Wednesday, not necessarily, Collins said, due to talent but because his energy fits with the team’s top players.

“You have to put a team together,” Collins said before the game. “It’s not about putting the five best players out on the floor. You’ve got to complement your really good players with guys who are going to defend, do dirty work and bring energy. And those are three things that are probably the three strong suits that (Lumpkin) brings to the game.”

Against Lewis, Lumpkin affirmed his coach’s praise. The forward scored 8 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a team-high 31 minutes. He attempted only five shots — making three — while playing steady defense in a 57-46 victory.

“Sanjay was doing what he does every day,” Cobb said afterward. “That’s what he brings to this team: rebounding, energy, defense. He did a great job on defense today. He was just everywhere, and that’s what we need from him.”

It’s telling that Collins already uses superlatives to describe a player who has barely played a meaningful minute, anointing Lumpkin as the team’s best rebounder and defender.

Lumpkin’s abilities won’t be an internal secret much longer. He’ll be a starter in the season’s early going and should play more than half the game, at shooting guard and both forward slots. For the Cats to fulfill their postseason aspirations, the redshirt freshman will have to contribute in all facets.

So what is to be expected of a mystery man unveiled?

“I don’t want to set expectations too high,” Lumpkin said. “I’m just going to do my best every time I’m out there.”

Twitter: @AlexPutt02