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Increasingly confident Jericho Sims emerging as a difference-maker for Texas

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After making a big jump in competition level from high school, the freshman forward is starting to come into his own late in the season.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Kansas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

For most of the season, Texas Longhorns freshman forward Jericho Sims simply looked to pass the ball once he caught it on the perimeter — Sims isn’t an outside shooter and lacked the aggressiveness to attack the basket.

On Saturday against the West Virginia Mountaineers, however, Sims caught the ball in the right corner, briefly faced up against one of the nation’s top shot blockers, Sagaba Konate, then drove to his left. With long strides, Sims only needed two dribbles before jump stopping and elevating off of both feet.

Konate closed on him as threw down a vicious two-handed slam over the West Virginia defender, his head even with the rim.

For the quiet and conscientious Sims, the dunk highlighted his improved play since fellow freshman Mo Bamba suffered a left toe injury against Oklahoma in February. Thrust into the starting lineup as Bamba has missed the last two and a half games, Sims has responded with the best play of his young career.

When Bamba was forced to sit out the second half of the Oklahoma State game, Sims scored 11 points and got to the foul line nine times, while adding seven rebounds. Then, after moving into the starting lineup against Kansas, Sims hit 6-of-9 shots in scoring 12 points. In addition to the dunk against West Virginia, the 6’9, 240-pounder made five of his other six attempts and got to the free-throw line eight times, scoring a career-high 17 points.

In recognition of Sims averaging 14.5 points on 75-percent shooting and eight rebounds per game last week, he was declared the Big 12 Newcomer of the Week.

After the Longhorns took down the Mountaineers, West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins praised the work of Texas assistant coach Darrin Horn has done with Sims and noted how much more aggressive he is as a scorer than he was during the first matchup in February.

In high school, Sims was a complementary player on his AAU team and played at a private high school in Minneapolis, Christo Rey Jesuit, that didn’t afford a high level of competition. Head coach Shaka Smart compared it to “playing against five of you guys,” referencing the reporters in the room.

So the 25 points and 10 rebounds per game that Sims averaged as a senior didn’t provide much perspective on how quickly he could adjust to the college game.

When the ‘Horns traveled through Australia last summer, Sims quickly proved that he was capable of throwing down highlight-reels dunk courtesy of his leaping ability — junior guard Kerwin Roach II said on Saturday that Sims is the most athletic player in the country.

However, because Sims isn’t confident in his odd, left-handed jump shoot that has resulted in him shooting 42.6 percent from the free-throw line, he was extremely limited offensively through much of the season.

Early on, he wasn’t particularly comfortable on the block, either, often making moves to the left and then shooting with his right hand — not exactly textbook plays since he wasn’t able to use his body to shield the defender in those situations.

With Bamba out and the team forced to rely on Sims more heavily, he’s become more aggressive off the bounce on the perimeter — he has good ball-handling ability for someone his size — and is taking his time offensively. He’s also done better getting into moves on the right block to finish with his preferred right hand on hook that are virtually unblockable thanks to his elevation.

In fact, Sims is now confident enough as a finisher that Smart called a play for him late in the game against Oklahoma State. Sims converted.

Defensively, he’s still learning to stay down and not leave his feet on pump fakes, but he’s begun to use his leaping ability more effectively to crash the defensive glass. Late in the game against West Virginia, he was able to consistently come down with key rebounds in traffic.

The recent history of Roach and Eric Davis Jr. indicates that improvement as a sophomore is hardly a guarantee, but there’s no question that Sims has enormous potential and is already starting to realize it on the court.

“When our season gets done this year, we’ll get together and come up with a long list of areas where he wants to get better and we want him to get better,” Smart said on Monday. “But yeah, his long-term future is really, really bright and I see him in terms of what he’s doing right now he’s showing glimpses of what he’s going to be able to do more consistently down the road.”