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COLLEGE FOCUS: Pressley's emergence may surprise some, but not Portland coaches

Bryce Pressley is quickly developing into a defensive stopper for the Portland Pilots.

Pressley’s offensive skills are coming around as well, but the 6-4,

200-pound sophomore shooting guard is making a significant impact on defense, where his long arms and keen sense of timing have helped key the Pilots’ recent turnaround.

Through 17 games, Pressley has routinely drawn the toughest defensive assignments, having gone toe-to-toe with a number of savvy veterans, including Princeton’s T.J. Bray, Saint Mary’s Stephen Holt and Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos.

And don’t be surprised if he gets matched up at times against Loyola Marymount’s Anthony Ireland tonight when the Pilots (10-7, 2-3 West Coast Conference) take on the Lions (10-8, 2-4) in a 7 p.m. Thursday game at Gersten Pavilion in Los Angeles.by: COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND - BRYCE PRESSLEY

“I love when I get to guard the other team’s best player,” says Pressley, who the Pilots recruited out of Sacramento’s Jesuit High School. “There’s a lot of pressure being that guy to get stops against the player that’s usually the best scorer on the court. It’s a big challenge, and I take it as a challenge to do the best I can.”

In last week’s 82-73 upset of then-No. 22 Gonzaga, Pressley was largely responsible for holding Pangos, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer, to 12 points on 3-of-10 shooting. Pressley also had two steals and two blocked shots, and his defense fed his offense as he scored a game-high 16 points and added a career-high nine assists and the Pilots beat Gonzaga for the first time since 2003.

“Bryce clearly had a commitment and a desire to defend, and had good, natural ability when he got here,” Pilots coach Eric Reveno says. “Steals and deflections are kind of like blocked shots, where you try to teach those things but they’re kind of a natural instinct. He had that.

“He’s real consistent, real steady. It’s like his personality, which is just sort of workmanlike. He’s not real flashy in a lot of ways, but his work ethic is real solid.”

Pressley learned his work ethic from his father, Harold, the former first-round draft choice of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings out of Villanova, where he played on the Wildcats’ 1985 NCAA championship team and was the 1986 Big East defensive player of the year.

Harold Pressley says Bryce was 5 months old when he picked up a basketball for the first time.

“He was completely intrigued with basketball,” says Harold, who played for the Kings from 1986-90. “Before he could actually do much, we’d pass baskets in driveways as we were driving down the street and he would just scream, ‘Shoot that ball!’ Shoot that ball!’

“You could tell his life was going to revolve around basketball, which for me, obviously, was a thrill to have a child who was that into it.”

As a senior at Jesuit, Pressley averaged 14.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists and led the Marauders to a 27-7 record and an appearance in the 2012 CIF NorCal Championship final.

His efforts that season went mostly unnoticed by college scouts. Aside from Portland, the only Division I school that showed significant interest was Wyoming.

Harold Pressley says his son was “a late bloomer.” Bryce’s game didn’t start coming together until his senior year at Jesuit, and even then his game was more about the team and having fun than about trying to impress a scout.

“Bryce thinks the game,” Harold says. “A lot of people couldn’t recognize that he was capable of doing everything on the court. People just really looked at scoring, and because he wasn’t averaging 20 points, they just assumed that he must not be good enough.

“If anyone took the time, they’d see that he makes great decisions, he picks and chooses when he’s going to go after something, and his timing is impeccable.”

The elder Pressley spread the word, including making a call to Villanova coach Jay Wright.

“I said, ‘Jay, you’re going to miss out,’” he says. “I said, ‘I’m not telling you to come and recruit my child. I’m just telling you about him, because I don’t want a couple of years to go by and then have you say, ‘Why didn’t you call us and tell us?’ “

That phone call was followed by another between Harold Pressley and then-Villanova assistant Doug West.

“We had the same conversation,” Harold says. “I said, ‘Bryce is not quite ready for Villanova and the Big East, but the talent is there, the potential is there, and he’s going to shock a lot of people as he gets a little quicker and stronger.”

Jesuit coach Greg Harcos worked the phones, too. One of his calls went to Pilots assistant Eric Jackson, who had seen Bryce Pressley as a high school freshman during a recruiting visit.

Jackson went back to Sacramento for another look and saw some of the potential that Harold Pressley was telling everyone about.

“It wasn’t that hard to see,” Jackson said. “If you were just watching the game casually, you probably wouldn’t have gotten that excited about Bryce. But if you watched him, you could see he had a great feel for the game.

“He had a high basketball IQ and had been taught to play the game the right way. That’s what we’re all about. That’s what we value. And I think that was one reason why it was easy for Coach Reveno to pull the trigger on him, because he fit the values of our program.”

Last season, Bryce Pressley appeared in 29 of 32 games for the Pilots, moving into the starting lineup for the final nine games. He averaged 3.8 points and 2.4 rebounds in 18.5 minutes and proved that he could play and hold his own at three positions — point guard, shooting guard and wing.

When the season ended, he met with Reveno, who gave him a list of things that needed work, including shooting, rebounding, ball-handling under pressure and weight training.

Anything else?

“Playing harder while I’m on the court, giving 100 percent effort, 100 percent of the time,” Bryce Pressley says. “That was a big one.”

He took Reveno’s suggestions to heart when he went home for summer. He spent his days working closely with Greg Howard, a Sacramento-area workout specialist, and then spent his nights honing his skills at Hardwood Palace, the local basketball facility that his dad helps run.

All that work, plus the work he did with teammates during the Pilots’ trip to Spain in August, has paid dividends.

Pressley has started all 17 games for the Pilots and leads the WCC in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.4). He ranks second on the team in minutes played behind Kevin Bailey. He also ranks fifth in scoring (7.9), third in rebounds (3.4) and second in assists (3.8), and he is shooting a team-leading 44.7 percent (17 of 38) from 3-point range.

He earned WCC player of the week honors for the week ending Dec. 22, after he was named MVP of the South Point Holiday Hoops Classic in Las Vegas. In the tourney, he averaged 17.0 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists to help lead the Pilots to decisive wins over Bradley (74-53) and Princeton (93-79).

“I’m a lot more confident in everything I do,” Pressley says. “Whether it’s bringing the ball up, dribbling, passing, rebounding, shooting … all those things, more confident.”

There are times, though, when the Pilots would like him to play with more tenacity.

“At the same time, one of his strengths that you want to be careful messing with is that he takes what the defense gives him,” Reveno says. “If LMU decides they’re going to do everything they can to take him out of his game, then he’ll just try to make others better, and he’s fine with that. He doesn’force stuff.

“There’s something to be said when he has an off game. Was it because the other team took him out of it? Did he not assert himself on the game? Or did we not do a good enough job of getting him going?”

Says Jackson: “Everybody is excited about his offensive explosions, and that’s something that might be bigger than our program. That might be something that sustains him later on in life. But for our program this year, what he has done at the defensive end is key.

“He’s making guys make tough shots. He’s tough to get around. And if somebody does get around him, he can make some plays at the rim with his long arms. He’s a very good athlete, but that’s not what you notice when you watch him play. What you notice is him making the right moves and being in the right spots.”

So, what can Pressley work on in tonight’s LMU game that will make him a better player for Saturday’s game at Pepperdine?

“Becoming better on defense, staying down in a stance, getting more deflections,” Pressley says. “And shooting. I could definitely become a better shooter off the dribble, shooting pull-ups, mid-range jumpers, 3-pointers … everything. That’s the thing about basketball, you can always improve.”