Expectations have changed for Le'Bryan Nash.
Expectations of others, as well as Nash's own expectations.
And it's a change for the better.
When he arrived at Oklahoma State two years ago, Nash was viewed as a program savior, an elite recruit ready to return the Cowboys to prominence, both in the Big 12 and nationally. It was too much, too soon — if ever, realistically.
Yet with that burden lifted and with the arrival of Marcus Smart and Markel Brown's rising star status, Nash has settled into a more reasonable role, albeit a valuable role: Rebounder.
“That's the biggest thing in my mind every time I step on the court, is to help this team rebound,” Nash said. “Be the best rebounder on this team. Ain't nothing wrong with being the best rebounding guy.
“That's what I'm trying to be on this team.”
Nash's contributions go further than just board work, as he's averaging 13.8 points a game as a 54.6-percent shooter. But he's also OSU's leading rebounder, averaging 6.2 per game as the No. 7-ranked Cowboys enter Saturday night's clash with No. 20 Colorado at the MGM Grand Showcase in Las Vegas. Tip time is 10:30 p.m.
Nash once declared himself a scorer, after averaging 22 points at Lincoln High in Dallas, where he was a McDonald's All-American and the No. 2-rated small forward in the country and was coveted by many of the top programs in college basketball.
His adjustment to the college game, however, was marked by highs and lows as he struggled to live up to the heavy buildup heaped on his shoulders. Help arrived a year ago when Smart stepped into the star role and Brown raised the level of his game. And the roster overall is improved, allowing Nash to find a seemingly more comfortable place on the periphery of the spotlight.
“We've just got a lot more help around him,” said Cowboys coach Travis Ford. “He's not getting double- and triple-teamed as much. There's just so much more help around him. And he's a skilled player. He understands the offensive game. He takes better shots than he used to. He understands it a little bit more.
“That's just maturity, getting older and understanding. I'm proud of him in that. He really understands his role.”
Better yet, Nash embraces his role.
He's still a capable scorer, an improved scorer even, now that he's all but abandoned the 3-point shooting he once envisioned as a strength of his game. At his best, Nash is a slasher who scores around the rim.
And he's a solid option and a strong complement to Smart and Brown, with eight double-digit scoring performances in OSU's first 11 games. He scored a season-high 22 points, to go with 10 rebounds, in taking the Most Valuable Trophy at the All-College Classic.
“Over the summer, me and Le'Bryan talked,” Smart said, “and I told him, ‘As a point guard, I need to get you the ball a lot more.' He told me he was going to demand the ball a lot more. He said, ‘With that I also know it comes with a lot of responsibility. I've also got to do it on the defensive end.'”
Improved defense is another major upgrade to Nash's overall game. And he's playing with a regular passion that previously seemed to appear intermittently.
“I'm really trying to play as hard as I can to help this team,” Nash said, “and that's exactly what everybody else is trying to do for this team.”
Across the board, Nash's numbers are up. His rebounding average is 1.7 more than his career mark; he's shooting better than his 42.9 career effort; he's already blocked more shots than all of last season; and he's averaging one fewer turnover a game.
Nash has redefined his game, literally.
“We've talked a lot to him about getting double-doubles,” Ford said. “We've been even more specific. We've said, ‘You've got to get some double-doubles. You're tall. You're athletic. You're strong. You're big. We need you to start playing like that.'
“And he has done just that.”