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Carl Pierre 2.0: UMass basketball’s workhorse steps into year two By: Amin Touri

In the biggest game of his life, Carl Pierre got beat.

Working at the top of a 2-3 zone against La Salle in the opening round of the 2018 Atlantic 10 Tournament in March, Pierre rotated onto Explorer guard Pookie Powell, who faked a pass to the left wing before driving right. Pierre overcommitted, and had to play catch-up. He was too late to catch Powell, who saw Khalea Turner-Morris rotate to cover Pierre, and Powell dumped it off to a wide-open Tony Washington on the left block.

Pierre, four months removed from his first appearance for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team, had to grow up fast in his freshman year. He didn’t expect to play 30-plus minutes a game, he didn’t expect to play such a major role in UMass’ transition season, and at one point, he didn’t even expect to play college basketball anywhere in 2017-18.

But here Pierre was, playing in the A-10 Tournament in Washington D.C., staring down Washington, one of the conference’s most physical rim-runners and explosive dunkers, who eventually finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds that afternoon.

Pierre, as constituted four months earlier — a thin, lanky freshman — might’ve thought better of challenging a guy like Washington in the paint, perhaps a one-way ticket to the wrong end of a highlight-reel dunk.

This version of Carl Pierre met Washington at the rim.

Pierre got a clean hand on the ball and stuffed Washington. He didn’t get a piece of it, he stuffed it altogether. The block — only Pierre’s eighth of the season — breathed new life into a UMass team that’d been struggling since halftime. The Minutemen quickly went on an 8-0 run to regain control, and eventually escaped with a 69-67 win.

"I think that was probably my favorite moment in that game,” Pierre says. “It got me fired up, it got the team fired up — I don't know, it was probably my most memorable moment from that whole tournament."

Pierre only finished with 11 points that day, hitting one 3-pointer all afternoon, a tough day for the conference’s most accurate deep threat. His impact, however went well beyond.

Eight months later, the maturation of Carl Pierre continues.

Just before 10 a.m. on a Saturday qualifies as a late start for Carl Pierre.

His best friend on these mornings is The Gun, an automated rebounder that fires passes back at him every few seconds, allowing him to take hundreds of shots in quick succession.

The efficiency is necessary when you’ve got a thousand shots to take.

Pierre starts in the right corner, and moves to a new spot every 100 shots. The passes come rapid fire, every couple of seconds, and he’s putting up over 20 shots a minute.

He gets into a solid rhythm — he hits 14 in a row from the wing at one point — and three LED panels on the front of the machine flash the stats and keep Pierre motivated. Red digits show his shots taken, shots made and the percentage, which hovers right around 80 percent throughout the session.

It’s a four-ball operation, and his flow is interrupted every now and again when a shot rims out and misses The Gun’s netting, falling to the hardwood and rolling away. When he loses one ball, he’s frustrated but continues — once he’s lost a second, he has to get them, and fires one at the wall while he resets the machine.

“It gets so annoying sometimes,” Pierre says, half-joking. “I hate when the balls bounce out of the thing. I hate it.”

By the time Turner-Morris, the second person to arrive, enters the gym, Pierre is already 300 shots deep. He’s close to 500 when Luwane Pipkins strolls in, and has already hoisted 800 when the last few Minutemen show up for practice.

Having shot a cool 792-of-1,000 for the morning, Pierre sits on the practice court bench, with practice looming at 11 a.m.

His shooting time on Saturday morning depends on his mood — sometimes he shoots earlier in the morning, sometimes right before practice — but the midweek routine doesn’t change much.

On non-lift days, Pierre usually rises around 7 or 7:15 a.m. to get in the gym by 7:45, shooting until around 9:30. But when he’s got 8 a.m. lift, Pierre’s up and at ‘em by 5:45 a.m., and The Gun starts firing by 6:15 a.m.

The day’s not over — the morning effort is only half the routine. Pierre comes back every day before practice, and has to make 500 shots before he throws his practice jersey on. A thousand attempts in the morning, 500 makes in the afternoon. It’s a grueling routine that totals between 1,600-1,700 shots a day, but he never misses a session.

"Some days it's tough, I'm not going to lie,” Pierre says. “I've been doing it for a while, so it doesn't hurt as much anymore, but the first few weeks were terrible. Real tough. I enjoy it, it's nice knowing you're in the gym while other people are sleeping."

Pierre got the routine from assistant coach Rasheen Davis, who borrowed it from Rick Pitino when Davis was at Kentucky.

“Everywhere I've been I've given it to guys,” Davis says. “It's basically a thousand shots in the morning, five spots, four balls, fastest speed possible. It's working on game reps, working on conditioning, then at night come back, 500 makes, and take Sunday off.

"Carl's a worker. He was [shooting a lot] last year too, I just gave him something more defined where you could see the results. Even last year he was always in the gym, so I hope it helps, but I'm not going to sit up here and take credit for it. He works. He works all the time.”

The volume has increased but the shooting isn’t new — Pierre was putting up 400-500 shots every morning in high school, taking a bus and a train from his home in Randolph to Boston College High School with his good friend Travis Evee to work out on hot summer mornings, and before the morning bell during the school year.

After his freshman year, Pierre was approached by Ryan Bernardi, two years his senior at BC High, who’d been working out with Evee — now at Vermont Academy — and invited Pierre to join.

“That’s my guy,” Pierre said of Bernardi, now the head coach at Burlington Christian Academy in North Carolina. “So one time in the summer we'd come in where we'd come and do all sorts of drills — pushing cones while handling, using tennis balls and medicine balls and I think the work that we put in in those summers, and even early-morning before school sometimes we'd come in and put in work, and I feel like those workouts helped me grow a lot."

The workouts instilled a work ethic in Pierre, and it carried over to his time at UMass. The endless repetitions paid off during his freshman campaign, as Pierre was the A-10’s best 3-point shooter, knocking down triples at a 47.3 percent clip, nearly four full percentage points better than second place.

Playing next to All-Conference guard Pipkins, Pierre became the A-10’s most lethal spot-up shooter, and it all comes back to early mornings on The Gun.

“It's refreshing for the entire coaching staff because you've got someone who's always in the gym,” Davis says. “And when you see the fruits of your labor like he did last year, it makes you want to work even more, and hopefully some of the other guys will start to see 'hey, he's doing something, he's getting this success, maybe we should start doing it.'

“And that's how you build a program, and not just a team."

Pierre still works on his shot every single day, but his summer focus was crafting the other parts of his game — mainly putting the ball on the floor, getting to the rim and creating shots off the bounce.

"I've been working on my game off the dribble a lot this summer,” Pierre says. “The next step from just taking spot-up threes, coming off the dribble getting to the lane, pull-up shots and all the skill shots in between, I've been working on that. I think I've just grown in terms of aggression, I'm hunting shots more than I did last year, and I think it should be good for me."

The other part of his on-court improvement comes in the weight room — noticeably bigger than he was a year ago, Pierre’s spent countless hours with Coty Greene, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, getting stronger and building on that thin, lanky frame.

"I think when he started last year, just watching our Lowell game from last year, Carl was so thin,” McCall says. “He'd get whipped off the bounce, he'd get pushed around a bit, and as the season went on he just got better and better. He's not the same player he was 12 months ago — he's stronger, he's more physical.”

"Carl's one of those kids where if he comes in and he tell him to stand on his head and it's going to make him a better basketball player, he's going to do it,” Greene added. “He's not going to ask questions, he's not going to ask why. His name on Twitter is "horse," and he's a horse. He's a workhorse.”

Pierre was forced to grow quickly as a freshman, thrown into a situation at UMass where seven players had transferred out in the spring and scholarship players were dropping like flies. McCall likened Pierre’s situation to that of Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure’s All-Conference guard and last season’s A-10 Co-Player of the Year, who was similarly forced into a starring role as a rookie.

“[Adams] went there as a freshman and played an enormous amount, and that helped his growth and development to become one of the best guards in this league,” McCall said. “And I think the same thing is going to be the case for Carl. He played so much as a freshman, and he's going to only continue to get better and better, and become one of the better guards in this league."

As a player, a comparison with Adams’ backcourt partner, fellow A-10 First Team All-Conference guard Matt Mobley, is perhaps more apt, but the situations Pierre and Adams were put into early are extremely similar.

"I'm pretty sure [McCall] said it was because we got the opportunity to play early on in our freshman years and got baptized by fire, that kind of thing,” Pierre says. “I liked it, I did. Of course there were a lot of growing pains, a lot of things to get accustomed to, but I think that's the best way to learn. Just making mistakes and rolling with them, trying to play through them, it benefited me a lot."

Sophomore Carl Pierre is bigger and stronger, he’s looking for shots and he’s putting the ball on the floor — but the kid’s grown up, and if you take the ball out of his hands, there’s improvement elsewhere.

The day before UMass’ scrimmage with Westfield State, the Minutemen are practicing on the Mullins floor, where they’ll don white and maroon UMass jerseys for the first time all fall in just 24 hours time.

The Minutemen are scrimmaging themselves, alternating offense and defense in the half-court — Pierre, Samba Diallo, Rashaan Holloway, Kieran Hayward, Tre Wood and Turner-Morris are in maroon (with one sitting out each possession), while Pipkins, Curtis Cobb, Jonathan Laurent, Sy Chatman and Keon Clergeot flip their practice jerseys to white.

Holloway catches an entry pass from Wood, and Chatman and Laurent are late to collapse on the towering center. Holloway thinks twice about taking it himself, despite the open lane, and throws it out to Hayward for a contested three, which the Australian misses short.

“Big boy!” Pierre yells at Holloway, seven inches above him and three-and-a-half years his senior. “Stop throwing it out, take it strong! They can’t stop you!”

He gathers the white shirts just below the free throw line, while Pipkins leads the maroon side back to the logo at halfcourt to get a play call from McCall.

“We need a stop!” Pierre shouts, one arm around Wood and the other around Turner-Morris. “Y’all want to sit down, right? We need a stop.”

Holloway sits for this defensive possession, while the rest of Pierre’s squad takes a man. A series of dribble-handoffs leave the ball with Pipkins at the top of the key, and he slips past Wood into the lane before pulling up for a floater at the free-throw line, a Pipkins special.

Diallo rotates over and contests enough for Pipkins to alter his shot, and Turner-Morris gets there in time to block his shot entirely, and there’s Pierre, shouting and screaming again. “Yeah, K! Yeah, K!”

“One thing I'll say about Carl is that he leads,” McCall says. “Not only by his play on the floor, but by everything he does and the way he handles himself off the floor, he does everything right. I've seen him really grow from last year to now, into wanting to be more of a vocal leader, whereas last year he's just trying to pick and choose his spots, where Carl's one of the loudest voices in practice and that's what this team really needs."

In the exhibition the following night, Pierre is constantly pulling huddles together, providing equal parts instruction and encouragement, making sure everyone’s on the same page and on the ball.

Pierre sits most of the second half, but even from the bench he’s loud and engaged, his voice carrying across the gym. When Diallo hits the floor after a block attempt, Pierre’s yelling at his teammates, “get Samba up! Pick him up! Let’s go!”

"Last year, I saw that guys would listen to me when I spoke, and take in what I had to say,” Pierre says. “So I thought why not just be more vocal, I think it'd be good for our team have not only one vocal leader, why not have two. So I just tried to come out of my shell and talk to the guys, and I think it's been helpful. It's been a lot of fun just being able to grow into that leadership role."

Cobb describes the second iteration as "more focused. he's a lot more vocal. Last year he was like a sponge, just taking things in; this year he's kind of helping the younger guys. That's the biggest difference for him, he's just growing up more."

As a freshman, Pierre wasn’t vocal. He wasn’t a leader, he was learning — from Pipkins, from senior C.J. Anderson, from everyone he could. Now, he’s taking on that role. It doesn’t matter if it’s a smaller freshman like Wood or a giant fifth-year senior like Holloway, Pierre is taking charge, day in and day out.

“I think Carl really earned the respect of his teammates because of his play and then just the way that he handles himself, to where this team needs him to speak up more,” says McCall. “He's the first one in the gym, when your two most vocal guys are the first ones at practice every day shooting, that's leadership. He's earned the right to speak up more, just by how he handles himself."

The Minutemen have significantly more talent than they did last season, but with the departure of Anderson, the sole senior in 2017-18, there’s a leadership vacuum. With Pierre taking the freshmen under his wing, and setting an example for the upperclassmen too, the gap is closing quickly.

Pierre’s path to UMass is well-documented — he was a very late recruit, signing in June of 2017, having thought for months that he was bound for prep school — but now he’s ready for year two. A different player, a different leader, a different man altogether.

"I'm so grateful he's here,” McCall says. “I think back to when I first got the job and there were so many moving pieces and moving parts and so many different things going on, I couldn't be more thankful that we took him and he wanted to come. He's going to go down as one of the best guards to ever play here."

An hour after the buzzer sounded on the Westfield exhibition, Carl Pierre is back on the Mullins floor, shooting.

He’s not quite alone — Turner-Morris is working some post moves on his own on the other end, and a handful of Mullins employees float in and out, collecting trash and moving chairs — but the crowd has long exited.

He flips passes to himself out on the wing, facing up imaginary defenders and driving from the left side and finishing with both hands, spinning home layups with his left and throwing down dunks with his right.

"I didn't think I played to the level that I know I could play, so I just figured why not come back and get some extra reps in,” said Pierre, who finished just 1-of-5 from the field for three points in 18 minutes. “I was trying to shoot the shots I missed in the game, trying to recreate that.”

After a few minutes he pulls off his shirt and starts firing threes without a rebounder, human or mechanical. He runs from spot to spot — he doesn’t walk, he runs — He hits one from the corner, chases the ball and runs down to the other corner, hits another, then sprints out to the wing; this continues for another 15 minutes.

“I was just trying to shoot until I felt better,” he says. “It felt good to get in the gym late night in the arena, and continue working on my game."

Eventually he pulls off his headphones and leaves them on the scorers’ table and walks over to Turner-Morris. He spends another 20 minutes working with the big man, throwing him entry passes for several minutes, before rebounding for his fellow sophomore as Turner-Morris throws up some mid-range jumpers.

They eventually take a seat courtside and chat for another 10 minutes, before making their way to the southeast tunnel and leaving through the passage between the Mullins Center and the adjoining Champions Center.

The final buzzer sounded at 8:53 p.m. By the time Carl Pierre exits the building, it’s 10:47, and not a soul walks the Mullins concourse.

When the lights are on and the crowd looks on, he shines. But when the lights dim, and nobody’s watching, Carl Pierre continues to work.

Amin Touri can be reached at atouri@umass.edu, and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.

(Photos by Katherine Mayo and Caroline O'Connor)

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