CARBONDALE - A 19-year-old kid in a man's body, SIU sophomore forward Davante Drinkard plays a bit older than he really is.
At 6-foot-9, 225 pounds, he is about the biggest post player the Salukis have heading into tonight's game against Bradley. If Drinkard can make the kind of strides he's made this season, he may someday be the best. After a trial by fire last season as a true freshman, he is showing the freshman what the Salukis' football mentality is all about.
"They just want me to produce and help the younger guys get better," Drinkard said. "That's mainly my role, just go in there and rebound and finish around the rim, and by doing that, help these young guys, teach them their roles, and they'll get better in the process."
Drinkard was forced into a starter's role last season after center Gene Teague sprained his ankle. He started six games at the beginning of the Missouri Valley Conference season and played in 31 of SIU's 32 games. Drinkard averaged a modest 1.5 points and 1.5 rebounds as an 18-year-old right out of high school.
He struggled to catch the ball in traffic, missed his share of bunnies, and struggled from the free-throw line. Drinkard made only 16-of-37 at the stripe in 2010-11, and has only moderately improved that to 50 percent this season (8-of-16).
Academically, he had more struggles, missing the first semester this season. He came back against Northern Illinois on Dec. 17 and played 19 minutes. Then came his first double-figure scoring game as a Saluki against SIU Edwardsville, when he made 5-of-8 from the field and finished with 10 points in 13 minutes. At Bradley on Jan. 4, Drinkard made 6-of-7 from the floor off the bench and scored a career-high 12 points.
In 14 games this season, Drinkard is 21-of-50 from the field (42 percent). SIU assistant coach Brad Korn, who played for the Salukis from 1999 to 2004, said he's worked with Drinkard on becoming more confident with his left-handed hook shot and taking the ball to the middle of the floor.
"I think, for him, it's continuing to do those things and become more fluid around the rim," Korn said. "Maybe get a little face-up, a little bank shot off the glass, just in the post. Certain things that can expand his game. I don't think he's ever going to be one of those guys that can ball-screen, pick-and-pop and shoot a 3."
On Twitter: @Todd_Hefferman