BURNABY — There is an old saying about getting so caught up in the moment that you can’t see the forest for the trees.
Yet for JJ Pankratz, a guy who has played in more games and had more coaches and teammates than any Clan men’s player during Simon Fraser basketball’s challenging NCAA era, seeing the ray of light through some of the program’s darkest and densest moments has never been an issue.
And now, coming off a summer in which he fittingly added copious amounts of chiseled muscle to his 6-foot-6, 225-pound frame by moving trees at an agricultural nursery in Matsqui, the fifth-year redshirt senior can actually say that he can see the forest for the trees.
Since coming to Simon Fraser for the 2013-14 season, one in which he red-shirted after earning B.C. all-star status for Abbotsford’s Yale Lions at the 2013 AAAA provincial tournament, Pankratz has been a part of almost every meaningful moment in the men’s basketball program’s transition into the ranks of the NCAA.
Yes, he’s seen plenty of losing.
Yet he’s never let it affect his daily process, one during which he has played under three different head coaches (James Blake, Virgil Hill, Steve Hanson), a slew of assistant coaches and 46 different teammates.
Now, in his senior season, one in which a vastly improved Clan team is unlucky not to be 4-2 in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, instead of 2-4, Pankratz has started out like his best-ever season is before him.
Heading into Tuesday’s huge 7 p.m. home tip-off against arch-rival Western Washington at the West Gym, the GNAC’s leaders’ at 6-0, Pankratz sits second in team scoring at 15.5 ppg, and first in rebounds (7.2 rpg), blocks (21 total) and minutes played (30.7 mpg).
The Clan surrendered a last-second lead in regulation to lose 98-93 in overtime at Seattle Pacific on Dec. 30. Then, following an impressive 91-78 win over Central Washington last Thursday, Simon Fraser fell 82-81 this past Saturday when visiting Northwest Nazarene went to the free throw line and snapped a tie with one-tenth of a second remaining in the fourth quarter.
“It’s been awesome,” the unflappable Pankratz said last week when asked about the ups and downs of his time atop Burnaby Mountain. “These last couple of years, I feel like we’ve gotten a core group of guys together and with all of our work, we’re starting to see some success. So it has been awesome to see all of the hard work pay off.”
AS STRONG AS OAK
Find an old snapshot of Pankratz from his high school days, when he and current UBC guard Jauquin Bennett-Boire (two years his junior) teammed up to put the roar into the Lions’ attack, and the physique he boasts today bears absolutely no resemblance.
Pankratz’s guard skills, which have been his foundation while he has grown progressively stronger and taken on more front court responsibilities, are these days at their most dangerous and effective because he is now able to simply overpower the majority of matchups thrown in front of him.
“It was definitely a priority to really get into the weight room this past offseason,” begins Pankratz, who in a pinch could play any of the game’s five positions. “I really stuck to the program, too. My No. 1 goal was to get bigger, stronger and more athletic.”
And it doesn’t take too much in-depth investigation to see what it’s added to his game.
“Winning physical battles, driving to the rim, not shying away from contact, but going through it and finishing at the rim,” says Pankratz, describing the benefits of his added brawn.
“And it wasn’t just lifting four days a week, it was having a pretty physical job,” he says of his work hauling semi-mature saplings. “Guys would order a certain amount of trees and I would have to go and load up the truck. I stuck to that schedule. I didn’t take any days off.”
Rooted in success, Pankratz has this season shot 48 per cent from the field and 35 per cent from beyond the three-point arc.
GOOD TO MEET YOU, I’M JJ!
We threw a stat out there earlier in this story, the one about the fact that Pankratz has had 46 different teammates since the start of his 2013-14 redshirt season.
Now in his fifth overall season, that’s an average of over nine new teammates per season.
Yet the reason for Pankratz’s optimism this season is simple.
Head coach Hanson’s second season at the helm has begun with just six new players, five of whom are redshirts, and one of whom has been injured since the start of the campaign.
It’s easily the most stable environment that program has known since its NAIA/CIS days under longtime former head coach and current Thompson Rivers bench boss Scott Clark, who himself replaced current Phoenix Suns head coach Jay Triano in 1995.
And when you ask Hanson, who along with assistants Sean Shook and Bret Macdonald, have made solid initial strides in forging change within the program, just what Pankratz has come to represent in the Clan’s NCAA development, the answer goes beyond significant,.
“I think for any Canadian player in our program, he represents the ideal guy,” begins Hanson. “Most are not immediately ready to play here out of high school. JJ spent three seasons in the weight room and he’s worked so hard and now he has earned his chance to shine.
“He’s been great,” adds Hanson, who watched as Pankratz scored a game-high 23 points in the team’s OT loss at Seattle Pacific. “He’s been outstanding on the boards (7th overall in the GNAC), he’s done everything we’ve expected of him, and he is stepping up right when we need him.
“He could have left like some others did when we had a couple of coaching changes,” Hanson adds, of the migratory path many other Clan players took after the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons when head coaches Blake and Hill departed in back-to-back seasons.
“But he didn’t, and that says a lot about him,” Hanson added. “Playing at this school, his hometown school, was important to him. Now he’s going to be graduating. And he is going to leave as that example of the local star that we need in this program, the guy who is an example for all of our young (B.C.) guys coming up.”
The losses have been tough, but they are making the wins especially sweet these days for JJ Pankratz.
And for the kid who could always see the forest for the tress, it’s the ending he had always envisioned.
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