VANCOUVER — It’s tough to fully quantify because there really isn’t a standard set of metrics you can apply to the question of just who the most improved player in the last quarter century of UBC Thunderbirds men’s basketball really is.
Yet when you throw all of the ingredients required into that figurative stew pot of hoops, then turn the stove top — in the name of patience — to a slow n’easy seven-year simmer, you get to savour all that is truly great about the ‘Birds senior forward Brian Wallack.
That’s what happens this weekend when Wallack, the chiseled 6-foot-7, 235-pound vessel of kinetic energy, plays the final two games of his seven-season UBC career as the No. 4 nationally-ranked Thunderbirds (17-5, 13-5) close out their Canada West regular season with games Friday (7:30 p.m.) and Saturday (6 p.m.) at War Memorial Gymnasium against the No. 5 Calgary Dinos (18-9, 14-4) in what looks like the nation’s best matchup of the week. Also at the home, the unranked UBC women’s team (21-6, 16-2) puts its 12-game win streak on the line when it faces No. 4 Calgary (27-3, 15-3) on Friday (5:30 p.m.) and Saturday (4 p.m.).
On Saturday, UBC will hold its annual Seniors Night with the men’s spotlight shining on both Semiahmoo Secondary grad Wallack and his fellow graduating senior, the star guard James Woods of Langley’s Walnut Grove Secondary. From the women’s team, seniors set to be recognized are Hailey Counsell (Port Moody-Heritage Woods) and Ancaster, Ont. native Emily Martindale.
From his first season on campus back in 2017-18 through the end of the 2021-22 season, Wallack spent five years — his first as a redshirt, his fourth as part of the Covid-cancelled campaign — as a player learning how to trust the fact that he was the kind of player who could someday lead a team at every level.
And over that span, it was through the most basic of personal belief systems that Wallack was able to blossom in ways which have gone beyond the three inches of height and the 55 pounds of strength he’s added along the way.
“His growth has just been exponential,” said UBC head coach Kevin Hanson of Wallack, who this season is the only player in the Canada West to sit in the top four in both scoring (19.4 ppg) and rebounding (9.5 rpg). “Now he’s leaving here with a master’s degree (in kinesiology) to boot. There’s a guy who has put in a ton of time dedicating his body to eating healthy, to training and that whole mindset towards the game.”
And the best part of all?
It comes when you ask Wallack for the most important ingredient in his recipe for success.
“You know, I haven’t done a between-the-legs dribble in any of our games since my first year here,” reflected Wallack earlier this week. “I just decided to keep it really simple.”
“If I think back to my first three seasons (of eligibility), I knew I wasn’t the most offensively-skilled player compared to my all-star teammates like Jadon Cohee and Manroop Clair,” Wallack remembers, citing the team’s two leading scorers (19.3 and 18.9 ppg respectively) in his redshirt freshman season of 2018-19.
“But early on, I had a good mentor in Mike McNeill telling me to just find what my team needed most from me at the time,” he continued of the former Simon Fraser head coach and UBC assistant who he had known since his high school days at Semiahmoo.
“For me, at the time, that was rebounding. I put on a lot of mass in the first couple of years. I grew a couple of inches, and I was really uncoordinated when it came to scoring. But I could really get rebounds. To me, it seemed that that was going to be my destiny at UBC for the next five years and I was happy with it because it gave me a role.”
Yet in hindsight, grasping that role for the sake of identity and then keeping the rest of everything else consistent and simple is what eventually would allow him to double his points-per-minute production when comparing his two most recent UBC seasons against his first three.
WHEN NUMBERS CAN’T LIE
Somewhere along his journey at UBC, with his behind-the-legs crossover now buried in mothballs, Brian Wallack began to see the benefits that his consistent, single-minded regimen was making in his game and his life.
“I didn’t have much responsibility that first year as a redshirt in terms of things like travel,” he said. “(As a team), we’d go into the weight room three times a week, but I started to go in every day. We have an amazing weight room coach here in Joe McCullum and I made going to the weight-room my extra-curricular thing. In could barely dunk in Grade 12, but I ran with it and now, seven years in, it’s really helped me. I can push around anyone I want to on the court.”
That said, Hanson paid Wallack a visit in Langley over the summer during the latter’s first professional stint with the CEBL’s Vancouver Bandits.
“I went out to watch him practice one day and I hadn’t seen him in about a month-and-a-half… and when I saw him, his deltoid was the size of my head,” said Hanson of one of Wallack’s massive shoulders. “(Bandits’ GM and head coach) Kyle Julius really instilled a lot of confidence in him.”
Combine all of that with Wallack’s desire to keep everything simple, and that’s how you take the kind of quantum leap he has these past two seasons.
In fact comparing Wallack over the first three seasons of his UBC career versus his last two seasons provides stark contrasts, especially in the game’s most bread-and-butter staple, that of his point-scoring frequency.
And the simplest way to illustrate that is through his pace of points-per-minute scoring.
With that in mind, Wallack has basically doubled his efficiency when the first three seasons of his career are put up against these past two, the second still two regular-season games shy of completion.
Consider that over his first three seasons, Wallack scored at the pace of .319 points per minute.
Over these past two, as his actual minutes-played per game have been given a huge boost, and his responsibilities in the offence have risen accordingly, Wallack has been scoring at a pace of .605 points-per-minute.
For clarity’s sake, projecting his PPM numbers over the course of a regulation 40-minute game, you get the true flavour of how much more proficient and efficient he has become as you learn he’s gone from averaging 12.76 ppg over his first three seasons versus 24.20 ppg over these past two.
Increased minutes will forever be a double-edged sword when it comes to a player’s opportunity to either shine or shrink within the game’s major statistical categories.
So often increased minutes expose a player’s weaknesses rather than highlight them.
But in Wallack’s case, he is every bit the player he has shown himself to be in 2022-23 and 2023-24.
Not only has he doubled his scoring pace over that span per minute, his field goal attempts per game over 40 minutes have gone from 8.56 per game to 15.40 per game, and his free throw attempts per game over 40 minutes have jumped from 5.08 to 9.56 per game. And to boot, his rebounds-per-minute have remained static throughout.
The safety-valve check point here for Wallack?
Often times a player’s efficiency in certain categories can jump with a surge in minutes, yet come with the downside of a poor overall performance by the team.
Yet UBC won at a combined .774 percentage over Wallack’s first three seasons when he wasn’t asked to be a go-to scorer, and it’s dropped just slightly over these past two seasons to a still-stellar .722 winning percentage.
UBC head coach Hanson doesn’t need to hear those numbers to know they shine true for his senior.
“One of the amazing things is to look at his fouls-drawn and we get that stat after every game… it’s seven-to-10 times per game that he is being fouled,” the head coach says with pride. “It’s a stat that really doesn’t get talked about a lot, but it puts us into bonus and it puts fouls on key personnel on the other team. He has gone from red-shirt to now our go-to-guy.”
ON ROLE MODELS AND THE POWER OF SELF-BELIEF
Study Brian Wallack’s game and you see the leadership qualities of one of the program’s true greats in point guard Casey Archibald, a player Hanson actually compared his rookie to during the latter’s recruitment process based on the fact that Wallack had largely played the same role in high school with the Semiahmoo Totems that Archibald was playing with the ‘Birds.
There’s similarities as well to the punishing, physical play the ‘Birds got almost two decades ago when the Brookswood Secondary pair of Graham Bath and Brent Malish came to the Point Grey campus.
Yet the player that both Wallack and Hanson each mention as the best comparable is Tommy Nixon (2009-15), the 6-foot-6, 220-pound former Kitsilano Blue Demon, who like Wallack, took a huge jump in his numbers midway through his UBC career, finishing with all-time averages of 13.6 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 39 per cent from three-point range.
“When I first got recruited here, I was a buck-80, 6-4 and I got recruited as a shooting point guard,” remembers Wallack, who was coming off a great run at Semiahmoo under head coach Ed Lefurgy. “I didn’t expect to grow more, but I put it on myself to put on a lot more weight.”
He looked up to Nixon who, like Wallack, lived in the weight room.
“If there was someone I truly looked up to in my first couple of years here, it was Tommy Nixon,” said Wallack. “I chose to be No. 7 because he was No. 7 back in the day. He was kind of that small forward/power forward… a big muscular guy that made his way to the basket.
“Obviously he had a better shooting touch,” continued Wallack of Nixon, who still plays professionally overseas in Hong Kong. “I kind of bull my way through, and I definitely picked up a lot of things from his game.”
For his part, Hanson doesn’t hide the fact that his own players went out of their way to let him know how much they thought Wallack needed to be a bigger part of the rotation coming off the Covid-cancelled season.
“I remember in the earlier years the players telling me that they thought he was the hardest working guy, the glue guy behind the scenes,” Hanson recalled. “One of the best decisions I’ve made was listening to the players and giving Brian a chance. We knew about his athleticism but he has surpassed what I thought he was going to be in terms of that.
“Seven years ago I knew he was going to be good, but I didn’t know how good. And man, he has been unbelievable for us.”
Hanson may well have listened to his players regarding Wallack, yet when you ask Wallack, he assures all that his head coach has been behind him every step of the way with his positivity and belief.
“Kev always believed in me being an All-Canadian or a Canada West all-star,” Wallack said. “He would tell me that during the end-of-year meetings, the start-of-season meetings. But I didn’t truly believe it myself because of the role I saw myself in at that moment. It worked for me because Kev gave me confidence in myself.”
Now, with his final games at War Memorial Gymnasium just days away and the playoff road to nationals soon set to kick in, Brian Wallack has made the simple look, well… simple.
And that’s no small feat.
“The first year coming out of Covid, I knew I was a good basketball player but I just didn’t trust my abilities,” he said. “Last year I said to myself that I was going to leave no stone unturned in terms of my training so that when I go onto the court, I could trust my abilities to their greatest extent.”
Simply put, it couldn’t have worked out any better.
And that’s without even attempting a between-the-legs dribble.
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