OMAHA, Neb. — Justin Patton used to walk through Creighton's locker room during his redshirt freshman season and make pretend phone calls to NBA scouts and representatives at Nike negotiating his shoe contract.
Patton looked the part of a future lottery pick—a mobile 7-footer with a 7'3" wingspan and a feathery touch—but to think he'd get there soon belonged in the land of make-believe. Lottery picks do not redshirt as freshmen. Nor are their identities unknown to most scouts.
When Patton verbally committed to his hometown college team the summer before his senior year of high school, the locals were stumped. On a Creighton message board thread at the Bluejay Underground discussing his commitment, the second response is from a fan posing the question, "Walk-on?"
"People think I'm lying when I say that I had never heard of him, and I live in Omaha," said Nick Bahe, a former Creighton player who now does color commentary for Fox Sports 1 and has a radio show in town. "The high school is 20 minutes away from my house, and I had never heard of him. I had to call the Creighton staff and ask, 'Who is this guy?'"
Everyone in town knows Patton now. His ascension in the first two-plus months of the season—13.7 points per game on 71.8 percent shooting, 6.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game—has him rocketing up draft boards and is a big reason why No. 16 Creighton was ranked higher last week (seventh) than at any other time in school history.
Patton hit the same kind of genetic lottery that turned Anthony Davis into the ideal modern big man. Like Davis, Patton was a late bloomer. He was just 6'2" as a high school freshman and had spent most of his playing time at guard as a youth.
That's why he's comfortable out on the perimeter but can also score in the post, finish alley-oops above the rim, pass, dribble, block shots and defend a guard in a switch.
"He is everything except the brand name," an NBA scout told Bleacher Report. "If you went off only this year, you would have to argue he's the best big-man prospect in the draft."
Three years ago, that didn't seem possible. Patton wasn't a phenom waiting to be discovered; he wasn't even that good.
Jared Andersen, the newly named head coach at Omaha North High School, spied his big man in the stands at a pro-am game in Omaha. Justin Patton was nowhere to be found on any recruiting websites, but his growing frame promised an athleticism Andersen would need.
"Let's see if you can go dunk that," Andersen told Patton, who was about to begin his junior year.
The problem was that Patton was wearing flip-flops.
"He couldn't do it," Andersen said. "He's in flip-flops and he's cold, but he's 6'6". You'd still think he'd be able to do that as a 16-year-old."
Patton was so awkward growing into his body—from 6'2" to 6'10" in the span of three years—that one day during passing period he gashed his forehead open walking through a door. He would fall so much during games that his mom would tell him "try to stay off the floor this game."
"People kept telling me to hold your own," Patton says. "Even the coaches would tell me, 'Justin, quit being soft.' I can't help it. I'm literally like a stick. If you push me over, I'm going to move because I'm not big."
|Patton's high school stats at Omaha North|
|Omaha North HS|
Patton struggled to keep the weight he did gain because he was constantly sick. "My doctors were telling me it happens with the growth and your body just has to catch up," he said. "I would not eat because I didn't feel good, so then I would lose weight."
His first few games under Andersen were no more inspiring. Reporter Jacob Padilla said the first time he saw Patton during his junior year, he air-balled three of his first four shots.
"He finished with two points against a team with a 6'3" center," said Padilla, who covers Omaha high school basketball for Nebraska HS Hoops.
But in the spring of his junior year, Patton finally started getting used to his body. He was the same height and weight for more than a month, and he was dominating for the first time in his life at his high school's open gyms.
Former Nebraska-Omaha assistant coach Randall Herbst, who witnessed one of these open-gym sessions, told Andersen, "Coach, this is going to get crazy with him, because 6'9" guys aren't supposed to be able to have footwork like that and show those skills."
In early June 2014, Andersen took his team to the Creighton team camp.
"He was averaging, like, 25 points, 18 rebounds, five blocks, running the floor, dunking everything," Andersen said. "He put that show on for six games. It was every game. The first couple games it was maybe a couple Creighton coaches watching. By that last game, every single Creighton coach was watching. And he was doing it again and again."
Creighton head coach Greg McDermott wasted no time. He invited Patton, his AAU coach Bob Franzese and Andersen in for a meeting before the camp ended.
McDermott showed Patton a highlight video—the package, Andersen remembers, was mostly Doug McDermott from his 2013-14 National Player of the Year campaign—and offered Patton a scholarship.
"For Justin, who was a versatile big guy, he saw it and he liked it," Andersen said. "But it wouldn't have mattered. He was ready to go regardless. They could have showed him anything. They could have showed him a cartoon."
Patton committed on the spot:
Bob Franzese @BobFranzese
So proud of and excited for this future Bluejay! http://t.co/UegIjsJ7ut6/17/2014, 8:55:07 PM
Over the next few months, he broke out on the AAU circuit. Scout.com recruiting analyst Evan Daniels rated him a 5-star prospect after watching only two games in Las Vegas.
"Had he gone out on the circuit in July and did what he ended up doing, we would have fought everybody in the country for him," McDermott said.
It wasn't always so easy for Patton to impress.
Despite his developing physical gifts, Patton tested Andersen's patience in their first season together at Omaha North. Frustrated that he could not find a way to get his big man to realize the level of intensity he needed to maintain, Andersen finally put a chair in the corner of the court during a practice his junior year.
Essentially, Patton was given a timeout.
"You've got your 6'10" best player, who's [acting like he's] 12 or 13," Andersen said.
Patton was not a bad kid, but there was an innocence about him that made it difficult for him to see the path he needed to be on. Take AAU basketball, for instance. The first time his AAU team traveled by air to Las Vegas for a tournament, Patton and his coaches almost missed the flight because they couldn't get Patton out of the car. "He'd never flown before and been away from his mom and his brother," Franzese said.
At the Orleans Hotel in Vegas that week, Patton had an ice cream cone in the lounge area. Franzese asked him where he got it. "The servant gave it to me," Patton told him.
"The servant?" Franzese questioned. "The servant? What in the hell are you talking about?"
Patton pointed to a waitress.
Part of Creighton's plan was to allow him to take a step back and see the big picture. So instead of playing limited minutes off the bench as a freshman, McDermott and his staff opted to redshirt Patton his first year at school, which was an unusual decision considering where he ranked as a recruit.
|Patton's recruiting rankings by service|
In the Scout.com database, which dates back to 2002, Patton is one of only two 5-stars to redshirt as a freshman for reasons other than academics or injury—former Wisconsin center Brian Butch, class of 2003, was the other.
"If we were going to get him to where we thought we could, he needed to make a lot of changes in his life," McDermott said.
For one, he ate like, well, a kid. Patton's diet had been big on french fries and fried foods. (Patton's eating habits were so poor that his AAU program has since mandated what their players eat between games.)
McDermott took Patton to Spaghetti Works in downtown Omaha before the 2015-16 season, "just so I could get him a good pasta meal and start to send the message early," he said. He laid out a nutrition and workout plan for Patton, who weighed 205 pounds at that time. (He's now 233 pounds.)
Then came work on his game. During skill work early last season, assistant coach Darian DeVries set up a camera on Patton so he could show him that his effort was not good enough. Patton would tell DeVries he was going hard, then DeVries would show him the tape.
Once Patton figured out how to work, the growth was rapid.
"He's unreal," DeVries said. "When we do skill workouts and we throw something at him—you've mastered this; now let's try this—he's like a sponge. He takes it, absorbs it and then he can go do it. That'd be a fun quality to have as a player."
Last summer Patton lived in the gym. Literally. He spent most nights sleeping at the Creighton practice facility along with fellow Omaha native and teammate Khyri Thomas.
"We'd wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and go hoop," Patton says.
Taking into account his rise from redshirt season to potential lottery pick, an argument could be made that Patton is the most improved player in the country.
"He had flashes last year but not anything to this level of consistency," McDermott said. "You could see signs of it. But in terms of his skill level and what he's doing now, it's all come together in a hurry."
When senior point guard Maurice Watson Jr. fed the ball to Patton at practice earlier this month, he shouted "lottery pick" before each delivery.
Watson gave him the nickname shortly after they returned from winning the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Patton missed just five shots in three games with plenty of scouts in attendance.
"Sometimes you have to speak it into existence," Watson said. "The more he hears it, the more he's going to go that way. … He's got the personality and the imagination for it."
Patton admits that at first he was in denial when people started floating the idea he was a future NBA player. And the type of player he's become is not what he ever envisioned.
Even last fall when Creighton's coaches were asking him to get physical during a low-post drill, Patton questioned McDermott.
"I told him I've never played that position before," Patton said. "What have you got me doing?"
McDermott told him to trust him, pointing out every decision he had made thus far—from signing him to redshirting his freshman year—had paid off.
Indeed, the improvement has been steady this season, highlighted by an early-January signature performance at St. John's (25 points, nine rebounds and four assists). Patton even scored two baskets that night on post-ups. McDermott reminded Patton afterward of his hesitancy to embrace becoming a true 5-man. "That looked pretty good tonight," he told the freshman.
Patton is putting together combinations in the post that look as if he's spent years mastering them. On one sequence against St. John's, he faked middle over his right shoulder off the catch, then started to spin toward his left shoulder, went back to the right shoulder, pump-faked and then scored with a lefty jump hook.
Adding to the difficulty of defending a true 7-footer with footwork and touch is that he prefers defenses try to take away his strong hand.
Patton broke his left hand during his freshman year of high school, and when it healed, he made the decision to start doing daily tasks, such as eating, with his left hand along with spending a lot of time in the gym trying to get the feel back. He ended up developing a softer touch with his left than his right.
"I make jokes. This is my dunking hand," Patton said, pointing to his right hand. "You can tell the calluses are all bigger on this hand."
Patton is arguably the best lob catcher and finisher in the country, providing the Creighton guards the luxury of knowing they can deliver it to Patton at any trajectory and he'll catch it.
"His hands and the quickness of his release are some of the attributes that Doug had around the rim," McDermott said, referring to his son, who was a three-time All-American. "You wondered how he always got it off and it was always soft. Justin gets it off quick. He catches everything. He's an extremely talented young man."
Patton has also developed into a capable passer, able to deliver everything from lobs for alley-oops to crosscourt skip passes to three-point shooters to pinpoint bounce passes to cutters for layups.
McDermott said his offense is evolving every game as Patton takes off, expanding into different areas where he can get him the ball and exploit defenses.
Patton's confidence is growing, too, especially in his jumper. He changed his shot right before the season when assistant Jeff Vanderloo pointed out it was flat. Patton moved his release to the right to help him create more arc. Through 20 games, Patton is within range of the NCAA single-season shooting record (74.6 percent) set by Oregon State's Steve Johnson in 1981.
The final touch to make Patton a two-way monster is getting him to dominate the defensive end. Patton has the length and athleticism to be one of the nation's top shot-blockers, but he averages only 1.6 blocks per game.
"He can be an elite defender, and he's shown signs of that but just hasn't been consistent," McDermott said. "And part of it is we want him to run the floor every time. We ask him to do a lot, and you only have so much energy. And he's young and he's not used to that."
The daily growth in Patton's game makes the Bluejays a legitimate threat to go on a deep run in the NCAA tournament, even with the recent loss of Watson to a torn ACL. The rapid improvement also has scouts scratching off any questions they may have had about Patton, especially since Big East play started. In conference games, he's averaging 15.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.
"You're looking for him to fill out," an Eastern Conference NBA scout said. "Continue to hone his jump shot. Improve his body and gain strength. Hold his ground and battle against NBA size. That's really it."
Some scouts also wonder how Patton will handle the coming attention. With typical lottery picks, they've been under the microscope for years with scouts evaluating them at camps and all-star events. They've believed for years that they were pros.
When Patton first saw his name on anything NBA draft-related, he offered a warning:
Big Muddy @JustinPatton17
I'm not remotely close to being ready for the draft. Stop. Analyze9/17/2015, 4:49:50 PM
There are those in Patton's circle who believe he should be willing to consider another year.
"He's fortunate to have Coach McDermott, who has had a young man go through that process," Franzese said. "It's fun to talk about, but it can't happen until the time is right, and those guys will know."
So maybe the timing is uncertain. But it's not often a big man comes along with Patton's combination of size, skill and mobility.
"You're not kidding, man," another Eastern Conference scout said.
It appears Patton may be signing that sneaker deal sooner than anyone thought.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball and football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @CJMooreBR.