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CJ Fredrick won a Kentucky state basketball championship, but never got nervous. Hear him explain why: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — About a decade ago, CJ Fredrick was a chunky kid tagging along with his uncle Joe to an NCAA basketball tournament game being played in nearby Dayton, Ohio.

Joe Fredrick had been a shooting guard at Notre Dame in the late 1980s, averaging 10.3 points on 49 percent 3-point shooting for his career. There, he formed a bond with a young assistant coach named Fran McCaffery. It was McCaffery who would calm Fredrick down whenever head coach Digger Phelps would get on one of his periodic rants.

McCaffery was the head coach of Siena on this late Friday game in March 2009. The opponent was Ohio State, whose rabid backers packed the gym. The Fredricks sat among the handful of Siena fans and witnessed a double-overtime upset victory that didn’t end until early Saturday morning.

Afterward, Joe Fredrick introduce his nephew to McCaffery. Neither had any reason to suspect it at the time, but it was a pivotal moment.

“The connection’s always been there,” CJ Fredrick recalled last week, sitting in an office at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where he is just beginning his career as a shooting guard for McCaffery’s Iowa team.

“But back then, I was really short, overweight. My friends and parents called me ‘the doughboy.’ I wasn’t picturing myself as a basketball player at all.”

Young player hits a growth spurt, finds his calling

Fredrick dabbled in baseball and football. He was a member of the freshman basketball team at Covington Catholic in northern Kentucky, but not good enough to start. His coaches told him: “You can’t just stand in the corner and shoot 3s.”

Then Fredrick hit a growth spurt, blooming from 5-foot-11 to 6-2 by his sophomore year. He started working out with his uncle Joe every day — on ball-handling, shooting off the dribble, reading screens and creating openings so he could launch what had always been a pretty potent shot.

Fredrick started on the varsity squad as a sophomore. He tried out for and made his first AAU team that summer. Just like that, he started seeing himself as a potential college basketball player.

“I started working out in the mornings and evenings with my uncle,” Fredrick said. “I got in the weight room and took it serious, made it a priority.”

By his senior season, Fredrick was 6-4, able to look his uncle Joe square in the eye. He was no longer just a shooting guard, also being asked to play the point for a veteran Covington Catholic team with high aspirations. His recruiting had taken off, too, with local schools Xavier and Cincinnati both interested. Butler, Penn State and eventually Indiana also came calling.

Fredrick takes an instant liking to Iowa, even agrees to walk-on

Fredrick was most comfortable with McCaffery and his staff at Iowa, however. He visited Iowa City twice for football games, including the 2016 upset of Michigan, and loved the atmosphere. Fredrick was so enamored with the Hawkeyes that he agreed to join the team as a walk-on for one season until a scholarship became available. That gesture proved unnecessary when Christian Williams walked away from the Iowa program last fall, leaving his scholarship behind for Fredrick to grab.

Fredrick’s profile rose throughout the winter, when he averaged 23.1 points and 3.9 assists and led Covington Catholic to a state title at storied Rupp Arena. Kentucky crowns only one state champion, so it was a big moment on a big stage for Fredrick and his teammates. Fredrick scored 32 points in the final game and finished with a school-record 900 for the season.

He arrived on campus June 9, the less heralded of the Hawkeyes’ two-man recruiting class. Small forward Joe Wieskamp of Muscatine comes in with all the accolades and the expectation that he will immediately earn a starting spot.

Fredrick, who has added eight pounds to reach 183, is still a bit of a mystery, a late bloomer in his sport in search of a role at Iowa. He said he’d consider a redshirt season if that’s what the coaches deem best after a summer of workouts.

Hawkeye assistant likes Fredrick's mechanics and 'grit'

Iowa assistant coach Sherman Dillard has been impressed by Fredrick so far.

“He’s a gym rat, basically, and you can tell he works at his craft. He’s fundamentally sound in every aspect. A lot of time we get caught up in mechanics, and his shot is just pure,” Dillard said.

“He’s a ‘2’ that can play ‘1,’ that’s how I see it. We see him being able to help us with just playmaking and sometimes running the team.”

Fredrick will have to fight for minutes among a guard group that returns junior starters Jordan Bohannon and Isaiah Moss, plus redshirt freshman Connor McCaffery in a backup role at both spots. Wing players such as senior Nicholas Baer, junior Maishe Dailey and Wieskamp could also see time at shooting guard in bigger lineups.

Anticipating that, Fredrick spent the time between his high school and college seasons working on his defense. It’s where Iowa needs the most help, and it’s typically the toughest aspect of the game for rookies to pick up.

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“Just really getting my feet working, getting quicker laterally, being able to stay in front of quick guards,” Fredrick said of his strength and conditioning sessions at a local gym. “I’ve noticed that it’s definitely working. I can hang with them. I just need to get stronger, but my feet have gotten a lot quicker. I’m going to pride myself on defense and do whatever I can to get better at it.”

Dillard has noticed that Fredrick is starting to acquire a bit of an edge around his older teammates in his first two weeks on campus. The team has been having 90-minute practice sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with an hour of individual drills on Wednesdays.

“He’s shown more grit than I think people realize,” Dillard said of Fredrick. “Day by day, you can see the progression in that assertiveness. Instead of deferring early, now I think he understands, ‘Hey, I can get my shot here. This is where I can be more in take-charge mode.’ I see him now understanding he can be more assertive in his role.”

It was the biggest thing Fredrick learned from his uncle Joe, he said.

“If you want to be a competitive college basketball player, you have to have an attitude. You have to,” Fredrick said. “That’s one thing he had, and that’s what made him really good. He had that mentality of, ‘I’m going to score on you and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.’

“That’s what I’m known for is shooting. I think I can really help the team space the floor out more. But also I can help bring the ball up and run the offense, get people open. I just want to help the team any way I can. Whatever our team goals are, that’s what I want to do.”

 

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