When Dana Altman holds up a hand to illustrate Kenny Wooten’s potential, he stretches it high toward the ceiling.
The 6-foot-9 freshman inspires lofty comparisons to match his vertical leap. It’s hard to talk about his shot-blocking prowess without quickly mentioning Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher, prolific shot-blockers who preceded him at Oregon.
“I watched them play when I was getting recruited here,” Wooten said after blocking seven shots Thursday against Washington. “I wanted to learn from them, and then they left. I was kind of put on the spot.”
That’s been the story of Oregon’s season. In a perfect world, the Ducks’ freshmen would be learning from a group of battle-tested veterans. Instead, they’ve been thrust into action and left to figure things out for themselves.
The result is an Oregon team that oscillates between pretty good, downright awful and everything in between. Nobody embodies the wild swings more than Wooten, who can look like a first-round pick one night and a non-factor the next.
That was the point of Altman’s outstretched hands, one representing Wooten’s ceiling and the other representing his floor. Wooten’s challenge is to close the gap, to level out the dips and spikes that have marked his freshman season.
“We’ve got to find that middle where he’s consistently performing,” Altman said. “I talk to him about that. That’s what we got out of Jordan (Bell) his freshman and sophomore years. There was a level that Jordan never dipped below.”
Bell set Oregon’s single-season record with 94 blocks as a freshman, a mark later eclipsed by Boucher’s 110 in 2016. Wooten, the Pac-12’s leader in blocks at 2.9 per game, is on pace to crack 90 in the regular season and could add to that total in the postseason.
When engaged, Wooten can be a game-changer, as he was Thursday night against the Huskies. Along with his seven blocks, he scored 12 points, made 6 of 7 shots and hassled Washington’s starting backcourt into a 7-for-32 shooting night.
Wooten admitted to peeking periodically at the wall behind the basket, where fans affix giant hands for each one of his blocks. His goal was to get 10, but seven wasn’t bad.
“His teammates were pumping him up,” Altman said. “He was getting those blocks and they were telling him, ‘Thanks for saving me.’
“Not only the seven blocks, but I saw three or four other ones where they were looking for him, where he just changed shots inside. He was special tonight.”
Other nights, Wooten can look lost. He’s averaging 4.9 points in Pac-12 play, down from 8.8 in nonconference games, and has seen his minutes fluctuate significantly, sometimes in the span of a single week.
Wooten has settled into a role as Oregon’s sixth man, where Altman plans to keep him for the foreseeable future. He’s relatively new to competitive basketball, Altman said, and not completely confident in his own abilities.
“He’s a freshman and he hasn’t played a lot of ball, so we’re not going to get (his best) every night,” Altman said. “We’ve got to balance it out.”
Wooten didn’t start playing basketball until his freshman year at Stagg High School in Stockton, Calif. He transferred to Manteca High School after two years but had to sit out his junior season because of California Interscholastic Federation transfer rules.
As a senior, Wooten led Manteca to a state championship and signed a letter of intent with Nevada. At the last minute, he left Manteca, reclassified to the class of 2017 and enrolled at Trinity International School in Las Vegas for a postgraduate year.
Wooten reopened his recruitment and committed to Arizona State before signing with the Ducks. In a generally disappointing season, he’s been one of Oregon’s bright spots, showing glimpses of the dominant defensive player he’s capable of becoming.
If you want to fantasize about the future, imagine Wooten as a sophomore, a year older and more mature, playing next to 7-foot-2 Bol Bol next season. That shot-blocking tandem could rival what Oregon had with Bell and Boucher, assuming Bol lives up to the hype and Wooten keeps developing.
Before we can put Wooten in the conversation with Bell and Boucher, he’ll have to show he can sustain the kind of effort he showed Thursday night. He needs to be a player the Ducks can count on every game, not one who shows up and then disappears.
“Really, it’s just my mentality going into the games,” Wooten said. “I’ve got to be more focused.”
If he can do that, the only way to find his ceiling will be to keep reaching.
Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG . Email firstname.lastname@example.org .