When Penn State played at Indiana a few weeks ago, coach Patrick Chambers drew up a play during a timeout. Before the Nittany Lions took the floor, Tim Frazier pulled point guard D.J. Newbill aside and told him that if he faked a certain way at a certain time during that play, he would have a wide-open layup.
Frazier, who now acts as an assistant coach, has a new appreciation for how Chambers leads the team.
The whistle blew, the Lions ran the play, Newbill made his fake and scored on a layup.
"I'm sitting on the end of the bench talking to Billy and Saz and saying, 'Yeah, I drew that up,'" Frazier said.
And so it has gone for Penn State's best player this season. Instead of making the layups himself, or setting teammates up for layups with pinpoint passes, all Frazier can do is try to make Newbill and his other teammates see the game through his eyes. The player who logged an average of two minutes of pine time per game in Big Ten play last season now sits -- if you can call it sitting -- at the end of the bench, next to trainer Jon Salazer and former player-turned student assistant Billy Oliver. His spindly, 170-pound frame is cloaked not in a blue or white uniform but in sharp, dark suits, all because of the long scar that runs down his left leg.
The torn Achilles tendon that Frazier suffered only minutes into the season's fourth game has had a ripple effect on the Nittany Lions that they have still yet to recover from. Their senior point guard and team leader has done what he can to help his healthy teammates as a de facto assistant coach while working hard to ensure he'll be able to help them on the floor next year.
Technically, Frazier's averages for the season are 16.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and just shy of four assists per game. However, he played just six minutes against Akron before experiencing the first major injury of his career. His averages through the first three games -- 21.7 points, six rebounds and five assists -- put him on pace to surpass his sensational junior season, even though his shooting percentages (36 percent from the field, 18 percent from 3-point range) left much to be desired.
"I wasn't happy because I felt like we had so much more to give," he said. "Obviously it was the first couple of games and in order for us to be the team we wanted to be we had to keep continuing to work and not be satisfied with the wins we had. It all started with me. I was going to have to keep working hard, keep getting better, keep leading. And I don't remember the numbers that I had, but I felt that I wasn't playing to where I wanted to play."
Frazier had big plans for the Nittany Lions, and they all changed when he made a cut against the Zips and immediately dropped to the floor. Nearly three months later, he remembers the game as though it were played yesterday.
"I will never forget that game, that injury, never forget that camera," he said. "I'm sitting there on the sideline with the (television) camera just zooming in on my foot. I'll never forget the look on my sister's face, my mom and dad's face."
Janice and Billy Frazier, who had made the trip to Puerto Rico, undoubtedly had flashbacks to a game nearly seven years earlier, when they watched from their home in Houston as Frazier's sister Krystal, then a point guard at Rice, suffered a torn right Achilles tendon in a game against SMU.
Frazier, who grew up idolizing his sister -- who was also in the stands in Puerto Rico -- remembers watching Krystal go through the same rehab process he is in the midst of.
"I didn't think anything could happen to her," Frazier said. "I thought she'd be back playing tomorrow. I never saw her down about it. She was always fighting. She went to rehab and everything. The pool, same as I was in. The (walking) boot's actually still in my house at home.
"My sister went through it and came back and played. It gives you a sense of relief, like, 'I will come back.' It's in our genetics, I guess, I don't know."
Krystal regularly calls Tim to ask him how the rehab is going and to remind him not to rush back too quickly. He gets the same reminder daily from team doctors, particularly since he was able to shed his own boot.
"That is the biggest challenge, because he feels good," Salazer said. "At practice yesterday he starts hopping around, he wants to get going and it's like … whoa, slow down. He's got so much passion for it that he wants to be involved. That is a challenge for us to just keep him grounded and make sure (he's) not doing too much."
Frazier has tackled his rehabilitation with the intensity and energy that made him into one of the nation's top point guards. He is 12 weeks removed from his operation and began doing workouts on the elliptical machine this week, which supplement his regular work in the swimming pool, massage, and weight training workouts. In two weeks, Salazer says, he will undergo what is called "Ultra G" training on a special treadmill that gradually loads more of his body weight onto his legs.
But the rehab only satisfies part of Frazier's innate hunger to always be on the move.
"It's so tough, man. It's so tough," he said. "I remember those first two weeks, and you can't walk. You got people taking care of you. You don't want people taking care of you -- you're a college kid. You want to be able to walk, get food, go to class. It was tough. But now I'm able to walk around. I'm standing up during the games. I'm running around cheering. Doc is always telling me, just relax, sit it down. They always remind me to tone it down some. Billy always makes fun of me. Always telling me to sit down because I'm always halfway down the bench."
It isn't uncommon to see lots of Frazier on television during games, not only because the camera finds him when the announcers are discussing his injury but because he's hardly ever in his seat. That's one of the reason Chambers told his player to suit up after he had spent the first few games after his injury in sweats.
"They're going to see him and go, 'There's a guy that looks sharp and articulate,'" Chambers said. "Who knows -- when his career is over people might look back and go, 'I want to hire that kid.'"
Frazier isn't just wearing a coach's costume, though -- he is learning what it is like to instruct and guide a young and what has been a mistake-prone team. Chambers has let him coach half the squad during scrimmages in several practices.
"I have great appreciation for coaches that sit there," he said. "I even get frustrated during the games, because we watch film afterward and you see those things. We go over it before and we're like, 'Don't make this mistake,' but during the game you might make that mistake. I used to make them. Now I'm on the sideline and I'm like, 'Come on, why can't you do this?'"
It isn't uncommon to see a player going to the end of the bench to chat with Frazier after he comes out of the game, but no one has more discussions with him than Newbill, who was supposed to be Frazier's backcourt mate but instead has taken up the mantle of full-time point guard. Frazier sometimes wonders if he's annoying his teammate, because he is constantly going over to him, but all of the extra and unexpected time on the bench has allowed Frazier to see the game from a different angle.
"I'm seeing stuff off ball screens that he doesn't see. And I don't think I would see it either," he said. "Sometimes the throwback is there, the kick ahead is there, the split is there. I'm seeing all this stuff going on, seeing passes that should be made before you even get to it. Obviously you see certain things on the court, but being able to watch it from the sideline, you see it slows down. It slows down for you."
Frazier took his game to another level toward the end of his sophomore campaign and into his junior year when he learned to change gears, to switch from his preferred frenetic pace to a slower, smoother tempo. But the strength of his game, what separates him from most guards, is his quickness and explosiveness, which will be the last things he will get back in his recovery process.
"He'll be able to do everything but he just won't have his hops back yet and his quick acceleration," Salazer said. "That'll come. I have to continually remind him that even though you'll be doing everything you're not gonna be the Tim Frazier of old. It could take awhile until he's really back to his old self. He will be there. It's just gonna take some time."
Time, Frazier has. And he's trying to take advantage of it. He had one class scheduled for the spring semester prior to his injury and he's since added more -- he'll pick up his degree in supply chain and information systems this May and work toward getting a second degree, in communications, in Spring 2014. He and Penn State cannot officially apply for a medical redshirt until the end of the season but because Frazier only played in four of Penn State's 31 guaranteed games, well below the mandated 20 percent maximum, all indications are that he will receive it.
With the Nittany Lions mired in an 11-game losing streak, a bulk of Penn State's fans have already turned their attention toward the 2013-14 season, when Frazier will be joined by the majority of the squad and by four freshmen the staff is excited about. Even Chambers, who rarely comments on anything but the next game on the schedule, has repeatedly said Frazier's injury was "a blessing" that will benefit both the player and the program in the long run.
Frazier is trying hard to see it that way. But his injury has taught him to take nothing for granted. So even as he works hard for next season, he continues to do whatever he can to help his teammates through the remainder of the season at hand.
"Obviously that's in the back of your mind," he said. "Coach says it, other people say it -- You'll be so much better next year. But I want to win now. I want this team right now even without me to win. Because that's going to make it that much greater next year. I try not to think too far ahead and think about next year because you never know what will happen. Nobody thought I'd be hurt now."
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