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COLLEGE HOOPS: Gerun embracing opportunity after circuitous route to Portland

At the end of every Portland Pilots practice session, each of the coaches fills out a hand-written evaluation of the workout.

Before last week’s home game against Saint Mary’s, one of assistant Eric Jackson’s evaluations included this question: “How are we going to get Voldy more minutes?”

Volodymyr Gerun — the first name is pronounced “VOH-lah-dim-er” and the last name is pronounced “Geh-ROON,” but most call him “Voldy” — is the 6-10, 250-pound Ukranian power forward who transferred to Portland after playing only sparingly at West Virginia last season.

Because of a one-time exception to the NCAA transfer rule and with West Virginia’s cooperation, Gerun avoided having to sit out a year and was eligible to play as soon as he arrived in Portland.

Gerun, a junior, went through the normal transition period as he adjusted to the Pilots’ style and while playing mostly spot minutes off the bench, filling in at both power forward and center.

Heading into Thursday’s West Coast Conference game against No. 22 Gonzaga at Chiles Center, Gerun has played 16 games with the Pilots and has become more of a force filling in for senior power forward Ryan Nicholas or junior center Thomas van der Mars.

by: COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND - Ukranian power forward Volodymyr Gerun is working his way onto the court for the Portland Pilots, who play host to Gonzaga at 8 p.m. Thursday at Chiles Center.Therein lies the dilemma. If Nicholas and van der Mars are playing well and staying out of foul trouble, how can Pilots head coach Eric Reveno justify playing Gerun more than spot minutes? Reveno agrees that Gerun is deserving of more time, yet the coach is reluctant to take significant minutes away from two of the most consistent players on his roster — Nicholas and van der Mars.

“Voldy is doing well enough that it’s not like we’re putting him in and hoping he plays well,” Reveno says. “I don’t think the story is finished. If you want to get ahead of the story, he is going to help us win games. I’d be surprised if he didn’t have a 20-point game before long and then everyone is going to say, ‘Oh, where’s he been?’ ”

Through 16 games, Gerun is averaging 4.6 points and 2.5 rebounds in 12.5 minutes per game. He had season highs of 12 points against Southern Utah, seven rebounds against Michigan State and 20 minutes on three different occasions.

“Right now, my role is just to bring energy, because I’m big and I can do some damage,” Gerun says. “When I’m in the game, I’m trying to be aggressive and not necessarily concentrate on my offense, because that’s not going to help my team.

“When I’m sitting right here, I want to play basketball so much. I want to play, I want to score, I want to do all these things. But … I’m thinking too much. I think that’s my biggest problem. I’m always thinking too much. I feel like I can be more productive. But then when I’m playing, I know that I just have to make my team better and do what coach says, not what I think.”

Gerun grew up in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, the country’s fourth largest city with a population estimated at more than 1 million. It is located on the Dnieper River in the south-central part of the country.

His international credentials include a stellar performance at the 2011 European Under-18 Championships. He averaged a team-high 18.2 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 2.1 blocked shots for Ukraine. He was also the MVP of the 2010 European Under-16 Championships after averaging 17.3 points and 9.1 rebounds.

Gerun played for coach Rob Orellana at the Canarias Basketball Academy, a college preparatory school in Spain’s Canary Islands, and had essentially used up his freshman year of college eligibility as well as a potential redshirt season before West Virginia coach Bob Huggins recruited him to play for the Mountaineers.

But Gerun struggled to adapt to NCAA Division I basketball. He was forced to miss the first six games of the season after the NCAA determined that he played three games on a professional team in Ukraine during the 2011 season. He appeared in only seven of 32 games for West Virginia and averaged 1.3 points in 4.7 minutes a game.

“I just wasn’t ready,” Gerun says. “West Virginia is a big school, and there was a lot of pressure. Before I got there, I’d been off for four months. I wasn’t in shape, I got there late because of visa issues, and I just wasn’t ready.

“I learned a lot of things from Coach Huggins, but he didn’t like me that much, because I was kind of slow. I didn’t speak English well, and I didn’t know how to play American basketball. Everything was different, and Coach Huggins thought I was going to come there and just make plays.”

His stay with the Mountaineers lasted less than nine months.

“If I knew that I wasn’t going to play at West Virginia before I got there, I’d still go there," Gerun says. “I got so much better there. On game days, I worked in the weight room one on one with the strength coach. I knew I wasn’t going to play that much there, but I tried to make the best of the situation.”

When Gerun decided to transfer, he looked at a number of Division II schools, thinking that might be his only option to play during the 2013-14 season. But when the Mountaineers wrote a letter to the NCAA stating that they had no objection to Gerun using a one-time transfer exception to play at another Division I school, he used the exception to come to Portland.

“West Virginia was my first exposure to the U.S.,” Gerun says. “Then I got here, and it’s so different. The weather is different, the people are different, the basketball program is different, and … it’s just unbelievable how super-different two universities can be in one country.”

Gerun arrived in time to join the Pilots on their trip to Spain in August, giving him a jump start on his assimilation to the UP program.

“Voldy has some natural feel and skill that you like,” Reveno says. “He reminds me of Robin Smeulders in terms of his feel for the game and knowing some stuff you can’t teach. He still needs to be taught some, but he’s embracing learning, and I think we do a pretty good job teaching.

“He’s got to keep his head up, because he’s going to get an opportunity. Ryan could get in foul trouble or tweak and ankle, and we’re going to need Voldy to step up.”

Nicholas says some of Gerun’s biggest contributions aren’t always reflected in the team statistics.

“Voldy has a really good attitude,” Nicholas says. “When it comes to playing time, guys can take that one of two ways, and I think he is just trying to get better and help the team anyway he can.

“Especially in practice, he competes hard and plays hard. That’s not something many people talk about, but for me it’s huge, because going against him every day in practice makes me better. I’m forever grateful for that.”

Gerun’s work ethic at practice rarely goes unnoticed.

“He’s a good basketball player,” Reveno says. “I mean, he wasn’t at West Virginia by mistake. He’s a good, high-level player. He’s not a guy who can sit there for 32 minutes and then come in and make three shots, but he’s a good kid, trying really hard to do what we want.”

 

Gerun played only six minutes in last week’s 72-64 victory over Pacific and then played 20 minutes in Saturday’s 72-63 loss to Saint Mary’s.

 

Why the discrepancy in playing time? Against Pacific, Nicholas and Van der Mars had a combined 35 points and 25 rebounds, so Gerun mostly sat. Then against Saint Mary’s, most of the starters struggled at the offensive end, Kevin Bailey got into foul trouble, the rotation adjusted accordingly, and Gerun ended up playing more than he had played in a month.

 

“He has a better understanding of the offense,” Reveno says. “He’s making the right passes and reads, and not just breaking plays off and going.

 

“We’re getting better at running plays for him, too. I would say that’s where we’re improving as a staff is in utilizing lineups and what we’re calling for different sets of guys.”

 

Regardless of playing time, Gerun says his outlook remains positive.

 

“I’m just trying to find a way that I can be the most useful,” Gerun says. “I can’t control things like my playing time. I’m just trying to get better than I was yesterday. I know that I can play. I know that I can help this team. And when I get into a game, I’m just trying to make the team better.”