It was early April 2006 when Austin Freeman, then a junior at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md., picked up his phone to send some encouragement – and a little bit of advice – to his longtime friend Chris Wright.
Just days earlier, Wright, a junior guard at D.C.’s St. John’s College High School, had decommitted from North Carolina State following Head Coach Herb Sendek’s departure, leaving the explosive all-Met performer on the market.
Freeman, having already verbally committed to Georgetown the previous November, had his college plans mapped out, and he wasn’t afraid to help Wright make a decision about his future.
“I had committed first, and he was going to N.C. State and then he decommitted from N.C. State, and that’s when I tried to put my two cents in and get him to try and come to Georgetown,” Freeman recalls.
By November, Freeman’s sales pitch had paid off, and Wright had signed with Georgetown.
In a sport – and a Georgetown offense – that relies heavily on chemistry, the relationship between Freeman and Wright may decide whether Georgetown can return to the NCAA tournament this year. Luckily for Head Coach John Thompson III, their bond couldn’t be any stronger.
“Me and Austin, we’ve known each other for a while and on the court we have this certain chemistry,” Wright says. “We just look at each other and . it’s like saying something without saying something.”
That kind of trust stems from a friendship that stretches back to adolescence when both were AAU teammates at D.C. Assault.
Different in both their style of play and their demeanor, Freeman and Wright serve as the perfect complements to each other. Freeman is the calm one, Wright the more emotional one. Wright is the quicker player at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Freeman the stronger presence at 6-foot-4 and 227 pounds.
“Naturally Chris is a fiery person. He’s very emotional. He plays with a lot of passion,” sophomore center Greg Monroe says.
As for Freeman, Thompson says he’s the quieter of the duo.
“Austin is far from being an introvert, but he’s not the most animated person on our team either,” he says.
Wright, the quick and fiery one. Freeman, the strong and even-keeled one. In just two seasons, these two have quickly made their mark on Georgetown basketball.
Teammates in middle school, Freeman and Wright had known and played with each other before going their separate ways in high school.
“I was just looking for somewhere where I could play,” Wright says of his decision to go to St. John’s while Freeman went to DeMatha.
Both Wright and Freeman say that their friendship didn’t suffer in high school, however, as their teams vied for Washington Catholic Athletic Conference titles each year.
“It was definitely a rivalry on the court, but off the court we were fine,” Wright remembers.
So it wasn’t unexpected when Freeman made that call in 2006. Nor was it unexpected that Wright would take Freeman’s advice to heart. The chance to play on a team that had just gone to the Sweet 16 with a rising young coach and a proud history were all factors in Wright’s decision, but he is the first to admit he could not pass up the chance to play with Freeman.
“One of the reasons why I came [to Georgetown] was because I wanted to play with Austin, and I wanted to stay home also,” adds Wright, a Bowie, Md., native.
And just like that, months removed from a Final Four appearance, Georgetown welcomed two McDonald’s All-Americans with a combined five all-Met selections from The Washington Post to the Hilltop.
The friends say that the transition to college life was difficult both on and off the court.
“I think with anything, and not even if you are an athlete, it’s time management,” Wright says. “You have no idea how to manage time until you go through it and you’re like, `Oh, this is due tomorrow.'”
Plus there were the long days in McDonough Gymnasium practicing, trying to get up to speed in a new offense at a level of play that was a lot faster and a lot stronger than anything they had seen in the WCAC.
Wright says, “For me, being a point guard, [the speed] was the biggest transition. You got a 35-second shot clock and you’re not used to [the fact] that guards are much quicker.”
“And bigger,” Freeman says, to finish his sentence.
Before long though, both had become adjusted to college, and the buzz surrounding the two roommates began to grow. Wright, the first three-time all-Met selection since 1973, drew compliments for his ball-handling skills, but mostly for his speed.
“Chris is fast, he’s really fast,” Jessie Sapp told The Hoya in the fall of 2007.
Freeman on the other hand received glowing reviews for his jumpshot.
“Austin is a really great shooter, he’s really like a smooth player,” former Georgetown guard Jeremiah Rivers told The Hoya when Freeman was a freshman.
It didn’t hurt that they had a veteran group returning from the Final Four team the previous year.
“If anything, it relieved some of the pressure,” says Wright of coming to Georgetown following the Final Four season. “We didn’t have to revitalize the program or anything. We just had to come in here and do our part. The team was already intact – we just came in and fit in where we [could].”
A season-opening victory saw little out of either player. The two combined for an inauspicious two points in 21 minutes of play, but as their minutes increased, they started to show why they were the most highly anticipated recruits in recent memory on the Hilltop. Both scored in double-digits in a blowout over Michigan at home, and from then on their presence was felt.
Freeman in particular shined. He put in 11 points in a road win over Old Dominion, 14 and four rebounds in a loss to then-No. 2 Memphis and 12 points in a demolition of Fordham.
Following the Fordham win, their fortunes would take different turns, as Wright went down with an ankle injury, while Freeman found himself firmly in the Hoyas’ starting five as Big East play was beginning, taking the starting place of Patrick Ewing Jr. (COL ’08).
Playing in the physical Big East is tough for any player, but for a freshman, the physical play and the brutal slate of opponents can be a shock to their system. Freeman didn’t seem to notice, however, scoring in double-figures in three of his first four Big East games.
“It was tough playing in the Big East as a freshman,” Freeman says. “I got used to it. It was tough at some parts, but I felt like I was fine. [The seniors] helped a lot, too.”
Wright could only sit and watch from the sidelines as his friend took on the best of the Big East.
“It was frustrating. It was the first time I had been hurt for an extended period of time and it was the first time I couldn’t play basketball,” Wright remembers. “I was frustrated sitting on the bench for 16 or so games. It was a tough situation, but I learned from it.”
While he couldn’t participate in the offense, Wright studied it from the side, learning its intricacies so that when his time came, the challenge would be physical rather than mental.
“Technically . I got the offense, but I don’t think [that] sitting out for so long you can see everything every practice,” he says. “You kind of get a feel and understanding for the offense, just knowing where the spots [are and] where you need to go. In terms of just understanding the feel for the game and going up and doing it, I was accustomed to that. I understood the offense and I understood the nuances of the offense and just understanding where to go, but I just couldn’t put it into action.”
After the Hoyas wrapped up their second consecutive Big East regular season title, Wright finally got his chance to put his knowledge into action in the Big East tournament quarterfinals against Villanova. Coming off the bench, Wright got his first taste of game action in nearly two months.
“I was ready,” Wright says. “I just remembered [Thompson] called my name and I just jumped up real quick. I was excited and I was ready to get back on the court.”
With four minutes to go in the half, Wright got his first chance to shoot.
“When he got out there – as soon as he got on the court – there was a fast break, and he was ahead of the pack and he caught the ball at the three-point line and he stopped and just looked at the basket,” Freeman says, laughing. “I knew he was about to shoot it as soon as he got it, and it went in, too. So I was happy for him.”
For three days in New York, Hoya fans, if they looked past monster performances from Roy Hibbert (COL ’08), got to see a preview of the Hoyas’ future with Wright and Freeman. The quickness and intensity of Wright – he got his first collegiate technical foul against West Virginia – ignited the Hoyas to two 70-point explosions, while the calm, workman-like play of Freeman, often overlooked in that Big East tournament, continued to contribute with timely jumpers and critical rebounds.
Both would put in nine points in an NCAA tournament second-round game against Davidson, but it was not enough to overcome 30 points from Stephen Curry as the Hoyas’ season, and Freeman and Wright’s freshman campaign, was ended unceremoniously.
Heading into their sophomore seasons, both players looked to be key components of a Georgetown team that had lost Jonathan Wallace (COL ’08), Hibbert and Ewing Jr. The Hoyas jumped out to a quick 12-3 record thanks to the strong play of their sophomore duo, which scored in double figures a combined 21 times in the first 15 games.
While Freeman had already been through the grueling Big East campaign, Wright quickly learned that a full Big East schedule is a lot tougher than three games in New York in March.
“It’s intense,” Wright says of conference play. “That’s one thing the Big East is all about, it’s very intense. Just the whole physicality and the whole nature of the game, it’s much different than you’d see in any other game. It’s not in the sense that it’s a brutal game, but you [have to] come to play. You have to stay focused.”
As the season wore on, Georgetown, which had become known for pulling out close games, couldn’t make the big play when it counted.
“We couldn’t close out the tough games – the ones that we needed to,” Freeman says. “It was bad for us. We couldn’t get that stop [or] that rebound that we needed.”
It didn’t help that as sophomores on a young team, Freeman and Wright had to take on bigger roles and carry a bigger load for the Hoyas.
“It’s rough, especially last year in the Big East being that it was probably one of the toughest years in a long time, and the amount of experience that the other teams had that we didn’t necessarily have took its toll,” Wright says. “It worked to our advantage earlier and then became a disadvantage later on.”
While both showed they were legitimate scorers, there were lapses in their play in crucial games. Freeman had disappointing performances against Notre Dame (five points) and Seton Hall (four points), while Wright had a three-point performance in a loss at Duke and a nine-point, three-turnover game in a loss to St. John’s.
Ask them about last year and they may give you a short response on what went wrong, but the two immediately look to the future, trying to push last season to its proper place in the past.
“We’re not just going to say, `Forget the whole thing,'” Wright says of last season. “We’re going to learn from it and just be ready to play.”
The saying goes that there’s always next year, and for Freeman and Wright, next year can’t come soon enough.
“It seems so far away,” Wright says of the season opener against Tulane. “It really isn’t, but it just seems that way.”
After a disappointing season last year, both Wright and Freeman tried to wash away last year’s memory with sweat in the gym this summer.
“[We] worked on everything,” Freeman says. “During the summer, we were working out all the time – working out, getting stronger, getting fast. We did a lot of skill work, played pick up. We did a lot this summer just to get better.”
“Me personally, and Austin, we worked out every day,” Wright adds. “I think one thing that I tried to focus on was to get a little stronger this year because last year the Big East was so rough, and it does take a toll on your body.”
Even opposing coaches who saw them over the summer remarked at their attitude.
“I’m a DeMatha guy. I like Austin and I saw him this summer. We were in [the D.C. area] recruiting, and he was working out back at our alma mater,” Notre Dame Head Coach Mike Brey said. “He’s just got that fire in his eyes. I think he’ll have a great year, a bounce-back year where he really wants to get back on the scene and do it.”
Both guards have been known for their shooting, but last year they saw their numbers plummet, with Freeman shooting 30.6 percent from beyond the arc and Wright not faring much better at 32.3 percent.
“They all need to work on their shooting,” Thompson said bluntly.
Wright got the message.
“We shot the ball all the time,” he says. “I really focused on my shooting and getting ready and trying to be a leader.”
Thompson said he has been more than pleased with Freeman’s work ethic this offseason.
“He’s anxious to put that behind us and get on the court,” he says. “He worked really hard on his physical condition. He’s lost a lot of weight and is physically in much better condition than he was last year. And he also has put in the reps with his shot. Austin is one of these guys that when he shoots, I think it’s going in. And it didn’t go in enough last year. I think he realized that, and he’s worked also on his shot a lot.”
While Freeman may have lost some weight, he still has a strong 227-pound frame that causes matchup problems for opposing teams.
“He’s certainly a big guard, but by the same token he can take a bigger forward outside because he’s strong enough to rebound against bigger players,” DePaul Head Coach Jerry Wainwright said. “He’s always going to be a matchup problem.”
As for Wright, don’t be surprised by a breakout season.
“I think Chris is one of the best returning guards in the league because his body is so strong, but yet he is so fast with the ball,” Marquette Head Coach Buzz Williams said. “He can make open shots, but yet he can really beat you off the bounce in transition and he can beat you off the bounce in half court. Not many guards can do both of those things. I think he’s very talented.”
What scares opposing teams so much is the versatility the two players bring to the court. Freeman can kill you from beyond the arc, but he can also go in the paint among the trees and body up for a rebound. Wright can shoot and beat anyone in the open court, but at 6-foot-1 he plays like he is 6-foot-5 at times, driving the lane on penetration.
“To me if you’re a spot-up shooter you can stop those guys,” Louisville Head Coach Rick Pitino said. “If you’re just a low-post player, you can double down and stop those guys and make them pass the ball, but guys like that are very difficult because [of] the multifaceted part of their games. There’s so many things you have to stop. [Freeman and Wright] in particular do multiple things and are very difficult to stop.”
Pittsburgh Head Coach Jamie Dixon is of the same sentiment.
“We’ve been having matchup problems with those guys since they were in high school because we recruited them,” he said. “They’re very good players. Both can shoot it and put it on the floor.”
Their hard work combined with talent and two years of experience should also pay dividends – as far as Xs and Os are concerned – in running Thompson’s offense. Much has been made in recent years about the complexity of the offense, but both say that it is second nature for them. Call it experience, talent, trust or a white lie, but Freeman and Wright think the talk of complexity is exaggerated.
“It’s not that complicated. It wasn’t that complicated last year,” Wright says.
“Maybe the first couple of days or weeks of freshman year, but other than that it’s not complicated. It’s like second nature now,” Freeman adds.
Wright is quick, however, to clarify that there is a difference between knowing and perfecting the offense.
“We know the offense, but we’re still learning and getting better at how to create and help each other out,” he says.
After a year of hard work, coaches who saw the two in the Kenner League this summer are expecting both of their games to be greatly improved come this winter. Add those two improvements together, and the outcome is a pretty dangerous combination. They make each other better – and that will only make the Hoyas better.
“Austin Freeman is a really good player, and Chris Wright makes him a better player,” Williams says of the Hoyas’ one-two punch.
In the end, it all comes down to trust.
If last year proved anything to Georgetown, it was that talent alone cannot win basketball games. Starting three McDonald’s All-Americans, a Parade All-American and a veteran senior, the Hoyas limped to the finish line. Trust was missing for the Hoyas as they stumbled in late-game situations last season.
“Trust in each other is key to winning regardless of whatever sport you’re in, what system you’re in, what age it is and regardless of what sex you are. Trust in each other and the team concept is imperative,” Thompson said.
For Georgetown, their level of trust begins with the trust Freeman and Wright have for each other.
“I feel that our relationship plays a big part on the team,” Freeman says.
“I think everyone understood that the chemistry of this team is very strong, and it started with us and it’s something we need to keep going,” Wright adds.
It’s not just the trust that those two have for each other, but the trust that their teammates have for them. For better or worse, Wright and Freeman are the leaders of the team. Without any seniors, these two juniors are being forced to take a leadership role. Veterans in years played, if not age – Wright only turned 20 last week – Thompson thinks they have earned that role.
“It’s clear cut – that is, that it’s their team,” Thompson said. “It’s their team, and that comes from the experiences that they’ve grown up through and the fact that their teammates look up to them and respect them.”
“I think both of them have always been mature,” sophomore guard Jason Clark says. “They’ve been mature in the aspect of picking everybody up and they’ve tried to be more vocal.”
That’s not to say it hasn’t been an adjustment for them to be the leaders.
“I started talking more. That’s one thing I need to start doing, just talking,” Freeman says. “Just saying stuff to encourage my teammates, that’s something I’m doing.”
Monroe thinks that their example has only benefited the rest of the team.
“With their lead and everybody else’s growing up I think the communication is going to be at a very high level this year,” he says.
Thompson also has seen an improvement in his team’s chemistry and communication so far this year.
“It’s not just as simple as [experience], but I just think we’re more in sync, in tune, in rhythm,” he says.
Freeman and Wright are more than willing to be the standard bearers for Georgetown, and they’re very cognizant of the impact they will have on the Hoyas’ fortunes this season.
“We’re the captains of the team,” Freeman says. “We have that type of leadership. I think our team is probably going to look at us for confirmation, I guess. I can say that our team will go the way we go.”
“We’re juniors now and we [have to] step up to the plate,” Wright says. “I think we’ve established ourselves as leaders, and the team knows we’re the leaders of the team. I think that’s important if the team can say, `Oh, those two guys, they’re the leaders of the team.’ I think that’s important and I think we have established that. We are – along with a couple of others – the identity of the team this year. We’re taking that seriously. We’re trying to back that up.”
With a relationship that originated on the hardwood in 2001, and a trust that has been built in the subsequent years, Freeman and Wright are hoping to go from being impact players for Georgetown to being impact leaders. If they can do that, it’s going to be pretty hard to stop the Hoyas.