AMHERST — Prior to his arrival at the University of Massachusetts, Maxie Esho can’t remember playing in a basketball game that tipped off with him sitting on the bench. He was on the floor, among the starting five, every time.
Since joining the Minutemen, though, Esho has been nowhere but the bench at the beginning of every game. Assuming he doesn’t start Saturday when the 21st-ranked Minutemen play at Saint Joseph’s — safe assumption — it will be the 91st consecutive college game Esho has appeared in a reserve role.
Envy is the last thing on Esho’s mind, however. Being the Minutemen’s sixth man is a role the redshirt junior has embraced. Looking at the impact he’s made this season, it’s also one in which Esho has excelled.
“Winning is what’s important. Whatever we’ve got to do for us to win, if Coach [Derek] Kellogg thinks me coming off the bench helps with that, then that’s what I’m going to do,” Esho said before a practice this week at the Mullins Center. “I’m happy with my role.”
The way Esho has been playing, it might be tempting for Kellogg to slip him into the starting lineup. Across the board, Esho’s numbers are the best he’s had in his two-plus seasons at UMass. Even after a disappointing game in Wednesday’s 78-65 loss at St. Bonaventure — 3 points, 1 rebound, and 5 fouls in 17 minutes — Esho is scoring 8.6 points per game, grabbing 5.3 rebounds, and shooting 56 percent from the field. Those figures are among the top five on the team in each category. Except Esho isn’t among the first five.
“I think every kid goes through the starter mentality of wanting to have their name called, but I think he’s matured since he’s gotten here. What used to be looked at maybe as ‘I’m not a starter’ is now ‘I’m one of the most important guys on this team for my role,’ and he’s embraced that,” Kellogg said.
Despite not starting, Esho is still seeing the court plenty. He’s averaging 21.5 minutes per game, also a career best, and is almost always the first UMass substitute, checking in for either Raphiael Putney or Sampson Carter. If it’s not Esho first off the bench, it’s Trey Davis, who was one of the few bright spots at St. Bonaventure, scoring a career-high 18 points; Davis averages 8.0 points.
Why isn’t Esho starting? Putney (6 feet 9 inches) and Carter (6-8) are similar in height to the 6-8 Esho, they play the same position, and they’re both redshirt seniors, spending their fifth year with the UMass program. Both are also producing, with Carter averaging 10.8 points and 4.9 rebounds per game, and Putney 10.7 points and 4.6 rebounds.
Whenever Kellogg and Esho talk about why he’s not starting — there have been a few cordial conversations on the subject — what’s quick to be mentioned is who else is on the roster.
“He realizes that he’s really a sixth starter for us, that him, Sampson, and Putney are pretty much interchangeable, and that I could start any one from that combination,” Kellogg said. “I think he realizes that those guys are a year older, and that his starting time will come. But right now he’s playing really well coming off the bench.”
There it is, probably the biggest reason why Esho sits at the start. Kellogg likes the enthusiasm Esho brings to the court when he finally gets the call. Sunday’s home win over Fordham was just the latest example. UMass was sluggish early, and trailed, 7-0, when Esho entered. He scored the first 4 points for the Minutemen, just the kind of spark needed in what became a 38-point victory. Esho finished with 10 points, the fifth time over an eight-game stretch in which he cracked double figures, when he shot 65 percent from the field (33 for 51).
“We need him to bring that energy. If the starters lack it, then it gives us energy to pick up the slack that we had been missing,” said Putney, who was Esho’s roommate for two years and followed a similar career path in his first few seasons at UMass: redshirt year, then sixth man. “He’s the type of player that can do everything for us, especially defensively.’’
From his vantage point on the bench, Esho watches the action, looking for ways to have success once he comes in. He studies the defense for seams and breakdowns, and observes how the opponent is attacking the dangerous UMass press, since Esho will play an important role at the top of it.
“I pay attention to the game, I pay attention to the flow of the game and what’s going on, and I pay attention to what’s needed,” Esho said. “A three might get somebody else going, but a steal, some rebounds, a nice block, forcing a 10-second call, those are the type of things that get me going.”
In addition to his scoring, Esho has taken a shine to some of the game’s grittier stats. He’s second on the team in blocks and offensive rebounds, and third in steals.
“To me, those are hustle stats, those are game-winning-play stats,” Kellogg said.
There may come a day when Esho finally starts for the Minutemen. Kellogg is hoping it’s not this season; with a 17-3 record, a national ranking (at least for a few more days), and a chance to make some noise in the Atlantic 10 and beyond, the roles that have been solidified seem to be working well. The same five have started all 20 games, and Esho and Davis are the two primary subs.
Three of the five starters are seniors, so Esho’s first college start could be coming.
“I’d be OK with that,” Esho said. “It’s been a long process, but now that I’m finally used to it, I’m going to do what Coach Kellogg wants. If he asks me to start, I’ll start.”