The Journal Gazette
Sunday, May 15, 2022 1:00 am

Surgery behind him, Furst looks to put best foot forward

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Caleb Furst was one of the most efficient freshmen in the country last season.

Furst, the 2021 Indiana Mr. Basketball and a Blackhawk Christian graduate, was the only freshman in Division I basketball to shoot 55% from the field, 40% from 3-point range, 70% from the foul line and notch 100 points and 100 rebounds.

And he did it all on a foot that needed surgery.

Furst has an extra bone in his left foot and when he played with the U19 U.S. national team at the World Cup in Latvia last summer, the bone broke off. Doctors told the 6-foot-10 Boilermaker he needed surgery and gave him the option of having it before his freshman season, likely meaning he would miss much of the campaign, or waiting until the season was over.

After a couple weeks of thought, prayer and discussion with his family, the Fort Wayne native chose the latter option and turned in a freshman season that saw him play in 34 of Purdue's 37 games, start 12 and average 4.1 points and 3.2 rebounds while shooting 57% from the field. He was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week for his performance in a three-game stretch in November in which he averaged 10 points on 80% shooting, 4.5 rebounds and a block in games against eventual Final Four participants Villanova and North Carolina.

“I'd really describe this year as a great learning experience,” Furst said. “I enjoyed learning every day in practice and growing as a player, just expanding my knowledge of the game. ... Coach (Matt) Paint(er) does a great job making sure the freshmen get enough time going through the plays, going through the sets and as you learn all the terminology, it helps expand your basketball knowledge and helps you see the game in a new light, which I feel like I do now.”

As Furst was learning and growing, he was also managing the pain in his foot, spending a part of most days with trainer Chad Young to try to ward off what the forward called “flare-ups.”

“Usually the first hour each morning, before I got my body loose, it'd be pretty hard to walk on,” Furst said. “Once I got it warmed up, it depended day to day, but I was able to do some stuff to manage it.”

On the court, Furst demonstrated many of the same skills that helped him lead Blackhawk to two state championships and made him a four-star recruit: energetic rebounding, touch around the rim, shot-blocking ability and a nose for the ball. He also showed off one element of his game that he did not often have reason to use in high school: 3-point shooting.

Furst shot better than 42% from 3-point range, including a 2-for-3 performance in the win over the Tar Heels. He also turned in one of the biggest shots of Purdue's run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, nailing a go-ahead corner 3 in the second half of a tightly contested round of 32 win over Texas.

“That was something I wanted to work on and that was something they wanted me to work on as I adjusted to playing (power forward),” said Furst, who was a center in high school. “Being able to get to (West Lafayette) in the summer and work all the way up through November, those few months really helped me gain the confidence as I headed into the season.”

Furst started the first 12 games of the season, but then moved into a bench role as Mason Gillis took over the starting power forward slot. Down the stretch of the season, his minutes fluctuated from game to game – sometimes more than 20 and other games fewer than five. 

Painter appreciated that Furst stayed ready for his opportunities.

“When you have 10 guys you feel good about, sometimes later in the year, you get to an eight- or nine-man rotation,” the 17th-year Purdue coach said in March after Furst played 21 minutes and scored 10 points in the NCAA Tournament against Yale. “It leaves a guy out and a lot of times, each individual guy looks at it like 'What did I do wrong?' when in reality, we're just playing somebody else because they match up better against that particular opponent.”

Heading into next season, Furst's two natural positions – center and power forward – are occupied by Gillis and honorable mention All-American Zach Edey, respectively. He could carve out a significant role in the upcoming campaign as the primary backup at one or both positions, though he will face competition at center from 7-2 freshman William Berg, as well.

As a sophomore, Furst wants to play more assertively and will spend much of his offseason working on getting better at guarding on the perimeter, a skill not often needed as a Brave, but one that will be crucial as his role grows with the Boilers.

“That was something I never had to do before, so this year was a big adjustment for me,” Furst said. “It comes with practice, working on guarding smaller guys, quicker guys and staying in front.”

Before that work begins in earnest, however, Furst has to get healthy. He had surgery on his foot in mid-April and will be in a boot for a couple more weeks. He plans to be back fully and pain-free well before the start of the season, though he is disappointed he will have to miss a large chunk of summer workouts. 

In the meantime, he can ride a stationary bicycle to keep up his cardio, work on his upper-body strength and then do rehab on the foot once the boot comes off. Painter has encouraged him to make sure the foot is fully healed before rushing back into basketball work.  

“He told me, 'Focus on healing first and then worry about becoming a better player,'” Furst said of his coach. “'If you try to do them both simultaneously you'll just end up in a worse spot than before, so just be patient, there's no rush right now.'”

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