Once upon a time, a college basketball coach might have shuddered at the thought of having a freshman point guard.
It’s the key leadership position on the court, and to have a wet-behind-the-ears kid straight out of high school in that role could be frightening.
The Iowa basketball team is going to be in that position and then some this season. Not only will the starting point guard be a freshman but so will his backup.
However, Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery doesn’t seem the least bit worried. In fact, he almost gushes with enthusiasm when asked about newcomer Mike Gesell.
“If you know him, and if you’re around him at all — and this is a very strong statement — there have been very few, if any, more focused athletes I’ve ever been around,” McCaffery said. “Very similar to Matt Gatens in that respect. … I’m talking about having the ability to focus and keep your day in order.”
The 6-foot-1 Gesell not only led his South Sioux City High School team to a Nebraska state title last year, but he also was his class valedictorian. McCaffery said the first academic report he received on Gesell after he arrived on campus last summer was spotless — straight As, no reports of missed classes or missed assignments.
Suffice it to say the kid has his act together.
“Those are the qualities that typically differentiate a freshman who comes off the bench and contributes vs. one who is capable of being a starter and engineering a victory on a regular basis,” McCaffery said.
He said fellow freshman Anthony Clemmons, who figures to be Gesell’s backup, is cut from the same cloth.
McCaffery said he could play 6-6 junior Devyn Marble at the point, as he often has in the past, but he prefers to have Marble play the wing. His comfort level with Gesell and Clemmons makes that possible.
Gesell, who won’t turn 19 until the day of the Hawkeyes’ season opener with Texas-Pan American, is as comfortable with all of this as McCaffery. Maybe more so.
“Being a point guard, you have to be a leader on the floor,” he said. “I definitely don’t want to have that freshman stigma where I’m not going to be a leader out there. One of my goals is to get the respect of the older guys and definitely be a leader of this team because if a team doesn’t have a leader, it’s not going to go anywhere.”
Gesell certainly doesn’t lack self-assurance. He talks about the Hawkeyes having almost limitless potential and makes it clear his expectations for himself are higher than what anyone else could possibly have for him.
At times, he almost borders on cockiness. Asked what he will do the first time he gets a breakaway opportunity in a game, he said, “I’m definitely dunking it.
“The adrenalin is going to be pumping in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and I think my vertical will be twice as high at that moment,” he added.
Gesell has one other trait that McCaffery covets in a point guard.
“He’s got the greatest case of amnesia I’ve ever seen,” the coach said. “If he does turn it over or misses a shot, it’s like it never happened. He’s on to the next play and on to the next challenge. … You know they’ll make mistakes. We’ll make a mistake or two. We’re not happy, but the real test is what happens next.”
Gesell said his amnesia comes from the way he was raised. It’s what he always has been taught.
Get breaking news sent instantly to your inbox
“You can’t dwell on the bad plays or the mistakes you make,” he said. “You just have to move on.”
While Gesell comes in with perhaps as much scoring and passing ability as any Iowa recruit in recent times — he scored 2,112 points in high school and averaged more than six assists each of his past three years — the 6-1 Clemmons arrives from Lansing, Mich., with a reputation for being more advanced defensively than most first-year players.
It’s not out of the question that the two freshmen might be on the court together at times with Clemmons manning the point and Gesell sliding over to play shooting guard.
“Mike’s scoring ability is unbelievable,” Clemmons said. “Him playing the two … that’s going to be awesome because he’s a maker. That’s the difference between a shooter and a maker. He makes a lot of shots.”
Both players shrug off any notions that they might not be ready to perform at a high level from Day 1.
Incoming freshmen now generally have played hundreds of games in summer leagues as well as in high school before they arrive in college. Gesell said he thinks he played at least 400 games during his high school years.
“I’ve played against some of the best players in the country in AAU, and that’s definitely prepared me for all of this,” he said.
And he figures his progress as a player has increased in the four or five months he has been in Iowa City with he and Clemmons going head to head on an almost daily basis.
“It’s helped a lot,” Gesell said. “Anthony is a great defender. That’s one of the things he’s best at. Just us competing against each other every day has been great for us. I think both of our games have made huge improvements already.”