NORTH LIBERTY, Iowa — Asked about one of his fellow frontcourt teammates, Melsahn Basabe flared that mischievous grin he likes to display when the Iowa forward’s preparing to sprout some goofball wisdom.
“He’s a pro. Pro ability,” Basabe said after Sunday’s Prime Time League exhibition. His grin never faded.
“You think I’m laughing — I’m very serious. He’s got the most abilities on the team, or one of the most. He didn’t play a lot, so you guys haven’t seen him.”
Gabriel Olaseni, the subject of Basabe’s solicitude, logged a total of 90 minutes on the court his freshman season. He drew a “DNP” in 17 of the Hawkeyes’ 35 games.
Since Iowa’s frontcourt could be accused of having “too many men,” there simply wasn’t room for Olaseni to grow and improve on game nights. While classmate Aaron White was busting on to the Big Ten scene, Olaseni’s role was reserved to mop-up minutes, exorbitant celebrations for Matt Gatens’ 30-point eruptions and using his big body as a scout team chess piece.
“A lot of people thought I should have been redshirted,” Olaseni said Sunday, “but I think the inspiration of being able to play made me work harder.”
Added guard Devyn Marble, “He learned and he took that positive criticism. I think he had the best spring and summer out of all the guys making that next jump.”
The depth hasn’t changed — Iowa still has an army of available posts. Originally from London, the uberathletic yet raw Olaseni is only adding to the options, garnering rave reviews from coaches and teammates.
“Gabe Olaseni has been really good,” coach Fran McCaffery said May 23. “He started really coming into his own midway through the season and had a phenomenal spring.”
With incoming freshman Adam Woodbury’s arrival, the Hawkeyes could have themselves a couple of true centers at their disposal unlike last year.
“He’s 7-1, I’m 6-11, so obviously it’s going to be a battle in the paint. We’re continuously in each other’s ear — cracking jokes, telling each other to run,” Olaseni said. “We’re going to keep pushing each other, and we’re going to be a dynamic duo by the time the season comes around.”
When Olaseni and Woodbury faced off Sunday, Olaseni’s team won, and he outscored Woodbury 20-8 on the benefit of 9-of-15 shooting. His shot-altering presence forced Woodbury to go 4-for-16 from the floor, but Iowa’s prized recruit doubled up Olaseni 14-7 in rebounds.
“They’re going to battle, as they did (Sunday),” said Marble, Olaseni’s PTL teammate. “They both want to play a lot of minutes. Gabe brings a more explosive, shot-blocking type who can step out and make a mid-range jump shot.”
Like Basabe, Olaseni’s got a fun-loving side — a Borat and Family Guy lover, he was mockingly taking video interviews of his teammates after Sunday’s games. Cohesively, he’s also serious, thirsting for knowledge on getting better.
“Last year, I realized while I’m on the bench, I might as well sit and watch. Not like a fan, but as a person studying the game,” Olaseni said. “I watched all the great big guys in the league, like Jared Sullinger, Draymond Green and Meyers Leonard.
“My mind was always going on the bench — even though I was cheering like crazy for my teammates.”
After uttering a few superlatives which might direct attention Olaseni’s way, Basabe slyly backed off, perhaps to keep the 20-year-old’s potential on the down-low.
“I’m not going to talk for him. I’m going to just let his performance show. Just know I said it first: I’m really excited for him,” Basabe said. “You can ask Coach McCaffery, you can ask anybody. His ability is off the charts.
“He’s such a hidden commodity that people really don’t know yet. I can see it coming out of him.”
Olaseni would love nothing more than to introduce himself to Hawkeyes fans soon enough.
“I was a great teammate last year. Obviously I was cheering for them,” Olaseni said. “But this year, I want to be productively helping us reach our goals.”