The bare numbers say “solid.” Six points, six rebounds, two blocked shots, two steals, one assist.
But Iowa coach Fran McCaffery had a different adjective for the way backup center Gabe Olaseni played in the Hawkeyes’ preseason exhibition game Sunday.
“I thought he was spectacular,” McCaffery said following a 100-54 rout of Quincy University. “Four offensive rebounds in the first half. I know he is frustrated he missed a tip-in and a bunny … But a pretty good day for him.”
It probably really was spectacular considering how little actual basketball experience Olaseni has. He only began playing the sport four years before making the move from his native London, England, to the U.S. He played one season at a small private high school in the suburbs of Wichita, Kan., then mostly just watched in his first season at Iowa.
Sunday’s 14-minute workout was more than he played in any regular-season game a year ago, and it was enough to further convince McCaffery that the
6-foot-10 sophomore can help the Hawkeyes this season.
“I understand what I can do on the court and what I can’t do,” Olaseni said of the strides he has made. “I’m not trying to do too much, not getting down on myself really.”
He admitted that he still is learning how to play basketball. While incoming freshmen Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury played 100 or more games a year during their high school careers, Olaseni probably hasn’t played that many in his life.
His first year at Iowa was a crash course in Hoops 101.
“I understand the game a lot more now,” he said. “Not simply running plays but knowing where to be at certain times, how to do things properly without injuring my teammates. I think there were times last year I would have helped my teammates on the court, but at the same time I might have slowed them down with my lack of knowledge of the game.”
The possibilities for Olaseni are obvious. Not only is he 6-10, but he has the wingspan of a 7-3 player and is blessed with as much natural athleticism as anyone on the Iowa roster. He can run and jump and is even a decent shooter.
And, according to McCaffery, the kid has the perfect attitude.
“Gabe has made unbelievable progress,” McCaffery said. “I think anybody that knows him would have expected this. They know his makeup, his work ethic, his character, his athletic ability.
“The challenge for Gabe is he tries to be too perfect a lot of times. We’re constantly encouraging him to let him know that it’s OK to make a mistake. Run back, get the rebound, block the shot, get over toward the ball and get back. Just play your game that way. He’s getting so much better with that.”
Olaseni didn’t do much on the court last season after arriving from Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kan. He averaged only five minutes per game and contributed 1.4 points and 1.2 rebounds per contest.
He said his patience might have worn thin were it not for the approach taken by his coaches and teammates.
“I think it would be (frustrating) if you were by yourself in terms of not knowing what the long-term goal was,” he said “Every day the coaches and my teammates emphasized that it’s a gradual process.
“I knew it would be a process,” he added. “Knowing that coming in helped. The coaches were still working with me, still making me a major part of practice, still taking time out every day to help me improve.”
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A week after Iowa’s season ended with a loss to Oregon in the NIT, Olaseni was back in the gym pestering the coaches, who he said often came in early specifically to work with him.
“I was constantly in their hair about where I was supposed to be,” he said. “I think I asked 10 to 15 questions in every practice.
“I’m nowhere near a finished product. I’m constantly trying to get better and trying to learn.”
But his confidence is growing and he now does things on the court without having to think about it.
“I have a pretty good repertoire now,” Olaseni said. “When I catch the ball, I know what to do. Last year it was, ‘Should I go this way? Should I go that way?’ Now it’s just instinct.”
Olaseni’s primary role this season will be to back up the 7-foot-1 Woodbury and provide an athletic change of pace for opponents to deal with when he comes off the bench.
Both he and McCaffery firmly believe there will be much more spectacular days ahead.
“He knows what we want from him now,” the coach said. “So the next step in his progression is getting out on the floor, and having the ability to play through his mistakes … If he does that, now you have a running, jumping, 6-foot-10 athlete who can guard, who has bounce and can shoot. He can make a baseline jumper, a foul-line jumper and affect the game in so many different ways with his length.”