To be clear, I do not have any inside information to support the claim of this article. I also do not believe the change I am about to suggest will actually occur. Lastly, I am not the coach of the Iowa basketball team (Ok so that final part was obvious).
In my humble opinion, it is time to make a change at the center position for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
At the present moment and into the near future the Hawkeyes have two big men vying for the team’s starting spot anchoring down the paint. Sophomore Adam Woodbury and junior Gabe Olaseni are the players who have been and will continue to battle for the lion’s share of the minutes on the floor.
In examining the games and skillsets of each of these players I’ve come to the conclusion that in both the short and long term the Hawkeyes would benefit from allotting a greater amount of playing time for Olaseni, the current backup to Woodbury.
In a way it’s almost an underdog story taking place within the confines of a single team at a single position. Woodbury, a native Iowan, came to the Hawkeyes last season as a top 50 ranked recruit and a part of one of the most highly rated classes in school history. Olaseni was born in London, England, and found his way to Iowa City via a small prep school in Kansas (Sunrise Christian Academy) after having only picked up the game of basketball as a late teen.
Woodbury decided to stay home despite holding scholarship offers from the likes of North Carolina and others, while Olaseni was only sparingly looked at by most mid-major programs. The dichotomy that exists between the two players is drastic, and stemming from their differing paths to Iowa has been a slowly evolving battle for the title of “best center” on the Hawkeye roster.
Although he is a year older as far as eligibility, Olaseni has for the most part been light years behind Woodbury’s understanding of concepts and fundamentals due to the fact that he took up the game so much later. Last season as a sophomore and freshman respectively, Olaseni made noticeable strides in production (36 blocks, nearly 70% FT shooting) in limited minutes while Woodbury started every game as expected, though he averaged a modest five points and five rebounds a night.
Throughout this past offseason head coach Fran McCaffery continually mentioned the improvement of his two big men, and his high expectations for the upcoming season. However, thus far only one of the tw0 has proven to be worthy of McCaffery’s praise.
It seems as though the proverbial light has finally turned on for Gabe Olaseni, as he has appeared to be increasingly confident and effective in each of Iowa’s five games this season. At 6-10 Olaseni just might be the one of the best athletes in the country for a player his size. His freakish length and athleticism make him a terror for opponents to score against in paint, as he is one of the Big Ten’s top shot blockers.
To give you an idea of just how much he effects the game on the defensive end, Olaseni is averaging 2.6 blocks per game, in 15 minutes. From there the math is pretty simple if he were to play “starter” minutes, or 30 minutes a night. The average would then jump up to a ridiculous 5.2 shots swatted each game.
Now with the way Iowa plays, using at least 10 different players every night for at least 15 minutes per game, it would be unrealistic to expect Olaseni to receive double his current playing time. But even if we temper down the minutes to say 23 a night, the average would still soar to nearly 4bpg. Those kinds of numbers get a player recognized nationally for exhibiting defensive prowess.
Aside from deterring opponents from entering the paint the real improvement by Olaseni has been his offensive confidence and assertiveness. He is currently averaging 7.2ppg mostly by running the floor and putting back missed shots from teammates. He also proved last season to be an above-average free throw shooter for his position, and is willing and able to knock down a midrange jump shot when left open.
With Olaseni on the floor the Hawkeyes seem to play with an increased sense of energy, both on the defensive end and in transition. His ability to beat his matchup down the floor and finish above the rim makes him a perfect fit for coach McCaffery’s up-tempo style. So far this season I would label Olaseni as by far Iowa’s most improved player as well as one of its most impactful out on the floor.
Taking a look at Iowa’s other big man, Adam Woodbury has been somewhat underwhelming thus far in his career as a Hawkeye. This isn’t to say that he has failed to play up to his potential, but rather that he likely isn’t the player many fans expected of the former high profile recruit.
At 7-1 245lbs, Woodbury certainly has all of the size a coach could ask for. However, that size can be deceptive when people expect a dominant rebounder and shot blocker to accompany it.
As far as shot blocking Woodbury struggles. In part because he is more of a position defender who is willing to stand straight up and face a driving opponent, but also due to the fact that he lacks many of the essential traits necessary to excel in the area.
First and foremost he is nowhere near the same stratosphere as Olaseni when it comes to jumping or moving his feet, and secondly he has extremely short arms for a post player. This affects his ability to challenge more athletic players as they elevate near the basket and also to move into position quickly enough to do so. Simply put, Olaseni is the superior defender of the two, although Woodbury grabs slightly more defensive rebounds.
Moving to the offensive end of the floor one would expect Woodbury to hold a distinct advantage over his more athletic but far less experienced or refined back-up. While that may have been the case last season, Olaseni scores nearly two points more per game this year than does Woodbury while almost never being fed the ball in the post.
Their are a few issues that affect Woodbury on offense that negate the height and weight advantage he holds over most of the players defending him. One is again his short arms, two is keeping a high center of gravity, and three is the fact that he is almost exclusively left-handed.
Going back to his short arms, Woodbury struggles to get his shot off against defenders of seemingly any size while in the post. His lack of ability to elevate off of the floor in addition to his arms essentially make him a much smaller player than he is when shooting the basketball. Not only that, but he has a bad habit of bringing the ball down around his waist, making it open season for smaller guards and forwards to strip it away from him.
Focusing on his center of gravity, any 7-1 player is going to struggle somewhat in this area, but Woodbury in particular is limited by it seemingly every night. Instead of burying his defender deep in the post, he is consistently moved off of the block and is forced to attempt many of his shots from much too far away from the hoop. Not only that, but some of his easiest opportunities around the basket are often missed because the smallest amount of contact tends to knock him off balance.
The third and final detriment to Woodbury’s offensive game is his overreliance on his left hand. While it may work in high school, lacking the ability to score around the rim with either hand at the collegiate level will significantly hinder any post player due to the increase in the talent level of the opposition. In most cases, Woodbury’s defender simply forces him to the right in anticipation that he will attempt to come back to that left hand where a help defender will be waiting.
All of these factors would make it difficult on any player to succeed at the offensive end of the floor, but they are especially troubling for Woodbury because that is precisely the area in which he should have a distinct advantage over Olaseni. The fact that he doesn’t means a real argument can be made that outside of maybe passing and true basketball fundamentals Woodbury isn’t more capable than Olaseni in any skillset.
With that being said, Hawkeye fans shouldn’t expect a change to come any time soon. The team is playing extremely well at the moment, but maybe even more importantly could be the idea that Fran McCaffery feels obligated to keep Woodbury in the starting lineup.
This is not, I repeat NOT to say that McCaffery is playing favorites or letting the pressure of keeping a former high profile recruit in the lineup affect him. Rather it is more likely that he is afraid he might affect Woodbury’s confidence by making a switch after starting him every game as a true freshman. Woodbury has this season plus two more to be a part of the Iowa program, and they will need the most engaged and confident version of him in order to reach their potential.
To sum everything up, I firmly believe that an increase in playing time for Gabe Olaseni would ultimately benefit the team as well as accelerate his development even further. But I also recognize that for the time being the Hawkeyes are probably best served to keep him coming off of the bench to spell Woodbury.
But don’t take my word for it. Sit down and watch these two players carefully over the course of a game and decide for yourself who ultimately leaves you craving to see more of them on the floor.
I’ve certainly decided who I would rather watch.