Iowa basketball: Olaseni rising to heights few saw coming

In sports journalism one of the most self-gratifying moments can be the chance to say “I told you so.” Whether it’s to a colleague, fan base, or simply a friend, that rare occurrence when you can say you saw something coming before anyone else did is flat-out awesome.

So here I sit at my computer desperately wanting to stick it to all of those people (real or merely figments of my imagination) who doubted me when I said in October that one of the biggest surprises of the Iowa basketball team this season would be back-up center Gabe Olaseni. I yearn to pound my chest and laud my college basketball prognostication ability.

Unfortunately though, I can’t.

That’s because even I never saw this coming.

I try not to engage in hyperbole too often, especially when it could be perceived as home team bias on my part. In this case however, I cannot help it. The transformation that Gabe Olaseni has undergone is nothing short of remarkable, and I challenge anyone to find more than a hand full of players that have improved as much as he has in the past year.

A season ago Olaseni had games in which he was effective (see a seven block performance against Illinois), but overall was still an inconsistent player trying to think his way through games instead of reacting and attacking. He was most-fittingly given the “potential” label that scouts often love and coaches almost always hate when describing a player.

As a junior, the 6-10 London native has taken his game to another level, nearly doubling his statistical production in every category from a year ago. His numbers (7.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.5 blocks per contest) still don’t scream “impact player”, but a closer examination reveals the truth behind this blossoming big man’s game.

The more telling numbers that define Olaseni are not those that fans immediately check in the box score of the newspaper each morning. Instead consider these figures: 51, 72.9, 3.5, and 16. In order, they represent Olaseni’s field goal percentage, free throw percentage, free throw attempts, and minutes played per game.

The final number, 16, should make the biggest impression on people examining the game of Iowa’s back-up center. Olaseni has started exactly zero times this season and only topped 20 minutes played twice, but by doubling his playing time to that of a typical starter he would be a major force on any team in America. With those minutes you’d have yourself an efficient player posting 14 points, almost 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks a night, plus getting to the foul line an average of seven times.

Now of course simply doubling Olaseni’s production along with his playing time is unrealistic, but if he got remotely close to those figures people would be talking about him as one of the more impressive interior players in America.

Prior to the season I assumed Olaseni would be an instant impact on the defensive end of the floor and in transition, which he has been. If you were to ask guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris of Michigan State or Caris LeVert and Nik Stauskas of Michigan who the best ball-screen defending big man was they’ve faced this season, I would bet these All-Big Ten and All-American caliber players would have trouble coming up with someone better than Olaseni.

Even more impressive than his vastly improved skill set are Olaseni's character and reputation as the consummate team player. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Even more impressive than his vastly improved skill set are Olaseni’s humble nature and reputation as the consummate team player. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

His athleticism and agility for a player his size are extraordinary, as is the infectious energy that he brings to the court. However, it has been beyond the defensive end that Olaseni has impressed me the most.

The reserve center has scored in double figures on eight occasions this season, including four times in Iowa’s past seven games (in another he finished with nine points). He has also produced four double-doubles, the most of any Hawkeye. Olaseni’s offensive game is rapidly expanding along with his confidence. Much of the credit for this goes to Fran McCaffery and an Iowa coaching staff known for constantly motivating their players to reach potential that they might not even see in themselves.

The guy who coaches and teammates once had to urge to take even open shots is now knocking down turn-around’s from the post, confidently stroking base line jumpers, and finishing with either hand at the rim over opposing big men, all the while continuing to attack the offensive glass with the same relentless fervor that he has always possessed.

During various segments of Iowa’s last three games it wouldn’t be a stretch to say Olaseni has looked like the best all-around player on the floor.

Yet as his role increases and people begin to take notice, Olaseni remains the same. Interviews are littered with praise of his teammates, appreciation for the coaching staff, and a desire to get back in the gym and improve.

Players and more importantly people like him are increasingly harder to find these days. It’s safe to say that the Iowa team and Hawkeye fans are fortunate to witness the growth of a fine young man.

Oh, and if things continue those same people will also get the chance to watch college hoops followers everywhere witness the impact of one heckuva basketball player.

And should that happen, well, I told you so.