This is part of Paint Touches’ series breaking down each players’s 2011-2012 campaign and looking forward to next year. A big thank you to assistant coach Aki Collins, who provided exclusive, in-depth analysis on each player.
What he did well: From the day he arrived on campus to his weigh-in in Phoenix, Davante Gardner has dropped 27 pounds. It showed this year. The slimmer, quicker Gardner was able to play more minutes, which came in handy when Chris Otule was lost for the year to a torn ACL.
Gardner was again a force in the paint, making 61.9 percent of his shots (second in the Big East) and constantly putting opponent’s centers in foul trouble. The rumor of a mid-range game never came to fruition, but Gardner didn’t need it. His excellent hands and feet gave him great position in the post, and he finished after contact as well as anyone in the conference. His offensive rebounding was a major plus again, as his offensive rebounding percentage was one of the highest in the country.
A knee injury cost him eight games in the middle of the Big East season, but 2011 was an improving year for Gardner. He showed an ability to defend in the post, pass out of double teams and score in traffic. His contributions were magnified when Otule was lost, and his importance in the lineup was as significant as any.
What he could have done better: With his size, Gardner will never fit the mold of a Buzz Williams ‘switchable.’ The coaching staff has said 260-265 pounds is his ideal weight, but even then he will be a permanent post player. Teams took advantage of this by extending pick and rolls beyond the 3-point line, and at times Gardner struggled.
He did it much more last year, but Gardner still has a tendency to make up his mind about shooting as soon as he touches the ball. His assists per game and assist percentage were both improved from last year, but he would throw up an ill-advised shot every now and again that hurt the team’s offensive flow.
Aki’s analysis: “Todd Smith said he was at 276 (pounds) when we were in Phoenix, and I questioned him immediately. So I had to do some investigating, and we had just finished practicing and he hadn’t had breakfast so we put an asterisk next to that,” Collins said laughing. “But he has really worked to get his body in shape. I think he should be a 12 (points) and 6 (rebounds) or 12 and 7 guy next year. Can he do it? Without a doubt. But he has to continue to work and get his stamina to where he can help us. Defensively, I know coach gets on him all the time but if you watch, he has really progressed on his ball screen coverage. He did a great job in the Florida game. If he keeps coming, which I think he will, I think we have the best post tandem in the conference next year.
“If you would have told us two years ago, that we’d be having discussions about Davante’s impact, everybody would have said you’re crazy,” Collins said. “Now it’s like we want him to be Superman. He will get there. I don’t think there’s a better post scorer. And I’m very biased, I will admit that, but if you play him one-on-one, he’s either going to score or get fouled, or both. If you double team him, he’s going to pass for an assist. He wants you to double team him, because he wants to be a 6-foot-8, 280-pound Magic Johnson. He loves to pass.”
“He threw a pass to Darius in the Murray State game where Darius came from the top. And Davante tried to shuffle pass it to him, and Darius fumbled it. I said, ‘Davante, stop trying to be cute.’ Darius had the ball in his hands, but he didn’t think (Davante) could get it through there,” Collins said. “You pass so well, you don’t have to be so cute with it, and he understood that. But he loves to pass. He scores because he can, but he loves to pass. He lives for that.”
Best performance: St. John’s, Jan.11 (22 points, 15 rebounds, 2 blocks)
Buzz Williams announced after the Jan. 7 Syracuse game that Chris Otule would not return the rest of the season, leaving Gardner as Marquette’s only true post presence. Gardner responded with a dominating performance against the Red Storm, making 8-of-13 shots and getting to the free throw line eight times. His 34 minutes and 15 rebounds were both easily career highs, and he was a key part of Marquette’s 83-64 victory, coming off two road losses.
Worst performance: Vanderbilt, 12/29 (2 points, 2 rebounds, 3 fouls)
While most player’s worst performance of the year came in the 74-57 loss to the Commodores, most of them came as part of a domino effect created by Gardner. He picked up two fouls in the first five minutes and did not return. With Vanderbilt getting back center Festus Ezeli, Gardner was the only real match for the 6-foot-11 senior. Ezeli would go on to score eight points and grab seven rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench.
2012 outlook: Gardner proved he is capable of playing 25+ minutes a night at his current weight and conditioning, but if he can cut even more weight there’s no telling how good he can be. He is the leading scorer returning to the Marquette roster, and there should be more attempts for him in 2012.
When he returned to action following his knee sprain, Buzz Williams did not put Gardner back in the starting lineup. Instead, he used him as a scoring spark off the bench down the stretch. Part of that may have had to do with him not being at 100 percent, but Gardner may be best coming off the bench next year. He should still see 24-28 minutes a night, but the way he complements Chris Otule at center would be a huge advantage with the second unit.
Defensively, Gardner continues to improve and should make even more strides in 2012. He’s never going to challenge for Big East Defensive Player of the Year, but, as Collins said, he rebounds his position well and is improving in ball screen coverage. Another off-season of conditioning and practice should do wonders for the talented center.