Attempting to figure out Davante Gardner’s struggles

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Marquette

Davante Gardner simply isn’t getting to the free throw line. (USA Today Images)

At Thursday’s media session Marquette head coach Buzz Williams made some interesting remarks about sixth man Davante Gardner’s recent struggles, saying the talented big man “has not been consistent in his work at any point” and that “he doesn’t work hard enough to be consistent.”

They’re shocking words to hear about a player who has dropped somewhere in the range of 40-50 pounds since he arrived in Milwaukee, has earned a Sixth Man of the Year award and was an elite low-post scorer last year despite playing below the rim in one the best conferences for interior defense in the country.

In 14 games Gardner is averaging a team-best 12.9 points on 55 percent shooting, 5.9 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 23.1 minutes off the bench. He’s struggled of late, averaging 8.0 points on 4.3 field-goal attempts in Marquette’s last four contests, and he bottomed out Tuesday night against Creighton, going for a season-low four points on 1-for-2 shooting in 16 uninspiring minutes.

Williams’ comments seem to insinuate that Gardner’s struggles aren’t stat-based or even game-related, rather that Marquette’s best low-post presence hasn’t been a solid practice player or perhaps isn’t playing to scouting reports or giving his best efforts defensively. Williams knows better than to pinpoint for the media exactly where Gardner has gone wrong in his final season at Marquette.

We may know where it is.

22 years ago Gardner was born in a Norfolk, Va., hospital, and there’s a good chance he had his back to the basket when he came out of the womb. The 290-pound “Ox” has made a living in the painted area, using a unique array of post moves, body control, hand-eye coordination and touch to become the best interior post scorer Marquette has seen in some time. The “jack in the box,” a nickname Williams gave to Gardner after a conference game last season, has always looked comfortable in the post, but for whatever reason that hasn’t been the case in 2013-14.

There’s a handful of theories as to why he’s struggling: (1) his backcourt mates are having trouble finding him inside, (2) Chris Otule’s emergence has messed with his flow over the course of a game, (3) he isn’t 100 percent healthy, or (4) teams have used three seasons of film to figure out his game and where he’s most vulnerable.

In 2013-14, Gardner has received the ball in a post-up position 67 times, 4.8 occurrences per game. That number is up slightly from last season, when he had 146 post-up possessions in 35 games (4.2 chances), per Synergy. Because of Gardner’s slight uptick in minutes (23.1 mpg this year, up from 21.4 mpg last year), Gardner’s post-up possessions account for 40 percent of all his touches, lower than his 42 percent mark a year ago.

Marquette needs Gardner to get back to where he was last year...the charity stripe. (USA Today Images)

Marquette needs Gardner to get back to where he was last year…the charity stripe. (USA Today Images)

Still, it’s not enough of a discrepancy to say that Gardner isn’t getting the ball enough in the post. When and where he receives the ball is another story and would require more of a video breakdown, but the fact remains that Gardner is finding himself with the ball, on the block, almost as much as he did last season.

And Gardner’s efficiency has been similar, too. He’s averaging 1.06 points per possession on 50 percent shooting on post-up moves; last season he averaged 1.014 points per possession on 52 percent shooting, per Synergy. Again, the field goal percentage is down slightly, but not enough to say that his shooting in the paint has been the difference.

Where the 6-foot-8 Gardner is struggling is in getting to the charity stripe. The raw numbers show him averaging 4.6 free throws per game, down from his 5.0 attempts last season. Per KenPom, Gardner is drawing 6.0 fouls per 40 minutes, down from his glittering 6.7 per-40 average a year ago, ranked 16th in the country.

Those numbers show some reasoning, but let’s go back to the block for a second.

After all, that’s where Gardner does the majority of his damage. Last year he was an absolute force down there, drawing a shooting foul on more than 25 percent of his possessions (37 possessions total). This number may seem low, but remember these possessions constitute only those where he began with the ball on the block. He drew shooting fouls on 24.6 percent of his “cut” possessions and 20.3 percent of his offensive rebound possessions, where the 176 free throw attempts primarily came from.

This season, Gardner has drawn shooting fouls on just 16.4 percent of his possessions while posting up (11 of his 67 possessions). He simply isn’t showing the aggressiveness he was last season in the paint — that, or he isn’t drawing the fouls he was last year. Yet, with the new rules the NCAA is enforcing to eliminate hand checks, seen primarily in the paint, it seemed as though Gardner would thrive.

The worst part is Gardner attempted nearly one-third of his free throws in Marquette’s season opener against Southern. He went to the line 20 times in that game; in 13 games since he has gone to the line 44 times, a 3.4 average per game. In Marquette’s last six games he hasn’t gone to the line more than three times; last year his longest streak was three games.

Gardner is actually taking care of the ball on the block much better, but as odd as it sounds that may be part of the problem. This season he’s turning the ball over on 7.5 percent of his block touches, down significantly from his mark of 20 percent a year ago. But maybe Gardner needs to be more aggressive and take more chances. It doesn’t seem like it’d be part of the solution, but taking chances of earning offensive fouls also may mean more free-throw opportunities — turnovers don’t just need to come via the pass.

Maybe he’s been hesitant to draw free throws because he’s shooting just 65 percent from the charity stripe this year, far worse than his 83.5 percent mark a year ago. That seems like a stretch, but the mystery that has been Gardner’s lack of production means putting all the cards on the table to try and figure this one out.

Maybe free throws and aggressiveness are the issue, maybe they aren’t. But Gardner is still producing similar to what he was in most shooting categories a year ago. It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what Williams meant by Gardner not working hard enough — realistically he probably means in practice, and his minutes have suffered accordingly — but it’s not easy to get to the free throw line. Maybe that’s where Ox needs to be more consistent.

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