With one costly, season-ending planting of his left foot on the Kohl Center floor, Josh Gasser reshaped the careers of redshirt freshman George Marshall and sophomore Traevon Jackson.
When Gasser, the proven floor general, the all-Big Ten defender, tore his ACL in practice Oct. 27, it put the redshirt freshmen on the fast track to a starting role. A combined 92 minutes of gametime in a Wisconsin uniform between the two before this year (all belonging to Jackson), in a single practice, the two point guards moved from reserves to major contributors.
“It was devastating for the team, Josh was a big part of this team,” Marshall said. “For me individually, me taking on a bigger role – I kind of took it as ‘I have to [step in].’ But at the same time I felt I was ready, whether Josh got hurt or not.”
Ready or not, Marshall started the season-opener against Southeastern Louisiana 15 days after Gasser was relegated to the bench with a massive brace blanketing his left leg.
Gasser was not Wisconsin’s leading returning scorer or rebounder, but he was still regarded as one of the most important players in the Badgers’ lineup this season. A classic Bo Ryan player, the junior rarely turned the ball over, acted as an efficient ball distributor and scored when called upon. Never flashy but obnoxiously reliable, Gasser started 66 of his 70 career games in his freshman and sophomore seasons.
While Marshall has earned the starting spot at the point in all six games this year, the 6-foot-2 Jackson averages only five fewer minutes of time on the floor than his 5-foot-11 counterpart. And while both have shown a steady hand with the ball, the six games have not come without moments where the lack of experience has shown through.
“As a young player, first year getting big minutes, you’re going to have games like that where you’re not happy with the way you played,” Gasser said, his arms hanging over a pair of crutches. “But it’s all about how you respond, it’s all about what you do in the practice, the next day, the next game and they’re learning that.”
Observing from a seat positioned behind the bench through the first games of the season, Gasser – who started all but four games as a freshman in 2010-11 – has not been shy about offering his own advice. In practices and following games, the Port Washington native has pointed out defensive errors and the other miscues he notices after spending two seasons in Ryan’s system.
Gasser has tried to follow the lead of former UW players Jordan Taylor and Rob Wilson, the players he said guided him through his extensive time on the hardwood as a freshman.
But by the sixth game against Arkansas Saturday, a 77-70 comeback victory, associate head coach Greg Gard saw promising signs of development from Jackson on his way to finishing with a career-high 11 points.
“They’ve grown,” Gard said of his point guards. “And that’s even been possession-to-possession, media timeout to media timeout. I thought Trae really thought in the Arkansas game, did a much better job of controlling tempo, getting a feel for how they were trying to press him, when they’re trying to trap him.”
Despite their promising growth, both are still in the process of establishing their offensive identity at the collegiate level. Much of Marshall’s game has come from beyond the three-point arc, from where he has launched at least five shots in four of the first six games of the year.
Both Marshall and Gasser agree that he must grow more comfortable attacking the basket, an area the Chicago native says has “always been a part of my game.” But the steepest learning curve likely stands in the most obvious difference between Gasser and his replacements – experience.
“They’ve got to understand how to be a quarterback and how to be an extension of the coaching staff out on the floor and not just another player,” Gard said.
As he continues to rehab his injury, Gasser says he will soon return to the huddle during timeouts and start joining the team on the road, doing everything he can to help the team without stepping on the floor.
Close friends off the court, Marshall and Jackson maintain the battle for the starting spot at the point is a friendly competition. And it’s just heating up.
UW’s most recent game against the Razorbacks marked the first time Jackson has earned more time on the floor than his roommate.
“It’s basketball,” Jackson explained. “That’s my best friend at the end of the day here at Wisconsin, so it’s nothing [like] a rivalry or anything like that. Of course, you’re going to compete on the court, but at the same time I’m rooting for him and he’s rooting for me too.”
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