Commentary: Gatens above hype

BY ROBBIE LEHMAN | JUNE 11, 2009 7:26 AM

No surprise here. Iowa sophomore-to-be Matt Gatens was chosen as the first overall pick in this summer’s Prime Time League draft.

It makes sense; pick last summer’s most valuable player whose team won the league championship. Gatens was the Hawkeyes’ most reliable and consistent player his freshman season. He was the only player to start all 32 games, and posted double figures in 21 of them. Nonetheless, he got screwed out of the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Award.

I have had the privilege of watching Gatens’ development over the last five years. I have seen his game grow from his days as a Little Hawk at City High to a Hawkeye now.

I played with him for two years at City High. We were even cocaptains together, me as a senior and he as a sophomore. Except I pretty much delegated all responsibility to him after the pregame introductions and took a seat on the bench to enjoy the show.

Our history goes back to when we were elementary-school kids playing in winter leagues at North Dodge Athletics Club. Being two years older, I never played with him again until the summer before his freshman year of high school. We went to a few summer tournaments, and it was clear that, even after just passing the eighth grade, he was the best player on the team.

I still remember his first high-school dunk, a one-handed tomahawk. He put on some incredible performances as a freshman. A 39-point explosion in an overtime win against Cedar Rapids Prairie sticks out. Not only did he lead us in points, he led in just about every other category as well. He orally committed to Iowa after his freshman season.

Here’s what has impressed me the most about Gatens, the basketball player. Being the best player on a team as a freshman can go one of two ways, and I’ve seen them both. More often than not, the player will not be the best player on the team when he is a senior. Numerous physical and mental factors play into this, and some players perhaps stop working as hard because they think they have it made.

But Gatens truly has a passion for the game that has been noticeable. His competitiveness and hunger to improve were greater than anyone’s I had seen.

Gatens did experience some frustration his first two years of high school, mainly because he was forced to carry our team. I can recall a time or two when he chucked a ball at the pad underneath the basket.

But here is what impressed me about Gatens the person — how quickly he matured. I know for a fact he has a great support system of family and friends that brought him up the right way, on and off the court.

After two years, it was time for us to part ways again after I graduated. I continued to follow his development, and when he led City High to the state tournament with only a single loss his senior year, I made the trip to Wells Fargo Arena. I watched him kiss the state championship trophy, finally a winner.

Winning was all he ever wanted; he would be the first to say that stats mean nothing to him as long as he helps his team win. I was in Florida for spring break shortly after his crowning moment and still remember sending him a text message telling him how proud I was and that he deserved every bit of it.

I’d like to think I had a part in his development, but in reality, I just fouled him a lot for two years. But he became a complete player and was named the state’s Mr. Basketball in 2008.

I enjoyed watching his transition to college ball this year, even as Iowa struggled. One thing I am certain of, Hawkeye fans will see the same progress from his freshman through senior years of college he displayed during the same span in high school. Gatens is a player who will not accept average.

For the kid who grew up dreaming of being a Hawkeye, the Hawkeyes are lucky to have him.

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