IOWA CITY, Ia. — Gabe Olaseni had been playing organized basketball for just five years when we arrived at Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kan., in 2010.
When Sunrise coach Kyle Lindsted first saw this 6-foot-10 neophyte from London, Olaseni passed the eye test.
“His height, his athleticism … he definitely did,” Lindsted said.
But there was plenty of catching up to do.
“He was underdeveloped, just because he had started playing basketball at a later age than we’re used to seeing American kids start at,” Lindsted said. “There were just so many concepts of the game that were new to him. To see where he is now is a testament to his work ethic, and his attitude.”
Olaseni has had a breakout junior season at Iowa, becoming a valuable piece of coach Fran McCaffery’s rotation off the bench.
“I didn’t look at him as a project when we first signed him in terms of his physical ability,” McCaffery said. “He just needed to gain some experience.”
Olaseni is averaging 7.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 16 minutes off the bench, a significant uptick from his first two seasons. He also leads the team in blocked shots (35) and offensive rebounds (61). His emergence has been evident during the last three games.
He had his team-high fourth double-double of the season at Illinois. Olaseni’s 15 points and 12 rebounds were both career highs. He backed that up with 14 points and nine rebounds against Ohio State, then had nine points, four rebounds and three blocked shots against Michigan.
“No doubt about it,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said when asked if Olaseni was one of the most improved players in the Big Ten. “Coming off his game against Illinois, and what he did (against Ohio State), obviously he’s playing at a very high level. The improvement I’ve seen him make in his time there is really, really good.”
ESPN analyst Dan Dakich worked Iowa’s 2013 Big Ten opener against Indiana, a game where Olaseni had just one point and played only 5 minutes. After the game, Dakich said Olaseni “didn’t look ready. He looked (a step) behind everything.”
Dakich also worked Iowa’s recent Ohio State and Michigan games. Dakich considers Michigan’s Caris LeVert the most improved player in the Big Ten.
“But (Olaseni) is 1-A,” Dakich said.
A coach at Clemson tipped Lindsted off about Olaseni. Iowa was recruiting another Sunrise player, Eric Katenda, and that’s who McCaffery came to see in a workout one day. But Olaseni caught his eye.
“They had a pretty good team (at Sunrise), but he was so dominant, so fluid, and so long,” McCaffery said. “He finished everything, caught everything, and blocked everything. He seemed to be in the right place.”
Katenda signed with Notre Dame, but Olaseni said yes to Iowa. McCaffery wanted to redshirt Olaseni in 2011-12, but a lack of depth in the post forced the coach’s hand. Olaseni played a total of 90 minutes in 18 games.
“It would be nice to have another year, or another 10 years, here in Iowa City,” Olaseni said. “But the way our team was built that freshman year, the coaches needed me to come into the game and spot some guys. It’s all situational. If I wasn’t playing well (now), people would want me out of here a year quicker.”
Olaseni is a perfectionist at heart, which slowed down his progress at Sunrise.
“That was the hardest thing he had to deal with,” Lindsted said. “He’s a polite kid, very courteous, very well spoken. And he just wants to do everything correctly. It’s not good enough for him to go out there, and battle as hard as he can, and just let the chips fall where they may. He wants to make sure he’s doing it all right. Well, you can’t really think and play at the same time.”
An obsession with perfection slowed Olaseni’s progress after he arrived in Iowa.
“Now he has figured out that the game is much more fluid, and he relies on his athletic ability and his instincts a little bit more,” McCaffery said. “He’s learned that making a mistake isn’t the end of the world and to run back and do something good.”
Olaseni said that shedding his shell of perfection gets easier the more minutes he plays.
“If I go out there and make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world,” said Olaseni, who has 17 turnovers in 385 minutes. “I see that Coach McCaffery isn’t tearing my head off, and my teammates are still there for me. It’s becoming more reactionary. I’m just excited for the day where I just check into the game, whatever the situation is, and continue to make plays.”
Olaseni’s length has always been valuable on defense. He blocked seven shots in a game against Illinois last season, and his 7-foot-2 wingspan is also a plus when it comes to rebounding and closing passing lanes.
His running ability is also a productive part of Iowa’s fast break. Olaseni’s offense in half-court sets continues to be a work in progress. But he’s showed an ability to score in numerous ways this season. And his free-throw percentage has improved from .694 last season to .729 this season.
“I know how much work it’s taken, because I know how limited he was when he got here,” Lindsted said. “It doesn’t surprise me because I know he wants to be a great player, and he has a lot of tools to do it.”
Iowa junior Gabe Olaseni ranks fifth in the Big Ten in offensive rebounding this conference season. But factor in average minutes played, and Olaseni moves to the top of the list. Statistics are through Tuesday’s games.
Player/offensive rebounds/average minutes
A.J. Hammons, Purdue/3.0/29.0
Noah Vonleh, Indiana/2.5/29.9
Nnanna Egwu, Illinois/2.5/29.4
Melsahn Basabe, Iowa/2.5/20.8
Gabe Olaseni, Iowa/2.3/15.9
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball