TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona shooting guard Gabe York recently used the word “depressing” in describing his freshman season. Upon reflection, he clarified that “depressing” wasn’t the right word, but he didn’t know what was.
Hopes and dreams for a basketball player start and end on the court, and in York’s world last year, there were no starts and rare ends when it came to playing time.
What he’s certain of is that “it wasn’t really what I had hoped.” The 6-foot-2 guard from Orange, Calif., added, “I wasn’t at a high level. I was doubting myself, both on offense and defense. I didn’t want to practice. Then, I got it halfway through the season, and said to myself, ‘No one is going to take this game away from me.'”
Even though he knew what he was getting himself into in coming to Arizona — top-notch athletes, some of the best college basketball players in the country — he knew he could fit in and even thrive. He was good enough, he said.
“Coming here, it was difficult (and) I knew there were good basketball players, physical and athletic,” he said. “But at the same time, I thought I’d be able to play at the high level. Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t think of the defensive aspect.
“But I have a trust in (Sean Miller) and this program.”
So, he “stuck his nose in it” and stared playing defense like never before.
He worked on it. And worked on it. By mid-March, he was capable at an aspect of the game that had previously been almost foreign to him. He admitted that he hadn’t played much defense in high school so as to not get into foul trouble — after all, you can’t score when you’re sitting on the bench.
“I got a lot better by March, but by then it was too late,” he said. “Coach already had his rotation.”
And York was rarely in it. Arguably Arizona’s best shooter — and shooting was something that was direly needed a season ago — was mostly stuck on the bench.
This year, with Friday’s season opener at home against Cal Poly approaching, it appears that won’t be the case. Arizona still needs a dead-eye shooter (it appears to be one of the team’s few question marks), and York could fill the need coming off the bench as he continues to play behind Nick Johnson at shooting guard.
“I’m just going to go out there and play basketball the way I know how to,” he said. “If I’m the sixth man or eighth man, playing just 15 minutes, it doesn’t matter. I just want to go out there and play basketball.”
But if York’s performance against Augustana last week is any indication, he’ll see time — or at least more than the 5.8 minutes per game he averaged last season.
“He has a real pivotal part of this year’s team, because he can shoot the basketball and he can score,” Miller said. “We need him to shoot the ball. You put him out there with our big guys and a point guard and he’s going to get open shots. There’s no question he can knock them down.”
York pointed out that he’ll shoot from anywhere: inside the arc, outside the arc, even floaters in the lane (already a signature move).
“I’m not a shooter; I’m a scoring guard,” he said.
The confidence in his voice is clear. Last year, in the rare times he spoke to the media, he was a shy kid who didn’t say much. In his second season, he’s hardly a wallflower.
Confidence is key, and it’s among the biggest reason coaches — including Miller — expect big jumps for players from their freshman to the sophomore years.
Johnson said York’s improvement has been undeniable. In the exhibition game, York went 6 for 9 from the field for 14 points. And based on a scrimmage over the weekend with St. Mary’s, Johnson said, “it’s clear he’s made strides on the defensive end — that’s going to be very evident.”
Johnson added, “Gabe has always been confident, but you do lose a little when you’re not playing as much. But he’s always been confident. He’s going to be good for the team.”
Miller feels the same way and has told York just that. Last year, York said, Miller told him he was a good shooter who needed to defend better. Miller has delivered the same message heading into this season, with an emphasis on the shooting and scoring.
“Nothing has changed; that’s my role,” York said. “And that’s what I need to do to come in and be a great player here at Arizona. I need to improve from my freshman to sophomore year.”
The important thing, of course, is that York is still here at Arizona. In an era of players leaving for more playing time and thought-to-be-better situations, York didn’t leave for seemingly greener grass. Angelo Chol did, going to San Diego State; Grant Jerrett did, declaring for the draft only to end up in the NBA D-League; and others before them did as well.
“I give Gabe and his family tremendous credit, because they didn’t take the easy way out,” Miller said. “I think they did what was right, and Gabe continues to evolve. He’s doing a great job in school, he’s a year older, he’s stronger … but moving forward, he can have an even bigger role in the future and maybe evolve into an all-conference player. That’s the path that Gabe York could go on.