LOS ANGELES — Arizona guard Gabe York is just as baby faced as when he led Orange Lutheran to the 2011 Division III State Championship. Yet his head coach, Sean Miller, swears that he is now a man, or at least his aptitude for defense is comparable to a man’s. A far cry from where he was during his time as a Lancer.
"If I judge Gabe York from where he would have been early in his freshman year, defensively, to where he is now, it’s like a young kid becoming an adult," Miller said Wednesday afternoon at the Honda Center, only a few miles away from where York prepped. "A lot of teams try to attack him because T.J. (McConnell) and Nick (Johnson) are so good on the ball. As they’ve done that, and Gonzaga would be an example, he’s answered the bell."
Last week against Gonzaga, York scored 11 points in 25 minutes of play. This week in the NCAA West Regional in Anaheim, he’s expected to play the same role. But this time last year, it looked as though the West Covina guard would never see 25 minutes on the court.
As one of the most exciting players in the CIF Southern Section was confined to the bench to start his career, he realized that he would need more than a feathery shooting touch to play at the college level: He needed to play defense.
If I judge Gabe York from where he would have been early in his freshman year, defensively, to where he is now, it’s like a young kid becoming an adult.
Arizona head coach Sean Miller
"I got exposed in practice," York said. "Nick is a great offensive player and Mark Lyons, who was a fifth-year senior, a big part of this college game — he’s been in the NCAA tournament three or four times already, so trying to guard them every day was hard. I couldn’t do it.
"Coach Miller made that known to everybody and I was getting embarrassed and it was all bad."
But York did what many other 18 year olds in his position rarely do. Instead of sulking and asking for a transfer, which he says he did consider, he owned up to his skills and worked on them.
"(I knew) that I wouldn’t be playing college basketball if I didn’t work on my defense," York said.
"A lot of kids in today’s world, when they don’t play a lot as a college freshman, they leave, point fingers, and they start over," Miller said. "When they start over, they have success at the next place. Well, many times they would have had success at our place, except they never gave it a chance. Gabe and his family and his support system — they stayed with it."
York is someone that does everything for his family before himself. He encouraged his mother to move out to Tucson to be near him. His grandparents, Valerie and Don York, and his brother Elijah — who will all be in attendance Thursday afternoon at the Honda Center for No. 1 seed Arizona’s Sweet 16 matchup against No. 4 San Diego State — would have reconciled with whatever decision he came to.
But leaving, he thought, would be the easy way out. And his family doesn’t take the easy way out.
"I knew the reason why I wasn’t playing was because of me. It wasn’t like he just wouldn’t play me, I just couldn’t play defense," York said. "It was a bigger picture than just me, it was trying to prove to my mom, my grandparents and my brother that I was able to do it."
He stayed in Tucson over the summer to work out. York put on 18 pounds in order to withstand contact and he worked on nearly every aspect of his defensive game — footwork, coverage, rebounding.
Had he transferred, York would be sitting watching the tournament that he calls a "dream come true." He still dreams about hitting a game-winning shot or a clutch 3-pointer down the stretch, and the way the Wildcats played the Aztecs earlier this season, those services might be needed.
But a game-winning stop might mean just a little more.
"Just watching where he came from and how important he is this year, and I really believe where he can be a year from now as a player, it’s gratifying," Miller said. "It’s what it should be like."