MADISON, Wis. — Josh Gasser isn’t so much reinventing his game as he is reinvigorating it. And for a fifth-year senior who already is considered among the most respected basketball players in the Big Ten, it means his final season at Wisconsin very well could be his best.
At least, that’s the hope from Gasser, whose renewed mobility has provided him with added confidence nearly two years removed from a devastating ACL injury to his left knee that sidelined him for a full season. Gone now, for the first time, is the bulky knee brace that hindered his movement a year ago in his comeback season.
"It’s great," Gasser said. "I’m still getting used to it, though. I wore a brace all last year. Playing without it and starting to get comfortable and confident without it is like coming back from the injury itself again almost. I’m still kind of feeling my way driving to the hoop without it and stuff like that. But I definitely like it. I feel much more natural, more comfortable. So I’m really happy."
Gasser’s toughness, of course, has never been questioned. He worked tirelessly with team trainer Henry Perez-Guerra for an entire year to put himself in position to return last year, and he eventually earned his second Big Ten all-defensive team honor while starting all 38 games. But while toughness and talent allowed him to significantly contribute to the Badgers’ Final Four team, it couldn’t make up for his lack of quickness and explosiveness on the court.
Now, Gasser believes he can be the best of both worlds: a savvier player for having dealt with the injury and a more athletic player for being 21 months away from it.
"That’s something that you don’t know if you’ll ever get completely back," Gasser said. "But I think it’s mostly being confident. Being confident you’re going to be able to jump and explode off one leg or two legs and confident things are going to stay in place. But it’s having a summer working with Erik (Helland), our strength coach, and just playing with the guys in open gym, that’s where you can get more comfortable with it.
"So I think I’m definitely going to be hopefully better. I’m not trying to get there now. It’s a long process. So hopefully once December, January, February comes, I’ll have everything where I want it."
Gasser also feels more refreshed after undergoing offseason hernia surgery. He said he had the surgery the Monday after graduation in mid-May and spent the next four weeks recuperating at home in Port Washington. He has been cleared to return and is spending the summer in Madison.
Gasser noted he wasn’t sure if wearing a knee brace last season contributed to the problem. But teammates already have noticed a better version of Gasser.
"He’s looking great," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. "I think that hernia surgery really did well for him for getting his legs back and getting back to normal. He had on his knee brace and trying to play a full season, it was a grind and he was never fully there. But now I think he’s comfortable with it, not using that brace. It’s good to see Josh back out there."
Gasser, a consummate team player, isn’t one to proclaim many individual goals. He pointed out he’d like to remain one of the better defensive players, to become even more consistent in his jump shot and to gain more confidence in driving to the basket and creating for teammates. He was not able to hone those skills last offseason while recovering from injury.
Still, Gasser managed to exceed most reasonable expectations. He ranked fifth on the team in points per game (8.8), fourth in rebounds (4.0) and second in assists (1.9) while playing the second-most minutes behind guard Ben Brust. Gasser also shot 43.3 percent from the field, including 43.1 percent on 3-point attempts — solid numbers that were down from his sophomore season before the injury.
Ultimately, however, what matters most to Gasser is Wisconsin making another run to the Final Four — and Gasser doing his part, fully confident, on the floor.
"It’s my last year, so I just want to do anything I can to help us win," Gasser said. "We’ve got high expectations for ourselves. I have yet to win the Big Ten championship, so that’s the first thing in mind. And then once tournament time starts again, let’s go get it."