A year after ACL tear, Badgers’ Gasser striving for best version of self

In his first season back since tearing his ACL, Josh Gasser (21) has reined in his all-out-hustling style of play during practice, according to coach Bo Ryan. But in games, Gasser goes after loose balls and takes charges, like he did in Wisconsin's loss at Indiana on Tuesday.

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MADISON, Wis. — In a perfect world, we all want to be the very best versions of ourselves, professionally and personally. Best trial lawyer, for example. Best spouse. Best basketball player. A great deal of time, effort and energy must be put forth in order to achieve those goals at the highest level.

Even then, we have come to learn the world isn’t perfect. Unforeseen circumstances strike and force us to adjust plans and alter expectations.

Enter Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser, whose best version of himself on the basketball court must now meld the experiences of two entirely different places over two different seasons. The best version of himself came two years ago, before the season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear in his left knee forced a year of rehab. But the best version of himself is also now, a smarter player despite being bogged down by a knee brace, as well as persistent knee and back pains.

Most know the story by now: Two Octobers ago, Badgers coach Bo Ryan raved about Gasser’s high level of play and his importance in taking over as the team’s starting point guard. Days later, Gasser tore his ACL during practice and missed the 2012-13 season.

Hoosiers 75, Badgers 72

The road to recovery was difficult and painful. Gasser spent as many hours in the training room as he did asleep most days. And when he was finally medically cleared to return this season, no one knew exactly what type of player he would be.

"I think he’s better," Badgers assistant coach Lamont Paris said, although he offered a caveat. "But in a more seasoned, veteran, mature way. I think there are probably times that he would tell you maybe he’s not quite as explosive on a quick change of direction. But where he’s not as capable of doing that as quickly as he was before, maybe he puts himself in better position before the play starts. Or he helps earlier so that he doesn’t have to move as quick."

For a player who holds himself to such a high standard, even the slightest decrease in capabilities has been frustrating as Gasser has adjusted to life after the ACL tear. Gasser said his knee becomes so stiff on some days that it’s difficult to move around. And because he is wearing a brace and favors the other leg at times, he is now dealing with back soreness.

"That’s the kind of stuff that happens after an injury like this," he said. "The doctors, trainers knew it was going to happen. They were expecting it. So they’re just treating me like they do everyone else. That’s just the way it goes."

Gasser has done well to hide his irritation outwardly, and the most noticeable difference in his physical capabilities comes in practice rather than games. Ryan has made a point to withhold Gasser from an occasional play to preserve him for game days.

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"I think coach Ryan just knows when we’re doing our possessions and half courts, keeping me in a couple series," Gasser said. "I think he knows he wants to limit my reps. Instead of playing 30 possessions, I’m playing 25 just to get me a feel of their offense and stuff like that. But I’m still doing everything. I’m doing all the shooting drills. I’m doing everything we do. I think he wants to limit it that way a little bit."

Added Ryan: "He just works whatever he’s called on. But there are times in practice where you can see where he doesn’t complete something. Where I’ll just get up next to him and say, ‘Now, Josh, I know in a game you’re diving on the floor for that ball, right?’ And he goes, ‘Yep.’

"So it’s never held him back in a game doing what he normally does. But there was one practice where there were two possessions within like 30 feet of a loose ball — maybe 10. He didn’t dive for it. I knew, No. 1 he realized his angle probably wasn’t the best. But in games he’s going after all the loose ones."

This season, Gasser has started all 17 games and is averaging 8.7 points and 3.9 rebounds as an off-guard. Coaches and players credit his mere presence on the floor for bringing the team closer together. And his willingness and ability to be the team’s lockdown defender has provided a toughness that was lacking at times last season. He can guard Iowa’s 6-foot-9 Aaron White, Illinois’ 6-4 Rayvonte Rice or anyone in between.

There are still games in which Gasser’s offense disappears, but he does not let it affect his play at the other end, which teammates continue to notice. Two weeks ago against Northwestern, Gasser missed all four of his field goal attempts and didn’t score a point. He played 31 minutes, tallied one rebound, one steal, three assists and no turnovers.

"He might have had zero points, but he might have been one of the most important players on the floor for us," said Badgers guard Ben Brust, who is also Gasser’s roommate. "You get people who say, ‘Oh, he didn’t make shots or he didn’t do this.’ But he got that loose ball, he played great defense on this person. He does so many things that may not show up. I know everyone says that may not show up in the stat sheet. But for him it’s 100-percent true. And everyone feels it in a way. It’s just that unexplainable leadership in a way."

Gasser, a redshirt junior, said he anticipated shedding the knee brace for his senior season, which could help alleviate the back pain and restore whatever quickness he’s missing. Each day he moves further away from his surgery date, he feels a little better. And the best version of himself, Gasser hopes, is yet to come.

"As long as I’m playing," he said, "as long as I’m healthy and we’re winning ballgames, that’s all I really care about."

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