SAN ANTONIO -- As a freshman last season, Washington's Abdul Gaddy would often head to the home of his old AAU coach from Tacoma, Gary Ward, and watch game tape -- of Gaddy playing for the Huskies, and his ex-AAU teammate and best friend, Avery Bradley, playing for Texas. Both players were five-star prospects in the Class of 2009; Gaddy was such a coveted point guard that he inspired the CEO of FedEx, a Memphis booster, to commit a recruiting violation by phoning Gaddy's mother, a FedEx customer service rep, to talk about her son. Rivals and Scout.com rated Gaddy the best player at his position not named John Wall.
But Gaddy and Bradley were off to divergent starts in college: Coming off the bench for the Huskies, Gaddy scored in double-figures just twice in the first 15 games and was plagued by foul trouble. Starting 12 of the Longhorns' first 15 games, Bradley hit double-figures nine times, scoring 20 against North Carolina and 29 against Colorado. Gaddy was happy to see his friend thriving, but troubled about his own performances. He'd wonder, Why aren't I doing the same thing?
"I'd call Avery sometimes and say to him, 'Man, I don't know what do,'" Gaddy said. "College was so different, and I didn't know how to handle it at times. He'd say, 'Just play off of instinct. Have a swagger like you're the best player on the floor. That's how you did it in high school.'"
There were instances when Bradley's advice worked, such as before a home win over fellow Pac-10 front-runner Cal on Jan. 16, when Gaddy confidently dished out five assists in 20 minutes. But there were plenty of low points -- four fouls in 10 minutes at Texas Tech, four fouls in eight minutes at Washington State, four fouls (and four turnovers) in 12 minutes against Stanford -- that made for a difficult season. Gaddy finished with averages of 3.9 points and 2.3 assists in 18.2 minutes. He shot just 15.0 percent on threes. Bradley, meanwhile, averaged 11.6 points and shot 37.5 percent from three-point range. Even though Texas had less NCAA tournament success than Washington (losing in the first round while the Huskies reached the Sweet 16), Bradley was able to jump into the first round of the NBA draft, where the Celtics selected him with the 19th pick.
Gaddy had no other option but to stay in Washington's backcourt rotation, where he played behind veterans Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton, both of whom are back in 2010-11. This should not be viewed as a sob story, though. It's a reminder that not every McDonald's All-American will immediately thrive in college, especially when, like Gaddy, they're trying to grasp the game's toughest position as the youngest player in the Pac-10. (He was 17 for much of last season.) Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar says '09-'10 was a learning experience for Gaddy, who wasn't able to play with the same fluid style that impressed evaluators on the AAU circuit. "Abdul is going to be just fine," Romar said. "He wants to execute. He's a perfectionist, and along with that at times, maybe you're just thinking so much about doing things right that you don't free yourself up mentally to just go play."
When Romar met with Gaddy following the season, they talked about finding ways to play free and easy, or, as Gaddy calls it, "getting my swagger back." He was also encouraged to refine his shooting stroke -- he has better mechanics than his 15.0 percent three-point percentage would suggest, but needed more reps to build consistency -- and enlisted former Husky gunner Ryan Appleby for help.
There was hope that Gaddy would display improvements in both accuracy and "swagger" (if such a thing can be measured) during his time with USA Basketball's U18 team in last week's FIBA Americas tournament in San Antonio, where he was the lone player with college experience on a star-studded roster. His opportunities there were limited, though, as he was stuck on the bench behind Duke-bound Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 point guard in the Class of 2010. Irving averaged 13.6 points and 4.2 assists in 20.6 minutes while leading the Americans to gold. Gaddy averaged 5.0 points and 2.8 assists in 13.4 minutes, and missed all three of his long-range attempts.
U18 coach Jeff Capel, of Oklahoma, insisted that despite his heavy reliance on Irving (who played 37 minutes compared to Gaddy's four) in the gold medal game win over Brazil, Gaddy was still an asset to the U.S. who has a strong future at Washington. "Abdul has been really steady for us," Capel said. "Because of the Internet, so many expectations are placed on [the five-star] kids, that if they don't have a Kevin Durant or John Wall or Derrick Rose or Michael Beasley kind of freshman year, people think it's a disappointment. But look at what Evan Turner did as a junior [at Ohio State]. He was in the same class as Beasley and Rose, and he wasn't a great freshman, but look at what he became because he was allowed to grow. And I think Abdul is going through his own growth process."
There were some promising things to be taken away from Gaddy's performance over five games in San Antonio. He showed strong passing instincts in halfcourt situations, and was especially effective in pick-and-roll sets, something that Romar said he plans to get Gaddy more involved in as a sophomore to better utilize his skills. And while he doesn't have a first step like Irving that allows him to get into the lane at will, Gaddy would occasionally make smooth moves in traffic to create space for his shot.
If the FIBA tournament was part of the growth process for Gaddy, then it was also part of the hoops world coming to terms with what kind of player he is, without fixating on old recruiting rankings. He's not a John Wall, but to write off Gaddy's future as a valuable point guard would be shortsighted. One NBA evaluator in press row in San Antonio said Gaddy should set his sights on being a Chris Duhon -- a steady floor general who managed to reach two Final Fours and the pros without an extensive highlight reel. As Romar puts it, "Abdul is just solid. And sometimes solid can be boring to people. But a lot of guards have been solid and played in the NBA for a long time."