Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski
Desperately in search of silver linings as their once-promising season slips away, the Minnesota Golden Gophers might be finding a small glimmer of optimism in the form of redshirt junior Davonte Fitzgerald.
After missing two full seasons — one of them mandatory after transferring from Texas A&M, the other due to a torn ACL suffered last offseason — Fitzgerald is slowly settling back into basketball shape and, more importantly, regaining the trust in his surgically-repaired left knee.
Fitzgerald scored a season-high 16 points two games ago against Iowa, then grabbed a season-high nine rebounds in an overtime loss at Michigan, where he also played 39 minutes — 12 more than his previous high as a Gopher.
“I just like the way that he’s moving,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “He’s confidently moving, and that’s more than shots going in. That’s what I’m really looking for.”
Fitzgerald was supposed to be a spark off the bench this year, especially after the Gophers lost big man Eric Curry to a knee injury. The 23 year old Fitzgerald stood at 6-foot-8 and possessed more athleticism than other bench options Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou, who have failed to develop into meaningful contributors in their four years within the program.
But the season started haphazardly for Fitzgerald, who has played with a brace on his knee. He struggled to find a rhythm, playing less than 10 minutes per game through the Gophers’ first 16 contests, averaging 2.8 points and 1.9 rebounds.
“I think his injury, it certainly hampered him to where, I just think if you tear an ACL, and he’s done it three times in his career,” said Pitino, “it’s normal to be, OK, you’re gonna make a basketball move and then be concerned.”
Since Reggie Lynch was suspended due to sexual assault allegations and Amir Coffey hurt his shoulder in early January, Fitzgerald has been asked to fill a greater role, even making two starts in the Gophers’ smaller starting lineup.
Fitzgerald has doubled his minutes since Lynch was suspended from competition and has averaged 5.3 points, 3.9 rebounds since Jan. 6, shooting over 39 percent from 3-point range in that span.
While the lengthy frame on Fitzgerald gives him the tools to be effective around the basket, he’s relied primarily on his jumper, knocking down a career-high four 3-pointers against the Hawkeyes.
The next step is to get more physical in the paint. His nine boards against the Wolverines was a step in the right direction. Fitzgerald only made one field goal in that game, but it was a driving layup in overtime that tied the game in the closing seconds before Michigan hit the eventual game-winner.
“I think I’ve done a good job with the mental aspect, which kind of surprised me in a good way,” Fitzgerald said. “I think it’s more just looking at some film, because naturally I’m going to be like a small forward playing power forward, but I can still use my athletic ability to be active down there, get some stops down there.”
Fitzgerald’s long arms make him a great shot-blocking candidate, an area where the Gophers have drastically fallen off since losing Lynch. They had 12 games with five blocks or more while Lynch was in the lineup and only one since losing him. The Gophers are second overall in the Big Ten in blocks, but they fall to sixth when counting only conference games.
But his potential as an outside threat may be even more encouraging. The Gophers, sorely in need of better 3-point shooting — ranking 10th of 14 in the Big Ten — have gotten a lift from Fitzgerald, who is shooting 13 of 35 (37.1 percent) from downtown this year.
Jordan Murphy rooms with Fitzgerald on the road and goes up against him in practice most of the time.
“I think his athletic ability will really allow him to be more dynamic in terms of a player going down the stretch and even into next year,” said Murphy. “As he starts to develop and get more of a feel for the game that will really help.”
Fitzgerald was granted a sixth-year of eligibility because of his knee injury. Assuming the Gophers stay healthy, Fitzgerald should be a key piece to a much deeper bench in 2018-19.
“As his confidence goes up,” said Murphy, “I think that’s going to be good for us.”