This story first ran on Badger Stripes.
The Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball program has a reputation for being a tough place for freshmen to earn minutes.
But that will be different this year, as Head Coach Greg Gard said “Two or three of them are going to be on the floor this year” in an interview on the Scalzo & Brust radio program on ESPN Madison on June 29.
After seeing them in the first summer practices of the year, Gard said some interesting things regarding the incoming freshmen that had my ears burning.
The Badgers went into the 2022-2023 season with a depth problem but started strong, going 10-2 with a heart-breaking, last-shot loss to reigning National Champion Kansas. Then Tyler Wahl hurt his ankle. Once he got healthy, he struggled to finish around the rim, and Badgers lost game after game by a possession or two. They really could have used some more players.
The reinforcements have arrived.
Gus Yalden, a 6’8″ forward from Appleton who attended several high schools around the country, is the highest-rated recruit in the class, and figures to play significant minutes for a team with little depth in the front court. Gard and staff were so desperate for more size last season they asked Yalden to reclassify and graduate high school early in order to play for the Badgers. But the NCAA wouldn’t clear him, though Yalden said he had the credits, he told Badger Notes.
Yalden has the nickname “Baby Jokić,” after 2-time MVP and recent NBA champion Nikola Jokić. He was a little pudgy in high school before slimming down recently and plays below the rim, but also like Jokić has great court vision.
Gard said Yalden “will be in the mix” this year, noting his passing in particular.
“He’s very cerebral,” Gard said on the radio program. “He understands how to play. He’s really skilled.”
Get used to his main nickname, the “Gus Bus.”
The Badgers have tried again to find a front-court transfer in the portal, but appear to have failed this year as they did last year. Unsurprising considering a starting position isn’t being dangled — any incoming player would have to backup starting center Steven Crowl.
So it’s hardly a surprise that UW expects Yalden to play this year. Frankly, they need him to.
More interesting was what Gard said about John Blackwell, a 6’3″ guard from the Detroit suburbs. He was relatively unheralded, with Wisconsin being his only scholarship offer from a high major program. His father played for Illinois.
“John Blackwell has probably opened the most eyes of any of the freshmen,” Gard said. “Not that we didn’t think that he wasn’t going to be a good player, but we really see that he’s going to be more ready than what we thought, right out of the gate.”
Nolan Winter, the third scholarship player in the freshmen class, was the Gatorade Boys Basketball Player of the Year last year and has perimeter skills to match with his 6’11” frame. But he’s probably too skinny to defend in the Big Ten this year.
And let’s not forget Gard and staff scored a major recruiting win in the portal this off-season with A.J. Storr, an exciting 6’6″ swingman who shot 40% from three-point range last year at St. John’s, also making the All-Big East Freshman Team. Side note: Storr is playing for the Bahamas National Team, whose father is from there, this summer in a couple of exhibitions with NBA players Eric Gordon and Buddy Hield.
Depth shouldn’t be much of a problem for the Badgers this year.
“I’m going to have a lot of hard decisions to make, which is good,” Gard said. “That’s what you want as a coach. It’s going to be extremely competitive. It’s what we wanted. It’s what we needed.”
“We didn’t have enough of that last year,” he added.
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