After sitting the first nine games of his freshman season amid an NCAA investigation into his eligibility, Missouri forward Jakeenan Gant announced his presence with a 13-point debut against Xavier last December.
Rather than signal a rise to stardom, Gant’s inaugural performance served as a high point for his first collegiate season.
Gant reached double figures only two more times in the next 28 games, including the first six games this season.
But after Gant broke out with season highs of 11 points and six rebounds Friday against Northern Illinois, optimism runs high around Missouri that he’s finally ready to fulfill his promise.
“I needed that bad,” Gant said. “It was a confidence-builder.”
Gant — a Rivals four-star recruit, who was ranked No. 52 nationally in the class of 2014 and was chosen as Mr. Georgia Basketball as a senior — had scored only 15 points in the previous six games, with 10 rebounds.
Gant had 18 fouls during that span and saw his minutes bottom out after picking up four fouls in 7 minutes against Kansas State and committing three fouls in 5 minutes against Northwestern.
“He always knew he had it, but at times he just gets a little down on himself,” junior Wes Clark said. “He got a couple of boards, got a couple of layups and got himself going.”
Gant avoided foul trouble against Arkansas State last week, but he only played 8 mostly ineffective minutes, with his confidence also bottoming out.
That made his performance against Northern Illinois most welcome.
“It felt good,” Gant said. “I came off the bench with great energy and ready to play. … On the defensive side, I helped out more and got a little bit more involved. It just got me energized on the offensive side and gave me more energy and confidence.”
It was a welcome sight for the Tigers, 4-3, who play host to Nebraska-Omaha at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Mizzou Arena.
“His big deal to me has been confidence,” coach Kim Anderson said. “We’ve seen this in practice at times. It was just so neat to see it in a game finally, because I think he’s kind of settled sometimes, settled for jump shots. In order for him to be effective, he’s got to be a little bit more aggressive. I would say more than a little; I would say a lot more aggressive.”
Nerves played a role in Gant’s struggles last season.
“No, I didn’t think it was going to be that easy,” Gant said. “I knew it was going to take a little bit more work ethic. … I took it serious last year, but I was a freshman, I was nervous and I didn’t really know my role, kind of. I was playing behind J3 (Johnathan Williams III, who transferred to Gonzaga), new coaches and all kinds of different stuff.”
An injury slowed Gant this season.
He’s become more committed — shooting before and after practice as well as on off days, especially on the weekend — and also works harder in big-man drills, taking practice more seriously than when he first arrived.
“We’ve told him just keep playing, keep playing hard, be more physical, be more aggressive,” said Anderson, who revealed that Gant had been dealing with a shoulder injury he picked up in the offseason.
Gant said it was a bone bruise in his right shoulder but he feels much better since receiving a cortisone injection during Thanksgiving week after the two losses in the CBE Classic at the Sprint Center.
“I think he’s approached practice in a different way,” freshman forward Kevin Puryear said. “I’m not saying the way he was practicing before was bad, but it’s just his aggressive approach to it. You can definitely see he’s trying to get better and he’s definitely getting better in the process. I think it’s going to be only uphill for him at this point.”