University of Missouri

Missouri’s Jakeenan Gant still settling into his role

Missouri’s Jakeenan Gant dunked during a game last month.
Missouri’s Jakeenan Gant dunked during a game last month. The Associated Press

Missouri freshman forward Jakeenan Gant spent six weeks in college basketball purgatory.

Gant, who was chosen as Mr. Georgia Basketball last year and ranked as the No. 52 player in Rivals’ 2014 recruiting rankings, wasn’t allowed to play in the Tigers’ first nine games during an investigation into his eligibility.

When Missouri went to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational, Gant stayed home.

“They didn’t tell me (how long I’d be out),” Gant said. “I just sat out and waited.”

He didn’t travel with the team to Oklahoma on Dec. 5 and still wasn’t sure when he’d be cleared to play after a 78-73 win less than a week later against Elon.

Gant only found out the Friday before Missouri played host to Xavier on Dec. 13 that he’d been reinstated, that his college career could officially begin.

“It was tough, but I put that behind me,” said Gant, who also was suspended during the preseason after he was arrested along with D’Angelo Allen on suspicion of assault in mid-September.

Finally, getting to take the floor for the Tigers was a welcome relief after a rocky start to his college career off the court.

“It was hard not playing and just practicing, but I just got it in my head that I’ve got to go hard to stay up,” said Gant, who spoke to the media Thursday for the first time since the preseason.

Gant, who is 6-feet-8 and 207 pounds, said first-year coach Kim Anderson constantly encouraged him to go hard in practice and work on his mental preparation during his nine-game suspension.

Gant said his Missouri teammates also were supportive and understanding during the six weeks he paid his penance.

Once he hit the floor, Gant didn’t wait long to make an impact. He swished a 15-foot jumper almost immediately after checking in against the Musketeers and finished with 13 points and two blocks in 15 minutes during his debut.

“I caught them by surprise and came out with a little bit of energy,” Gant said of the Xavier game.

Gant moved into the starting lineup by Missouri’s game Dec. 30 against Oklahoma State at the Sprint Center, his third game after becoming eligible.

He now has started the Tigers’ last five games and is averaging 6.4 points and 2.6 rebounds.

Gant is shooting 57.6 percent from the field with a penchant for putback dunks.

“It’s good to be back playing and getting my feel back for the team and playing with my boys, playing for Coach A,” Gant said.

The physicality of the college game was a big adjustment for Gant. He played center in high school, but the level of strength required to bang in the paint in the SEC is on another level.

Playing at small forward at MU, Gant also is adjusting to the speed of players he’s asked to defend on the perimeter.

“He’s got to get stronger and play more physical and get more comfortable with what we’re doing, but he’s a joy to coach,” Anderson said. “He comes every day and he’s always listening, always trying to learn, so he’s making progress.”

Gant is working hard to improve his rebounding and add a baseline jumper to his repertoire.

He’s pleased with the first seven games of his Missouri career, but believes there’s untapped potential in his game.

Gant said he can make more plays off the dribble, either by driving the lane or creating space for jumpers, and rebound better than he’s shown through his first seven games.

“I haven’t shown everything I can do,” Gant said. “I’ve been playing timid … not wanting to mess up and stuff, so I’m just trying to find my role.”

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @todpalmer.

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