Newcomer Gant joined UL from Missouri 'wanting to win'

Tim Buckley
The Daily Advertiser

When JaKeenan Gant transferred to UL, Ragin’ Cajuns coach Bob Marlin billed him as an “athletic” player who “can run and jump.”

JaKeenan Gant dunks during UL's win over Savannah State last Friday at the Cajundome.

“We feel like he can be a very special player,” Marlin said at the time.

Before the 2017-18 season started — and after Gant had sat out last season in accord with NCAA transfer rules, but practiced with the Cajuns while sitting — Marlin raved about how Gant, a former Missouri Tigers big man, perhaps could help UL most.

“Having a shot-blocker back there,” he said, “certainly will help the defense out in front.”

That’s understandable, as the 6-foot-8 Gant — who averaged 5.1 points and 3.1 rebounds over 14.9 minutes per game in 53 mostly off-the-bench games over two seasons for the Tigers — led Missouri in blocks in 2015-16.

So far this season, however, Gant has proven capable of much more than mere shot-swatting.

Going into UL’s 82-76 win over Richmond on Wednesday for third place in the three-day, eight-team Cayman Islands Classic, a game in which Gant had 16 points and Frank Bartley IV a team-high 23 to go with Bryce Washington's game-high 13 rebounds, he had 11 blocks through five games — eight more than any other Cajun teammate.

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That’s 2.2 blocks per game — more than double the 1.0 he averaged during his sophomore season at Mizzou. And Gant added to that total with three blocks against Richmond.

But he also was averaging 14.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game before the Cajuns faced Richmond.

And perhaps the biggest beneficiary of his presence has been senior Washington, a fellow big who became a career 1,000-point scorer against Savannah State last Friday night — before now 5-1 UL left for the Caymans and a first-round win over Iowa followed by a second-round loss to Wyoming.

“It’s so much easier,” Washington said of rebounding down low this season, “because at the end of last year, three, four guys were boxing me out, you know, sometimes.

“It just felt like everybody was attacking me at the end of last year,” added Washington, who nevertheless averaged a 13.5-point, 11.2-rebound double-double while leading the Sun Belt Conference on the boards in 2016-17. “But (opponents are) knowing that they can’t do that this year, because this guy (Gant) probably jumps 10 inches than higher than me.”

Athletic, indeed.

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“It’s fun,” Washington said as he sat next to Gant following a home game last week. “It’s fun just seeing him jumping higher than everybody else, dunking on everybody.”

As Gant sees it, playing alongside Washington is mutually beneficial.

“It takes a load off of me,” he said, “because he (Washington) has got to rebound too, and I’m rebounding, and it’s just takes a lot of pressure off.

“It’s easier for him on the court, for both of us on the court, that both of us are crashing the boards and everything.”

But for Gant — the Class 5A Georgia Player of the Year as a high school junior, and Georgia’s Mr. Basketball as a senior in 2014 — all of those individual numbers take a back seat behind the bigger objective.

He arrived at UL seeking something he didn’t have at Missouri, which went 9-23 during his freshman season and 10-21 in sophomore season.

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“I came in wanting to win,” said Gant, who was selected for USA Basketball Under-18 National Team training camp after his senior season at Effingham County High — the same Georgia high school attended by ex-Cajuns point guard Jay Wright, who is now with the G League’s Lakeland Magic.

JaKeenan Gant, a transfer from Missouri, drives to the basket during UL's win  Louisiana College Wildcats last week at the Cajundome.

“That’s the first thing,” Gant added. “Winning. Winning. Because we didn’t do that at Missouri, basically.”

Before winning with the Cajuns, however, Gant had to sit last season along with two of UL’s other transfers from major-conference programs, swingman Malik Marquetti (Southern Cal) and starting point guard Marcus Stroman (South Carolina).

It wasn’t ideal for the three, but it did come with some benefit.

“Sitting out last year, that just got me comfortable with everybody on the team, got us together,” said Gant, who along with Stroman and Marquetti was able to finally play again — and not just practice — when the Cajuns took an offseason exhibition trip to Cuba in August. “The Cuba trip — that really got us together as a team.”

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Now that he, Stroman (who has succeeded Wright at the point for UL) and Marquetti are all back at it, joining a Cajuns club that returned not only Washington but also three other starters from last season in Bartley, Johnathan Stove and Justin Miller, Gant feels right again.

In fact, he calls himself a “perfect fit” for UL.

“We didn’t have an athletic big last year that could alter shots — I feel like I do that a lot — and help them out on defense a lot,” Gant said. “So, I mean, that’s big.”

With Gant on board, however, Miller lost his starting job.

Yet, going into the Richmond game, the sophomore still was averaging 9.6 points per game off the bench.

Playing next to Gant also has meant fewer scoring and rebounding opportunities for Washington, who had 22 doubles last season but had just two in UL’s first five games this season.

Yet Washington seemingly would have it no other way, especially after seeing how Gant scored 17 points with a game-high nine rebounds in a win over Louisiana College, had 17 in UL’s win over Savannah College, scored 16 in the win over Iowa and had 13 points with a game-high nine boards in the loss to Wyoming.

“We challenge each other,” Washington said. “We always say, ‘Man, we can both average a double-double. Nobody said that two guys can’t average a double-double.’

“We always talk about that every game, before the game, practice — like, ‘Man, we’ve got to go get it today. Let’s get it. It’s our time. Let’s both get a double-double, and let’s get the win.’”

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