EAST LANSING - The latest Michigan State basketball verbal commitment Alex Gauna jumped onto the Spartans’ recruiting radar more than a year ago, thanks to his size and shooting ability. The fact that Eaton Rapids is about 30 minutes from campus didn't hurt.
As other areas of Gauna's game developed, Michigan State's interest escalated, leading to Tuesday’s scholarship offer and Thursday's verbal commitment from the 6-foot-9 skilled front-liner.
Between his sophomore and junior seasons at Eaton Rapids, Gauna developed his low-post scoring and toughness. Meanwhile, he showed lateral movement and athleticism on defense. Add those things to his size and shooting range, and you're talking about a Tom Izzo type of guy.
Michigan State really likes his ball skills, his ability to shoot the ball at 6-foot-9 and his athleticism,” said Eaton Rapids head coach Adam Trumpour.
Trumpour is a 2000 graduate of Michigan State and helped work MSU basketball camps in that era and was no stranger to the MSU basketball office back then. He served as an assistant coach at Owosso High School under Dave Owens, who served as Izzo's first video coordinator.
Trumpour is entering his second year at Eaton Rapids High. He helped Gauna add interior balance to his game which was a tad perimeter-heavy as a high school sophomore.
"The things that separated him from other recruits are his ability to face up, his athleticism as a face-up player, but also his back-to-the-basket game has really emerged in the one year I’ve had him and they (Izzo's staff) are really encouraged by the increase in his physicality, how much tougher, how much stronger he got this year," Trumpour said. "His demeanor got more aggressive as the year went on those were all big positives in Michigan State’s decision to offer him a scholarship."
Gauna averaged 16.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks as a junior.
As a sophomore, he averaged 15.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.2 blocks.
"I think Michigan State got a good one," said Michigan Mustangs coach Norm Oden.
Oden has been involved with the summer coaching of a long list of impressive names including Al Horford, Paul Davis, Shane Battier, Goran Suton, to name just a few along the front line. Oden likes Gauna's direction.
"He has worked very hard," Oden said. "He is playing hard. His stamina is better. A lot of this is year-to-year development and you don’t develop unless you work, and he has been putting in the work.
"He is a good athlete. He can run and jump. He is very coachable. He will rebound. He will do whatever needs to be done. He can run the floor. He is more athletic than people think.
"He has gotten a lot stronger, a lot better inside. His high school coach put in a lot of good work with him, inside. He is playing pretty well with his back to the basket and he can shoot it. He can run and jump. As he continues to develop he is going to be a very good player.
"And he is a great kid. He comes from a good family. All the things you like, he’s got. His mom and dad are good people and the kid is a great kid."
TAKING IT INSIDE
Gauna's field goal percentage increased dramatically as a junior, netting 62 percent of his shots.
"He took about 31 3-pointers as a sophomore," Trumpour said in reference to the season before he became head coach. "He was about 4 out of 11 for us this year (from beyond the arc). We will probably have him taking more next year, but we needed to get other things established this year, and improve shot selection as a team, and the overall culture of the program. It was the best record Eaton Rapids has had in six or seven years, and we were without Alex due to an injury for four games, then he had two games after that which were kind of rough with him coming off the injury."
Eaton Rapids went from 8-13 last year to 10-12 this year, including an upset of CAAC Gold league champion DeWitt in the districts. Gauna had 26 points and 14 rebounds in that game, including 11 in the fourth quarter.
"He was bout 9-of-12 from the floor in that game," Trumpour said.
Gauna was expected to miss four weeks with a lower back contusion. But he returned after a two-week absence. He's fine now.
Trumpour said Gauna's best game of the season was one in which Gauna's improving versatility was on display.
"In a rivalry game, against Fowlerville, Alex had 21 points, 15 boards, four or five blocks, three or four assists, but what he did best didn't show up in the box score," Trumpour said. "We struggled at the guard position and Alex really played point guard in the last five minutes of the game in overtime for our press break. We put the ball in his hands and put him in position to create plays for others and he did a phenomenal job. We won by 11 in overtime.
"He was so involved in our press break all year. But in that game, the kid that we usually have run the point was struggling with the flu and we turned it over to Alex. That’s when I saw another level of what that kid can become. Not a lot of 6-9 kids can’t attack a trap, pass over a trap, make the right decisions."
With the size and outside shooting ability to start with, plus the ability to drive, see the floor and pass, that's when the Suton comparisons begin.
"He has a lot of things similar, as far as Michigan State players, to Goran Suton," said Trumpour, who has been an astute observe of Spartan basketball for more than 15 years. "He has similar ball skills, he is a good passer, a very good ball handler and shoots it very well, but also has developed a little nastiness to his game. That has started to come out in him with his back to the basket. He has a chance to be a great rebounder.
"He is an underrated athlete. He has the ability to play above the rim, a little different than many of the people Michigan State has had as their spacing big man."
When comparing him to "spacing" power forwards that Michigan State has recruited in past years, Gauna would be more agile and explosive than Adam Ballinger, stronger than Adam Wolfe, shorter than Paul Davis, not as tall or long as Suton but more competitive, a better shooter (at the same stage) than Draymond Green. Aspects of his development in the post are drawing another interesting comparison.
"He gets double- and triple-teamed so much that it’s hard to see it in games, but in the workouts he reminds me a lot of a guy I went to school with, Andre Hutson a little bit," Trumpour said. "Dre was one of my favorite Spartans and I see some of that. Dre had a move where he would dribble to the middle twice and then kind of hop step off of it and Alex is really developing that move as well when he gets space inside.
"So he not only can do things as the spacing four, they can also give it to him with his back to the basket at times. He has developed, not only some good post moves, but also some counter moves as people try to take away his initial dropstep. We are looking to come with some different things. He is starting to get a real good understanding of how to finish off either foot, off either shoulder. I think he has a chance to be a real nice inside-out guy for Michigan State.
"Like any good big man, the drop step is there for him. He has a real nice turn-around jumper in the post where he fakes one way and comes back the other way off the pivot back to the middle, really off of either shoulder. He does a really nice job on that."
One of the key items on Izzo's evaluation checklist for big men is their ability to move their feet on defense, and slide laterally. Can prospective big men guard the mismatch power forwards that can cause problems in quests for league and regional titles?
"He will have absolutely no issues laterally with kids his size," Trumpour said. "There were teams that tried to go small against us and he guarded some bigger guards and he did a solid job. It’s difficult for a 6-9 guy to guard a 6-1 guy when they spread the floor, but with guys his own size he generally has the advantage with kids his own size. At the Division 1 level, guarding the four and five position won’t be an issue for him.
"I think he was the superior athlete every time he stepped on the floor with a big. Ladonte (Henton) projects more as a small forward but athletically, I think Alex is in the same conversation (athletically)."
The 6-foot-6 Henton and Gauna are teammates for the Michigan Mustangs on the AAU circuit. They matched up against each other quite a bit in a regular season meeting between Eaton Rapids and Lansing Eastern. Henton's team prevailed, 75-69. Henton had 23. Gauna had 18 points and 15 rebounds, but his efficiency was on display.
"We really worked with Alex on shot selection," Trumpour said. "There were games he got eight or nine shots sometimes and scored 14 points off of it. Through the course of the season, he saw countless double-teams, triple-teams, jump defenses. He had to deal with the holding and grabbing. He shot fewer shots than the year before but the shooting percentage was sky high."
Gauna had scholarship offers from Xavier, Northwestern and Oakland University prior to Michigan State's offer earlier this week. Indiana joined MSU in scouting Trumpour in person.
"Indiana was in contact with him all year," Trumpour said.
Trumpour said Indiana and Dayton made clear indications that they intended to offer a scholarship.
"And Florida just got into the conversation this week," Trumpour said. "Minnesota had been recruiting him.
"A lot of schools were just waiting to see if Michigan State was going to offer."
It was clear to most that if MSU offered, the lifelong Spartan fan would choose green and white.
Michigan showed high interest.
"They never offered," Trumpour said. "They would have liked to have felt more comfortable. They recruited him very hard. The interest just wasn't there from Alex, so it would have been kind of pointless to offer. But they were very gracious throughout."
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