College basketball preview: Washington

Abdul Gaddy only needed a second to size up his opponent.

The defender was on his heels, and expected Gaddy to set up the offense.

Instead, Gaddy was by him in an instant, exploding to the basket in a left-hand dribbling blur.

But in basketball, as in life, the path to success is far from easy.

A help-side defender closed in, and Gaddy didn’t slow down.

There would be no free layup. Another defender was coming to prevent Gaddy from making the shot. A younger Gaddy might have dished the ball to a teammate. An unhealthy Gaddy might have tried to shoot a floater.

But now a grizzled junior at the ripe-old age of 19 and fully healthy, Gaddy exploded off the ground, absorbed the contact and flipped the ball up with his left hand. The ball kissed off the glass and went in as Gaddy tumbled to the floor and a foul was called.

He was back on his feet a second later, a focused smile flashing across his face.

It was a move that verified everything Gaddy had been saying leading up to that exhibition game against Seattle Pacific last week. It was a move that screamed, “Hey, everybody, you can stop asking about the knee. It’s fine. I’m fine. I’m ready to lead this Huskies basketball team again.”

Coach Lorenzo Romar wasn’t surprised to see his point guard score 15 points, dish out four assists and not commit a turnover in the exhibition game.

“There have been a number of you here who have asked me about Abdul and I always say, he plays like he was never hurt in terms of how he’s moving,” Romar said. “What he did, that’s what we’ve been watching him do, that wasn’t a surprise all of the sudden.”

Gaddy is playing better than before he was hurt.

There is a difference in his a game. It’s mature. It’s aggressive. It’s what many expected when he signed out of Bellarmine Prep two years ago, but only better.

“I was 17 years old when I got here, I’m 19 now,” he said. “I’ve become more of a man.”

Part of that growth came from dealing with the first serious adversity of his basketball career.

It wasn’t that long ago when Gaddy and Avery Bradley were sophomore sensations in Tacoma with the basketball world at their feet.

For Gaddy, the game seemed to come easy. He was fluid and smooth and in control. And he felt invincible. Injuries? Those things never crept into his mind.

But Jan. 4, he drove the lane in practice and felt something pop in his left knee. He had torn his anterior cruciate ligament and his season was over after eight games.

“It was the worst thing that had ever happened in my life,” he said. “I’d never missed a game before. For someone to tell me that I couldn’t play for the rest of the season? I was heartbroken.”

But Gaddy didn’t pout or wallow in self-pity.

“I had to move forward,” he said.

It hurt being on the bench in street clothes. While his teammates were battling it out in conference play, winning the Pacific-10 Conference tournament and playing in the NCAA tournament, Gaddy could only watch. He was part of it but in a way, he wasn’t.

“It was hard watching,” he admitted. “You want to be out there so bad. You just want to contribute.”

Gaddy found ways to contribute to his future. For the first time, he sat and watched entire games from the bench. He watched from Romar’s perspective.

“I always say if players could coach before they played, they’d be better players,” Romar said. “It’s helped him. Just being able to sit down and watch and objectively see what’s going on out there.”

Gaddy could always see the floor with the ball in his hands, but now he was seeing the court from a distance.

“I learned more about the game,” he said. “I could see why Coach Romar wanted us to do certain things in different situations.”

The rehabilitation was “awful” and at times felt like “torture,” he said. When basketball was taken away, he realized how much the game meant to him.

“It showed me how much you have to cherish this game and the opportunity I have,” he said. “Your career could really end in a split second. All it took was one play – a play that I’ve always done – to end my season.”

It’s why he says he won’t take a moment on the court for granted.

“This has made me stronger,” he said. “Sometimes those things happen to help you realize it. I’ve grown to become a better player and a better person.”

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483