In the three years since Tom Izzo took a commitment from Alex Gauna he has remained a bit of an enigma. Gauna, a 6-foot 9-inch 240-pound power forward from Eaton Rapids, Michigan, arrived in 2010 when the Spartan frontcourt was crowded with big men (Delvon Roe, Draymond Green, Derrick Nix, Garrick Sherman and Adreian Payne). It looked like he was going to have a hard time seeing the court and for this and other reasons he decided to redshirt his freshman year.
Last year represented Gauna's regular season debut as a Spartan and it didn't give us much more data to go on. He had reportedly worked hard in the offseason on his shot and got rave reviews from some of his teammates, who dubbed him "John Leuer, Jr.", in honor of the sharp-shooting Wisconsin big man. He ended up taking only 38 shots last year, most of them from close range, making a solid 22 of them for 58%. Here are Gauna's stats per 40 minutes for the season:
The numbers are not bad but a few of them stand out and give a suggestion of why Gauna had difficulty cracking the rotation. He was the only Spartan to play more than 12 minutes on the season without recording an assist, and he played 142 minutes. He was a black hole when the ball went in to him down low and, though he wasn't reluctant to shoot it (19.7 shot percentage) he lost the ball too often for a post player (26.0 turnover percentage).
Perhaps the primary reason Gauna had trouble seeing the court, however, was his defense. Like many other players, he had difficulty adjusting to Izzo's defensive schemes and was frequently beaten or late on defensive assignments. This is reflected in his foul rate, an unusually high 7.3 fouls per 40 minutes of court time. His defensive miscues often sent opposing players to the line and made it harder for Izzo to leave him out there.
Despite playing 12 minutes in his debut against North Carolina, Gauna saw his minutes dwindle as the season wore on until he barely got off the bench except in a blowout, finishing at 4.7 minutes per game. He never scored in double figures and his two best games, 8 points each, were against MSU's weakest opponents, Nebraska-Omaha and Missouri-Kansas City. Although the departure of Draymond Green opens up 33 minutes per game at Gauna's natural position, things won't get a lot easier for Gauna. The arrival of Matt Costello and the improvement of Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix mean that Gauna faces an uphill battle to make the rotation.
Clearly he has potential. Perhaps his biggest contribution last season did not come during a game. Draymond Green gave Gauna a lot of credit for the spectacular game Green played at Gonzaga early in the year:
Green credited his own self-control on offense. On defense, he credited teammate Alex Gauna’s practice work in simulating [Elias] Harris.
"When we practiced here, Alex was Harris, and he definitely prepared me to guard Harris," Green said. "He scored on me so much, it just killed me. He got in my face, talking junk to me, just going at me, and it really prepared me for everything Harris is, and I’ve got to give him credit. The way he played that role in practice was just phenomenal."
It's not hard to say what Gauna will need to do to get more minutes: it begins and ends with defense. With minutes at the 4 in short supply last year Izzo seemed more willing to put in Russell Byrd than Gauna to spell Green. Gauna will have to show Izzo he can guard in the post without fouling. If he can do that, there is an opening for him. Nix and Payne play almost exclusively around the rim. With his pick-and-pop game Gauna gives defenses something additional to contain.
If Nix and Payne see significant minutes on the court together, as seems likely, that will reduce the available minutes. And he'll still have to compete with Byrd, Costello and freshman Kenny Kaminski for minutes (though a redshirt for Kaminski is looking increasing likely). But if he can step it up on defense and continue to develop his jumper, the opportunity is there for him.