After playing with and against Bronson Koenig in practice and pick-up games since June, Josh Gasser has a pretty good working knowledge of the highly regarded freshman guard on the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
“He’s a fabulous player,” Gasser, a junior guard, said last week. “He can score in a variety of ways, he’s very good at attacking the hoop. I just like his moxie about him. He’s always calm and collected. He’s not trying to do too much, lets the game come to him, but also he’s aggressive and makes plays for himself and teammates.”
Two days after Gasser delivered that scouting report, Koenig showed UW fans what his teammates have been seeing for five months. In his first extended action with the Badgers, Koenig had seven points, two assists, a steal, a blocked shot and just one turnover in 23 minutes off the bench during a 69-66 victory over UW-Green Bay in Ashwaubenon.
That win, combined with one over then-No. 11 Florida earlier in the week, helped UW (3-0) climb eight spots to No. 12 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and move up four spots to No. 15 in the coaches’ poll.
After a difficult three-game stretch to start the season, the Badgers host North Dakota, Oral Roberts and Bowling Green in a span of five days beginning tonight at the Kohl Center. UW coach Bo Ryan spoke Saturday of his desire to develop his team’s bench, and he should get the opportunity to get a more extended look at some of his reserves this week.
But it’s clear that Ryan liked what he saw from Koenig, who played the final 13 minutes, 17 seconds of the first half and a stretch of 10:29 during the second half against the Phoenix.
“Bronson showed a lot of poise,” Ryan said. “That’s a good team we played and an environment that was pretty electric. …
“He’s got a lot of basketball skill, a lot of moxie, he just knows how to play and can get things done. And he’s learning how to play defense the way we need them to. I thought he handled himself really well.”
Koenig only played a minute in UW’s opener against St. John’s and didn’t leave the bench in the win over Florida. He said late last week he was trying to stay patient as he waited his turn while also making sure to absorb as much information as he could while watching from the bench.
“When the upperclassmen make mistakes,” Koenig said, “I’m just trying not to make the same mistakes.”
Koenig said his mindset didn’t change when sophomore George Marshall, who was ahead of him in the rotation, sustained a concussion in practice on the eve of the UW-Green Bay game.
“Before the game, I thought I did a really good job of preparing my mind to get in the game,” said Koenig, who turned down scholarship offers from Duke and North Carolina to play at UW. “I was just really ready when he called my name. I felt really comfortable because I knew I could play with anybody.”
Koenig has experience in pressure situations.
“Playing in front of 100 college coaches in AAU is pretty nerve-racking sometimes,” he said — but it was still impressive, observers said, how well he kept his emotions in check in front of a record crowd of 9,906 at the Resch Center.
He played a total of 42 offensive and defensive possessions apiece against the Phoenix, during which UW had a 38-33 edge in scoring.
“You always are concerned how they’re going to handle their first true big test in terms of extended minutes, knowing that it’s their time to step in and help us out,” UW associate head coach Greg Gard said of Koenig, who was 3-for-3 from the field, including a 3-pointer. “I thought he really did a great job of staying within himself and got more comfortable as the game went on. We were really pretty efficient when he was in there handling the ball. That was a good sign.”
Koenig’s lone turnover came when he drove through the lane, left his feet and dumped off a pass that junior center Frank Kaminsky wasn’t expecting. On the next possession, Koenig delivered a pass off a pick-and-roll that again surprised Kaminsky, who scrambled to gain possession.
No-look passes are the norm for Koenig, whose best attribute might be how well he sees the court. Koenig said it took his teammates at La Crosse Aquinas, which won WIAA Division 3 state titles two of his final three seasons there, a little time to adjust to his passing skills.
“There were a couple bloody noses,” Koenig said with a smile.
Kaminsky, who is still getting used to playing with Koenig, learned first-hand on Saturday he always needs to be alert when the freshman has the ball in his hands.
“We haven’t had passers with vision quite like him,” Kaminsky said. “He’s good at getting the ball in between small spaces.”