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Post There’s only one Sundiata

Thursday February 14, 2008

An interesting question came up last night on the UGASports.com basketball message board: where would you put Sundiata Gaines among the great Georgia basketball players?

Nearly everyone agrees that Gaines has been a tremendous player. It’s a tougher question than it seems because Gaines is hard to pigeonhole. Do you consider him strictly a point guard and compare him with guys like Rashad Wright, Vern Fleming, and Pertha Robinson? Or because of his scoring ability and other attributes do you consider him an all-purpose guard and put him up against a bigger group that includes Litterial Green and other scorers?

I’m not going to get into rating him against other players – I just consider him one of my favorites.

First, there are the raw numbers. That’s as well-rounded as a guard gets, and his rebounding has really been what sets him apart from other past greats. Those stats alone are enough for any basketball fan to appreciate a player.

But with Gaines there’s more. Starting with an accidental gunshot wound as a 4-year-old, he’s made the best of some bad situations. He chose to be part of the rebuilding at Georgia over attention from other programs that were, if not better, at least much more stable. Dennis Felton and Mike Jones had an uphill battle thanks to Georgia’s sullied perception at the time, but the opportunity to start and play early and often was significant.

Four years spent doing the hard work of dragging Georgia basketball out of the abyss could harden and demoralize almost anyone. But even in the twilight of his career with the realization sinking in that there will be a sub-.500 SEC record and no postseason, Gaines has actually raised his level of play over the past few games. When you thought he couldn’t possibly have more to give, he dug deeper.

His role as a senior leader really shone through a few weeks ago when Jeremy Price was riding the pine. While fans were in a panic convinced that Price would become the latest victim of Felton’s irrational discipline, Gaines sounded almost coach-like with a wisdom forged from his experience.

"They’re young and sometimes they don’t understand the value of key situations and key moments," Gaines said of the freshman. "The biggest disappointment is that (Price) needs to be coachable."

It’s so difficult for young players to battle through tough times without guidance like that, and Price to his credit has taken it to heart. What makes Gaines (and Bliss) so special is that they had no such players to look up to during their development. After the 2004 season, only Stukes and Newman were

There’s been a controversial view raised that the team will be improved with someone else running the point next year. Gaines, while he ranks near the top of Georgia’s assist leaders, is associated with a style of play that relies on individual creativity and playmaking. The notion that the team will be better without Gaines is absurd to me, but I think we’re dancing around a different question. The past week has shown that, indeed, the Georgia offense can be better if Gaines is able to off-load the point guard duties onto someone else – but only if Gaines remains on the court.

Does that mean that the offense will click next year when Swansey and Ware are running the point? Only if you have an off-guard capable of duplicating the creativity, ballhandling, and rebounding of Gaines. That’s where the discussion falls apart. There might be others just as capable of distributing the ball and running the offense. There are few who can drive to the basket, create offense, or knock down the clutch jumper as Gaines can. Whether other guards can run the point better is a red herring; there’s a lot more to do if you’re going to replace Sundiata Gaines.

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