by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & ustin Daye has already established himself as one of the premier freshmen in Gonzaga basketball history, which comes as quite a surprise to at least one GU coed.
"Oh my God!" the young woman screamed when she spotted Daye at Gonzaga's preseason public scrimmage. "He's so skinny!"
True, Daye does bear a striking resemblance to a 6-foot-10 pogo stick. A pogo stick, we hasten to add, that might be worth millions in a year or two.
"When it's all said and done," ESPN sportscaster Steven Bardo says, "Austin Daye will probably be the toughest match-up [for a defender to guard] in college basketball."
Daye scatters maybe 190 pounds on his willowy frame, but he's carried the Bulldogs on his back at times. Most notably, Daye scored 13 of his team-high 22 points during the two overtimes Gonzaga endured before posting a key road win over Santa Clara earlier this month.
"The way he took over in the overtimes -- it takes a special player to do that," Gonzaga guard Steven Gray says. "He's got so much potential."
"We've got the first 20 percent," Gonzaga coach Mark Few says. "About seven years from now, someone is going to get a phenomenal player. Phenomenal."
Not that there are too many flaws in the 2008 edition. Daye was rated the No. 32 college basketball prospect in the nation among high school seniors last year, and Daye says he turned down national powers like UCLA and North Carolina to come to Gonzaga.
"I knew this was a special place and a place where I could develop my game," Daye explains. "I knew Coach Few could help my game."
"He's very, very coachable," Few says. "He's very hungry to get better. He wants to be part of the team. He's a great team guy."
Daye arrived at Gonzaga with a skill set rarely seen in a 6-10 forward. The son of former NBA player Darren Daye ("He did so much for me"), he honed his outside shot and ball handling while playing guard before he grew eight inches in high school.
Playing in talent-laden Southern California last year, Daye averaged a whopping 30.9 points, 12.4 rebounds and 5.4 blocked shots per game at Woodridge High in Irvine. Those numbers are hard to grasp, so think of it this way: If Daye had 30 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks in his final game at Woodbridge, his season averages would have gone down.
Daye came into the week averaging 11.5 points (third on the Bulldogs), 4.7 rebounds (second) and 1.8 blocks (first) in just 18.8 minutes (seventh) per game. In West Coast Conference play, Daye was leading Gonzaga with 13.7 points and preposterously high shooting percentages of 66.2 from the field, 68.2 on 3-pointers and 93.3 at the free-throw line. His overall free-throw percentage of 91.1 ranked among the nation's best.
Few has drawn up plays to get Daye the ball at crunch time. Not even the legendary Adam Morrison earned that kind of respect from Few as a freshman.
"He's so confident," Few says. "That's why I have no problem running things to him."
"Offensively, it's been up and down," Daye says. "I got really sick this year; I'm not used to the weather."
Daye has battled colds off and on, but coaches want him to toughen up physically and mentally. Daye has twice gone scoreless, including a loss at top-ranked Memphis.
"He's not perfect -- yet," associate head coach Leon Rice deadpans.
"I told him, 'It's fine to be physically weak, but you can't be soft,'" Few says. "We're trying to take out the soft and casualness. There's some casualness in his game."
Daye saw action at all five positions in high school, but now he often must guard thicker, stronger power forwards. Coaches and teammates rave about Daye's improvement on defense, but they admit it's a work in progress.
"It's getting better -- it was at zero," Few jokes.
Zero might be the best way to describe Daye's chances of spending four years at Gonzaga. NBADraft.net projects Daye as the No. 5 pick in the 2009 draft, and Daye says he would consider turning pro after next season.
"It's up to my progress next year," he says.
"We're just building the foundation," Few says. "It's going to be an awfully tall building when it's done."
Gonzaga visits San Francisco on Saturday (5 pm, ESPNU) and San Diego on Monday (8 pm, ESPN2). Radio station KGA 1510 also carries the broadcasts.