Thrust to the front and center

Bucks’ Gooden has delivered strong performance since position change

Drew Gooden
Gooden is grateful for the confidence his coaches and teammates showed in him to make the transition.

Few things are more unwelcome than a pain in the neck.

Drew Gooden could contend that one of them is a pain in the back.

The Milwaukee Bucks veteran had been playing some of the best basketball of his 10-year pro career before back pain forced him to sit out two of the team’s first three April games.

The 6-foot, 10-inch, 250-pound University of Kansas product, forced to shift from his natural forward position to center after the since-traded Andrew Bogut suffered a season-ending ankle fracture Jan. 25, averaged 17.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game during February.

He achieved double-doubles of 20 points and 14 rebounds in a 105-99 victory at Toronto on Feb. 8 and 15 points and 10 boards in a 119-118 win over Washington on Feb. 28. He had five outings of 20 or more points and tallied 25 or more in four of five games spanning Feb. 4-Feb. 11.

Gooden continued to produce during March, averaging 15.8 ppg and 7.1 rpg as the Bucks enjoyed their most successful month of the season, going 10-7. He scored a season-high 27 points against Chicago on March 7, delivered six more double-doubles during the month and came through with the second triple-double of his career, totaling 15 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists in a 115-105 triumph over Cleveland on March 14.

The National Basketball Association announced March 19 that Gooden had been named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for games played March 12-18. The honor is the first of Gooden’s career and follows Ersan Ilyasova’s win from the previous, marking the first time two Bucks players were awarded Player of the Week honors in consecutive weeks since Dec. 24 and Dec. 31, 2006, when Mo Williams and Michael Redd accomplished the feat.

Gooden and Miami’s LeBron James are the only frontcourt players to tally 13 assists in one game this season. Over the three games played by the Bucks during Gooden’s award-winning week, he averaged 18 points, 9.7 rebounds and 8 assists. In addition to his triple-double, Gooden also recorded his 11th double-double of the season at Golden State with 16 points and 11 rebounds.

The Bucks went 3-0 on the week to extend their winning streak to five games with a home win against Cleveland and road victories against New Jersey and Golden State.

Gooden, who had averaged just 14.9 minutes per game in the nine contests prior to Bogut’s injury, was put to the test after making the move to center, getting over 30 minutes per outing during both February and March.

Gooden put the situation into context like a true pro’s pro and a consummate teammate.

“Anybody would hate the opportunity to get more playing time or more shots due to an injury to one of his teammates,” Gooden said. “That’s something no teammate wants to happen.

“But on the other hand, that’s a time for guys to step up. When a guy goes down, other guys have to step up. Even though center’s not my natural position, I’ve tried to do what I can to help the team at that position. In my years in the NBA, I’ve seen a lot of guys in this position. To a lot of guys, center’s not a lot different from power forward.”

Gooden has discovered first-hand that there are distinct differences, but he hasn’t been intimidated by them.

“When I’ve had to play guys like Dwight Howard or ‘Shaq’ (Shaquille O’Neal) or Yao Ming, maybe I was giving up some size or some length, but it’s going to be a tough cover for guys like that to guard me also, because of my perimeter skills or having to guard a lot of pick-and-roll sets. I feel more comfortable playing that position.”

Gooden acknowledged what a contrast his latest assignment has been from the one he was given when he entered the NBA as a rookie with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2002, but he’s grateful now that he developed and learned to utilize the skills he did back then.

“When I came into the league as a small forward, I shot a lot of 3s and I was making them,” Gooden said. “But I had to find my niche. I was in so many different situations and played for so many different coaches and had so many different roles to carry out for my team. I was almost like a chameleon. I had to adapt to any situation I was in.”

Gooden’s job description indeed changed dramatically over the years.

“There were times when I had to start at center down at Dallas next to Dirk (Nowitzki),” he said. “There was a time when I was with the Clippers when Blake Griffin was out for the season and I was the power forward next to Chris Kaman and averaged about 15 (points) and 10 (rebounds). In Chicago, I played center alongside Tyrus Thomas, who was the power forward, and averaged 15 and 10. So I’ve been in that position of having to play the center spot on teams.”

Gooden came into this season in his best physical shape in several seasons, intent on playing the ‘4’ spot next to Bogut.

“This year, I came in trying to be the power forward and all of a sudden I was the starting center,” he said. “I never thought that was going to happen. I had to adapt on the fly. I don’t know many guys playing the center position who are out there launching 3s.”

Gooden is grateful for the confidence his coaches and teammates showed in him to make the transition.

“I’ve got to credit Coach (Scott) Skiles,” Gooden said. “He came to me and told me, ‘Whenever you’re open, you need to shoot the ball.’ I’ve heard that on a lot of other teams, but I was always focused on being a guy who would get 10 points and 10 rebounds and stop the other guy from doing it.

“But I’ve been open a lot, and I’ve been taking my shot a lot and making it a lot. I put that together in a string of games since I became the starting center.”

Gooden’s play certainly did not go unnoticed by his coach.

“He can help spread the floor,” Skiles said. “He's made good dribble plays.  His assist totals are nice and he’s rebounding the ball. He’s having a very, very good year.”