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Originally published Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Gonzaga's Austin Daye still a work in progress

Zags forward is trying to regain his form from impressive freshman year.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Thursday

Saint Mary's @ Gonzaga, 8 p.m., ESPN2

Well before Gonzaga skidded from next-big-thing status to what's-wrong-with-this-team analysis a month ago, coach Mark Few knew he had a club that might be about psychology as much as physiology.

Few recently spent time with Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray, two of his guards, to urge them to do more than just play, to be more accountable for the outcome. He has had to find that zone for Josh Heytvelt that satisfies Heytvelt's affinity for the perimeter and the Zags' need in the post.

And then there's Austin Daye, the most gifted of the Zags, who host Saint Mary's Thursday night in a collision of the West Coast Conference's upper crust.

Until the past two weekends, Daye "wasn't playing very well," said Few. "When he settles and takes the path of least resistance, he's not that good. And consequently, we're not that good."

Starting tonight, the Zags will find out whether Daye's recent rise is more about maturity, or the fact they just played four WCC teams buried in the RPI rankings. He averaged 18.8 points and nine rebounds against them.

Jeremy Pargo, the senior guard, was hardly exaggerating awhile back when he referred to the 6-foot-10 Daye's natural ability as "off the Richter scale." Indeed, he can be such a scoring machine that it's not hard to envision him as a scorer in the mold of Adam Morrison.

But that would assume a competitive will to tear the eyes out of the opposition, like Morrison had. It would require the urge to collect more than the meager dozen offensive rebounds Daye had at midseason.

"Twelve offensive rebounds?" Few chided Daye back then. "Brockman [Jon, the Washington career leader] gets that in a game!"

No wonder Daye's father, Darren, said, "It's still a work in progress. It doesn't come without its lumps. He knows he has to get better on a daily basis, and he's working to do that.

"The basketball world is always bumpy."

The elder Daye knows. A 6-6 forward, he was a four-year player at UCLA from 1980 to 1983 and went on to several years in the NBA.

He coached Austin individually, teaching him how to shoot. But the son outstrips his dad in that capacity.

"He's always told me, you can teach technique, but you can't teach touch," said Austin. "I've always had really good touch."

"I wish I had his touch when I was playing," said Darren.

Ex-Zags assistant Bill Grier did the heavy work recruiting Daye, who averaged almost 31 points per game his last year at Woodbridge High in Irvine, Calif. Daye was under-recruited, taking unofficial visits to the Arizona schools and one to Gonzaga before he settled on the Zags.

A year ago as a freshman, Daye flashed his offensive ability. He had 20 points and 10 rebounds in his first game, against Montana, and had 13 of 22 points after regulation in a double-overtime victory over Santa Clara.

He averaged 10.5 points in only 18.5 minutes per game, flicking in threes (41.3 percent), displaying a midrange game and sizzling at free throws (88 percent).

This year, some of that has gone away, ebbing and flowing like the Zags' season. Daye's accuracy numbers are down both in three-point shooting (.367) and free throws (.698). He leads the team in blocks but other aspects of his defense need work.

"If you make shots, life becomes a lot easier," said Few. "I think he lost a little confidence."

Daye's offseason could have affected that. He slipped on the floor at the LeBron James Skills Academy in June and was originally diagnosed with an ACL tear. At his family's urging, he got additional opinions from UCLA and L.A. Lakers team doctors, who advised him surgery wasn't necessary, but his summer was essentially lost.

As his dad says, he's not a finished product. And sometimes the shortfall frustrates Daye and he overreacts to officials' calls or to his own missed shots.

"He's just a wonderful, wonderful kid," Few said. "He's got a warm heart, and he's an eager learner and great teammate. I was explaining to him, the demonstrative stuff on the floor doesn't reflect well on him — doesn't reflect who you are."

Bottom line, Daye is still a pup, 20 until June, slender, his game beguiling but incomplete. That won't matter in the futuristic world of the NBA, whose mock drafts have him going in the back half of the first round if he comes out.

"He assures me he hasn't [thought about the draft]," Few said. "He doesn't seem to be the least bit preoccupied with it."

On the early-out issue, Daye's father said two weeks ago: "I don't know. It's so far away. It's January; that's June. We don't know how the season is going to play out.

"I'll talk to Austin, give him the pluses and minuses of each situation and let him make a decision. If I had to pick whether he'd come back or stay, as of right now I'd say he'd definitely come back."

If Daye has designs on leaving this year, he should have a better feel for his readiness in the next two weeks. The Zags will have played Saint Mary's twice and Memphis.

"I'm just trying to do the right things right now on the court," Daye said. "That decision will come late in March."

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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