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Anthony Gaines celebrates following a dunk. The sophomore guard scored 10 points off the bench against McKendree on Friday.

Allie Goulding / Daily Senior Staffer

Men’s Basketball: Gaines’ football background, unique skill set make him Northwestern’s 2019 wild card

November 4, 2018

On a 2018-19 Northwestern team predominantly flush with one specific type of player — lanky, pass-first, perimeter wings, straddling the dividing line between guard and forward — sophomore Anthony Gaines’ uniqueness is a breath of fresh air.

Gaines is a defensive specialist, modeling himself after senior Vic Law and growing into predecessor Sanjay Lumpkin’s shoes. Gaines drives the lane, dunking while making facial expressions ranging from impassioned to fervid. And Gaines can muscle inside with a physicality transcending his 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame.

“He’s got a unique role,” coach Chris Collins said last week. “Whether he starts or comes off the bench, I’m not sure yet, but he’s going to play a lot. He’s different than a lot of our other perimeter guys: He’s a power guard, he can drive the ball, he’s a defensive stopper. We need him to … take on the other team’s best player.”

Gaines plays basketball like a football player would. That’s because that’s exactly what he is. He’s no star, at least yet, but his intangibles and specialities make him unquestionably the Wildcats’ X-factor.

Unusual athletic background

As a sophomore in high school, Anthony Gaines scored 10 touchdowns in nine games. As a junior, Gaines averaged 9.1 points per game.

Yes, those statistics spanned multiple sports.

At New Hampton School in New Hampshire, an athletics factory that has produced alumni including NBA forward Noah Vonleh and NHL general manager Ray Shero, Gaines was the only player during his time to play both football and basketball. He eventually decided to go to college for the latter, but it was far from the only option.

“He was definitely a force to be reckoned with,” said Rick Marcella, former football coach at New Hampton. “There’s no question in my mind he could’ve been a (Division I) recruit in football.”

It started on the fields of Kingston, New York — Gaines’ childhood home. Until age 11, football was the only thing he played.

“Football was my first sport,” he said. “For a long time, it was probably my best sport, too.”

He took a break from football in eighth grade to focus more on basketball, but after transferring from Kingston High to New Hampton after his freshman year of high school, Gaines returned to the dual-sport routine.

Marcella said he was initially unsure where to use his new multi-talented weapon, but soon decided on everywhere. Gaines played wide receiver, running back and quarterback on offense; in 2015, he recorded 249 receiving yards, 48 rushing yards and 58 passing yards. Gaines also played every snap on the defensive side of the ball as a free safety.

“We got him the ball any way that we could,” Marcella said. “If it was a jump ball situation, there was nobody on the field who was going to go up with him. His leaping ability was far superior. He became a better route-runner too.”

All the while, Gaines perfected the physical skills that he implemented into his basketball game during the winter.

“My footwork, my aggressiveness and just my movement laterally, things like that, have translated from football,” he said. “I think that’s what’s helped me become a great (basketball) defender, just with my vision and my awareness.”

Freshman growth

Once he committed fully to basketball, Gaines’ scholarship offers poured in: Cincinnati, George Mason, Providence, Butler, Dayton and Northwestern. As for that last school, which offered him after Collins made a chance meeting while on a trip to scout another player, Gaines initially “didn’t know what it was or where it was.” A few months later, he was signing his letter of intent to enroll.

Allie Goulding / Daily Senior Staffer
Anthony Gaines brings the ball upcourt. The sophomore guard averaged 18.6 minutes a game as a freshman.

For much of his 2017-18 freshman campaign, however, the four-star recruit was barely a role player in NU’s rotation, called upon sparingly and only in strictly defensive situations. Through 26 games, he was averaging just 15 minutes and 3.3 points per game.

But then a plague of injuries, now infamous for derailing the Cats’ season, opened the door for Gaines to see the court. Over his final six games, all losses, he averaged 34 minutes, 7.2 points and three assists per game, plus made a big impact on the other end of the court. In one memorable instance, after a 10-point, five-rebound, zero-turnover performance in 37 minutes against then-No. 2 Michigan State in mid-February, Law looked at Gaines’ stat line during the postgame press conference and cursed in awe.

“At the beginning of the year, I wasn’t as aggressive — I was still learning and getting used to the style of play and just how teams are defending and the pacing, everything,” Gaines said toward the end of the season. “Once I got to learn that more, my confidence grew, I became more aggressive and started bringing a lot more energy to the team, and I think that’s what’s helped me be on the floor more.”

He said he worked on his shot throughout the winter, in hopes that doing so would simultaneously amplify his offensive confidence. That too seemed to pay off in season’s final stretch, when Gaines suddenly became a more multi-dimensional offensive weapon while also maintaining his characteristic defensive hounding.

The wild card

It’s hard to find a more trusted voice to analyze Gaines than Denver Nuggets forward Tyler Lydon.

Lydon and Gaines go way back: the latter convinced the former to transfer to New Hampton, then worked out and played with him every day there. Lydon has already done what Gaines hopes to do, emerging as a star at Syracuse before becoming a first-round NBA draft pick. And the two have kept in touch.

“I’m seen him grow, just from being a sophomore at New Hampton to where he is now, and all the work he’s put in,” Lydon told The Daily. “He’s one of those guys where it might not show up on the stat sheet every night, but at the end of the game you’re going to watch film and see all the ways he helped you win.”

With former point and shooting guard stalwarts Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey now graduated, the door is wide open for Gaines to claim a large full-time role, even with the team’s new additions. If the Cats are to overcome the departure of three starters from a squad that, even with them, limped to a 6-12 Big Ten record, Gaines’ anticipated transformation from promising contributor to versatile star may make the difference.

He may or may not start opening day, but he made another strong impression in Friday’s exhibition game: 5-for-6 from the floor for 10 points, in addition to four rebounds. And he’s already sizing up his guarding talents against some of the nation’s best, preparing to begin the autumn as one of the centerpieces of NU’s defensive system.

“As a player, I do some things differently than my teammates do,” he said last week. “I feel like I’ll have a very huge impact defensively. I will take on the challenge of guarding most team’s main scorers.”

Twitter: @benpope111