This might sound like hindsight, but there was something special about Aaron White the first time I saw him play last June.
Even though it was just the Prime Time League, you could tell right away that White belonged at the Big Ten level. You also could tell right away that White knew he belonged. He wasn’t cocky, just very sure of himself.
White made his debut in the National Invitation Tournament on Tuesday and he didn’t just show that he belonged on the court by scoring 25 points and grabbing 11 rebounds during the 84-75 victory over Dayton, but also that he is one of the best freshmen in school history and without question one of the best in my two decades covering the team.
“He’s really special,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, who was the only Big Ten coach to offer White a scholarship. “We knew we had something in Aaron White when we signed him and you’ve all seen him. Very few freshmen accomplish what he’s accomplished.”
Not since Jess Settles burst on the scene in 1993 has an Iowa freshman played with the poise and diverse skill set that the 6-foot-8 White has displayed throughout the season. The fact that Iowa (18-16) is having some success makes White look even better.
White, a native of Strongsville, Ohio, gave us a hint of things to come when he scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in his college debut against Chicago State in the season opener. And he needed just 18 minutes off the bench to compile those numbers.
Iowa senior guard Matt Gatens was a dependable scorer and a threat from 3-point range throughout his freshman season. But his game was played more on the perimeter, whereas White plays all over the court.
Tyler Smith was a talented and productive freshman throughout the 2006-07 campaign, but he wasn’t as versatile as White is on both ends of the floor.
Ricky Davis was a more explosive scorer than White is and he often played above the rim during his freshman season at Iowa in 1997-98. But Davis also lacked White’s versatility and court awareness.
Ryan Bowen was a defensive stopper the moment he stepped on the court for Iowa as a speedy 6-9 freshman forward in 1994. But he wasn’t nearly as advanced as White is on offense.
Kenyon Murray was another defensive whiz from day one in 1992, but he also didn’t have White’s versatility on offense or his size.
Ray Thompson, Michael Payne and Kevin Boyle had statistics as freshmen that were comparable to White, and in some cases were better. But they played before I arrived on the beat, so all I have is statistics and vague memories of their freshmen seasons.
Settles is without question the best comparison to White because they played similar positions, they were similar in height – Settles was listed at 6-7 – and were similar in how they approached competition and how they worked to get better.
Stories about White’s work ethic already are being told, especially the one about how he went to work out by himself at the new practice facility, but then got locked in overnight after the doors automatically locked.
Settles also had a burning desire to succeed, especially before chronic back problems took away some of his enthusiasm.
Kenyon Murray was a year ahead of Settles at Iowa and played alongside him as a small forward during Settles’ freshman campaign in 1993-94.
Murray agrees that White now deserves to be compared to Settles, who was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 1994. But Murray also pointed out some differences between Settles and White not only as players, but the circumstance in which they played under as freshmen.
Settles joined a depleted Iowa roster in the fall of 1993 and then had to persevere without star senior James Winters for a stretch because of an ankle injury.
Settles started from the very beginning and was a go-to player on offense from the very beginning. His 15.3 per-game scoring average as a freshman was second highest on a team that finished 11-16 overall and 5-13 in the Big Ten.
White, on the other hand, has only started the last 13 games and he had two games this season when he played fewer than 10 minutes.
“His role with us was different when he was a freshman because we didn’t have that many scholarship athletes,” Murray said of Settles, who is now the head men’s basketball coach Iowa Wesleyan College. “So obviously he was going to score more, rebound more and play more minutes than White.
“But I think if you at the way both of them play and their impact on the game, I think you can definitely compare them.”
What stood out about Settles was his versatility, especially on offense. He often would grab a rebound and then bring the ball up the court himself as a sort of point-forward.
“Jess wasn’t probably as athletic as Aaron White, but I think his offensive game was more well-rounded as a freshman because he scored inside and he scored outside,” Murray said. “So that’s the biggest difference.”
White’s versatility also stands out, just in a different way compared to Settles.
White is starting to look as comfortable draining a 3-pointer as he does crashing the glass and slam dunking a teammate’s missed shot. White had four dunks in the victory over Dayton. It’s amazing how he maneuvers his body through traffic and how he anticipates where the ball will deflect off the rim and then times his jump perfectly.
The next challenge for White is to stay hungry during the offseason and realize that he is now a marked man.
Opponents, beginning with Sunday’s second-round NIT game at Oregon, will adjust to him just like they adjusted to fellow Iowa forward Melsahn Basabe, who preceded White on the Big Ten all-Freshmen team a year ago.
White also will have teammates pushing him to get better just by their presence alone. Basabe and fellow sophomore forward Zach McCabe, who scored 20 points against Dayton while making all nine of his field-goal attempts, will be in the mix, as will incoming freshmen Adam Woodbury and Kyle Meyer.
Iowa’s success as a team will only enhance White’s reputation as we saw and heard inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena Tuesday.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball