Jayden Gardner

Jayden Gardner looks across the court during Wednesday night's basketball game. 

What can sophomore forward Jayden Gardner not do? A five-time American Athletic Conference Freshman-of-the-Week one season ago, Gardner led the East Carolina University (8-9, 2-2 AAC) men’s basketball team in a slew of offensive categories including points per game (16.3) and rebounds per game (8.5).

Tabbed as a unanimous selection the AAC’s All-Freshman Team last season, Gardner wasted no time in showing his freshman season was not a fluke. A double-double with 28 points and 11 rebounds against the Virginia Military Institute (5-14, 0-6 SoCon) to begin the 2019-2020 campaign signaled to the Pirates’ opponents that Gardner would once again be a force to contend with.

With three seven-foot tall players added to the roster via the recruiting trail by head coach Joe Dooley, the Pirates would no longer be forced to play small-ball with Gardner at the center position. Three games into the season, however, junior center Ludgy Debaut hit the shelf with a foot injury that will keep him sidelined for the remainder of the campaign.

In lieu of Debaut, the Pirates have turned to junior center/forward Edra Luster and freshman center/forward Charles Coleman to fill the gap. Getting only marginal production from both so far, Dooley has elected to use his small lineup more and more. That often leads to Gardner being the tallest man on the court for the Pirates as he has always been a well of consistent offensive production for ECU.

Roughly halftime though the season, ECU is playing arguably its best basketball of 2019-2020. A close loss to nationally ranked Wichita State (15-2, 3-1 AAC) and two conference wins in four tries has the Pirates back to a near-.500 record after a 2-7 start. While freshman guard Tristen Newton nailed a clutch three-pointer to help the Pirates sink Southern Methodist University (12-3, 2-1 AAC) on Saturday, it has been Gardner’s steady yet spectacular offensive prowess that has allowed ECU to right the ship.

Twenty points on Saturday and another 19 on Wednesday against the University of Tulsa (11-6, 3-1 AAC) actually lowered Gardner’s season average to 21.2 points per game, an increase of almost five points per contest over his freshman mark. While Gardner’s streak of eight straight games scoring at least 20 points came to an end against Tulsa, he still finished with 19 points and seven rebounds in the 65-49 loss. Now over, that run began well over a month ago and has vaulted Gardner to the top-15 nationally in points scored per contest.

While his sheer points per game average sticks out, it is hard to identify a clear-cut weakness in Gardner’s game. Sure he does not shoot three-pointers particularly well, just 5-of-23 (21.7%) for his career, but that is not his where he is most valuable to the Pirates.

Around the basket, Gardner is hard to stop. Listed at 6-7 and 235 pounds by ECU’s media guide, he possesses the size, strength and quickness to beat defenders off the dribble, back them down in the post or box them out for a rebound. Only recently, Gardner has begun displaying the ability to face-up and shoot a 12- to 15-foot jump shot effectively when he does not have an advantage inside.

Rarely is that the case, however. In 17 games, Gardner is averaging 9.1 rebounds per game, a top-60 number in Division I. In sheer number, his 155 total rebounds also ranks inside the top-60 nationally and has led to eight double-doubles for the sophomore after he racked up 10 in 2018-2019.

Always around the hoop, Gardner is shooting well over 50% on the season at 56.2%. In two games this season, Gardner has made two-thirds of his field goal attempts and shot north of 50% in 12 of his 17 games thus far.

On the national scene, both of Gardner’s field goal percentage and total number of made field goals (122) ranks among the best in the nation.

Fed the ball as much as Gardner has this season, it is only natural to see him pacing the program in free throw attempts. Not only is that true, but Gardner ranks toward the top of the NCAA with his 149 free throw attempts and 113 makes through 17 games. That works out to better than 8.7 attempts and 6.6 makes per game and places Gardner on a path to set Pirate program records for a single season in both categories.

Six times this season Gardner has attempted at least 10 free throws as he continuously draws multiple fouls from defenders over the course of 40 minutes. On Wednesday, Gardner accounted for nearly half of the 20 fouls Tulsa players were whistled for as he went 13-of-14 from the stripe.

“He’s a great player. Give him so much credit, his numbers are incredible,” SMU head coach Tim Jankovich said following Saturday’s game. “There’s three numbers that are incredible to me. One is scoring, anybody can score 20 points a game, that’s hard to do when everybody knows you’re going to try to score 20 points a game. His nine or 10 rebounds, that’s incredible. But then you lead the country in free throw attempts for gosh sakes. I don’t see a lot of guys with that triple combination.”

Only 48 games into what Pirate fans hope is a full four-year career from Gardner, he is on pace to leave his mark on the ECU record books.

Currently on pace to score 657 points this season, Gardner would become the newest member of ECU’s 1,000-point club sometime in early February. Combined with his 505 points from last season, Gardner would be vaulted into 16th place in career scoring with a potential for two more seasons of production after 2019-2020.

If his current pace holds, those 657 points would rank Gardner for fourth in program history for most scored in a single season. Averaging 21.2 points per game this season, Gardner would rank third for a single season while his 18 career points per game would hold the same distinction.

In the rebounding department, Gardner is on pace to near his 93 offensive boards from a season ago. Currently on track to grab 91 this season, Gardner would rank ranks ninth in ECU history for one campaign while he is six offensive rebounds away from entering the top-15 leaderboard for a career.

Grabbing over nine rebounds per game this season, Gardner would pull down roughly 282 boards during this campaign if he keeps it up. Not only would that best his 262 rebounds from a year ago, but it would tie him for ninth on ECU’s leaderboard for a single season.

Of course, these numbers and rankings hinge on Gardner maintaining his current averages and playing in each of the 14 remaining regular season games.

Nevertheless, it is incredible to quantify the kind of campaign Gardner is halfway through. From a standout rookie in the AAC a season ago, Gardner worked on his craft in the offseason and the results are showing up in a big way for the sophomore.

With ECU sporting an even record in league play and looking like a team that could make some noise in the back half of its schedule, Gardner’s play will only continue to become more and more important for the Pirates’ success.

After 14 second half points and a key offensive rebound and putback in ECU’s victory over SMU on Saturday and a tough 19 points against the Golden Hurricane on Wednesday, Gardner looks up to the challenge down the stretch.

Gardner and the Pirates are back in action on Sunday against the University of Cincinnati (10-6, 3-1 AAC). Tip-off from Cincinnati, Ohio is scheduled for 6 p.m.

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