‘A different level of pride’: Garcia’s arrival came just in time for Gophers

Basketball practices this fall often turned into The Dawson Garcia Show. His Gophers coaches, teammates and even NBA scouts find themselves marveling at the things he can do at 6-foot-11, things you might see from elite guards but certainly not big men his size.

"He can stretch you out to three," Gophers second-year coach Ben Johnson said. "He's a good ball handler and a willing passer. He's got really good versatility and happens to be 6-11."

Garcia is the first McDonald's All-America to play for the Gophers since Kris Humphries nearly 20 years ago. Garcia missed Wednesday's exhibition against St. Olaf while resting a muscle strain, but he "feels very confident" heading into Monday's regular-season opener against Western Michigan.

Minnesota fans were ecstatic when Garcia decided to transfer home from North Carolina, and he eventually received a waiver to be immediately eligible. It was arguably the biggest thing to happen to Gophers basketball in years.

The Gophers didn't realize how big. Not until Jamison Battle was sidelined indefinitely after foot surgery.

Garcia's responsibilities on the court will grow significantly bigger now. But he's eager to finally embrace what it means to represent the program as a homegrown talent.

"I just get chills thinking about it," Garcia said. "Having this 'M' across my chest. This is where I grew up. This is where I'm from. It's a different level of pride I'm feeling."

Battle, who led the Gophers in scoring and rebounding last season, once played for the same D1 Minnesota AAU program as Garcia. But even he forgot how talented Garcia was as a former five-star recruit at Prior Lake.

"It was the first week of practice and I was just in awe," said Battle, named a co-captain with Garcia. "I think people forget how good he really is because of all the stuff he's been through."

Garcia transferred from Marquette after his coach was fired his freshman year. Last season, he left North Carolina in January when his family was suffering healthwise during the pandemic. He's now with his third college team in as many years, but this is different: He's home.

"My path wasn't straight," Garcia said. "But I'm glad I'm here and I think it all worked out for the best."

Johnson had no intention for Garcia to be a one-man show. Battle, an All-Big Ten preseason player, was supposed to team with him to create a dynamic tandem, but that will have to wait.

"Play the same game but just be more vocal and step my leadership up even more," Garcia said about playing without Battle. "Jamison is a huge piece for us. He's one of the best players in the country. Big-time leader."

Taking over center stage for the Gophers early, Garcia has a chance to prove to the country what they've been missing since he stepped away. He's talented enough to be a candidate for Big Ten player of the year, Big Ten Network analyst Stephen Bardo said.

"I think Dawson to me could be a first-round draft pick," Bardo said. "He's got a good relationship with Ben — and I think you'll see this young man blossom. You just don't see 6-11 guys, lefthanded able to space the floor and get to the rim. He's a pretty good rebounder, too. He's got a world of upside."

Big impression

No Big Ten team was more intimidating than Purdue with size and physicality last season, especially with 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey.

Garcia outplayed Edey when North Carolina faced the Boilermakers in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off last November. The lethal lefty delivered 26 points on 10-for-13 shooting, including 3-for-5 on three-pointers.

The Gophers open early Big Ten play on Dec. 4 at Purdue, so you can bet Edey remembers Garcia's big performance last season.

"He was a great player when we played them," Edey said at Big Ten media days in Minneapolis. "He shot the ball really well. Trying to limit the amount of shot attempts and looks he gets from the perimeter will be a big thing."

In his first two seasons, Garcia shot 36.2% from beyond the arc in 43 games, which included hitting 26 threes his freshman year at Marquette in 2020-21.

The last Gophers big man 6-10 or taller to hit at least 26 threes in a season was former Duluth East standout Rick Rickert with 41 in 2002-03. Missing Battle's outside shooting (75 threes last season) means Garcia stretching the floor could become the U's biggest weapon.

Johnson realizes Garcia's shooting is an advantage, but he told him not to fall in love with his jumper. Garcia can score in the paint and off the dribble just as well.

"He's skilled enough to make threes," Johnson added. "There will be a time and place for that. But he can score at all three levels."

Grateful to play

Garcia is still waiting to play in a college basketball game for the first time since last Jan. 22, for North Carolina at Wake Forest.

Less than a week after that Wake Forest loss, the Tar Heels announced that Garcia had left the team to be with his ailing family in Minnesota. His father survived a scary bout with COVID-19 in December, but his grandmother died after a long battle with the virus in the hospital.

Dealing with his family's loss, Garcia grew closer with his church and combined religion and basketball training with a program called Hoops and Christ in Minneapolis. "I was in a rough spot," he said earlier. "Faith definitely helps in those times."

Hitting the gym religiously has helped him deal with adversity in his life. His work ethic is on another level, as is his immense talent.

"He can get a lot of things done on both sides of the ball," Johnson said. "That's what I'm really trying to get to him to be as versatile as you can — be that competitive warrior that every time the ball's tipped you're setting the tone with how hard you play."

Garcia's on-court leadership is essential. He's already setting an example for freshmen such as Cottage Grove's Pharrel Payne, who could be playing alongside him.

"Dawson's really good," the 6-9 Payne said. "I look up to [Battle and Garcia] and they tell me if I'm doing something wrong. They're a big help in that aspect."

The Gophers are trying not to put extra pressure on Garcia, but he combines a sense of urgency and passion with star potential that could make a big difference, especially early this season.

"It's almost like he's been possessed but in a good way," Johnson said. "You hate that sometimes things have to be taken away for people to realize that. … but he values every time he's on that court."