Instant impact: Eli freshmen key to title run

For Edwin Draughan ’05, the decision on who should be the Ivy League’s Rookie of the Year is an easy one — it is definitely Yale freshman point guard Alex Gamboa.

“Night in, night out, he does such a great job of getting everyone the basketball,” Draughan said. “As a freshman, to start as a point guard– that is amazing.”

As for Gamboa, he thinks his rookie backcourt mate Draughan is the natural choice for the honor.

“He is so gifted. He has stepped up so many different times,” Gamboa said. “He plays the most minutes, averages the most points, all as a freshman.”

They both make good cases.

Thirteen times this season the Ivy League has named its Rookie of the Week, and six times the honor has gone to the Eli starting backcourt — four times to Draughan, twice to Gamboa. With Yale’s Ivy title hopes hinging on two wins at home against Harvard and Dartmouth this weekend, neither Draughan nor Gamboa has time to think about after-season accolades. All they care about now is winning Yale’s first Ivy League championship since 1962 — a feat this season’s Elis (17-9, 9-3 Ivy) could not have approached without the stellar play of the freshmen phenoms.

“Their play has been immeasurable,” said Yale head coach James Jones, whose recruiting brought the talents to New Haven. “Alex and Edwin have been a nice combination.”

The two have skill sets that nicely complement each other. Gamboa has shown a better touch from outside — his 44.3 percent 3-point shooting is fourth in the league — while Draughan has shown more athleticism in penetrating to the basket. Both are good ball-handlers who can deal with defensive pressure.

The freshman backcourt also has the ability to dictate the tone of a game. In Yale’s 83-78 win over the University of Pennsylvania, Draughan and Gamboa simply took over at the start of the second half. The pair, slashing through the paint and spotting up from the outside, combined for Yale’s first 16 points in the frame, giving the Elis a 7-point lead while electrifying the crowd.

On the year, Draughan averages 12 points per contest with Gamboa right behind at 11.3, good for first and second on the Yale team and among Ivy League freshmen. Draughan also chips in 4.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists, to 3 rebounds and 3.4 assists from Gamboa.

For Draughan, a highly touted recruit out of Lakewood, Calif., many pundits expected this kind of production.

“The first time I saw Edwin, my first comment to myself was, ‘He is probably too good,'” Jones said.

Despite competition from Big East schools, Jones landed Draughan, who was attracted to Yale by its education, history and the prospect of immediate playing time.

Throughout the season, Draughan has displayed a level of athleticism not common in the Ivy League. He has the ability to blow by his defender or pull up and shoot over him. At times, he has shown a deft touch from the outside, and his defense has steadily improved as the year has gone on.

“He can take over a game,” Jones said. “It’s like, ‘Right now, you are not stopping the kid.'”

Often this season, Draughan’s good games have followed a similar pattern: he struggles through the first half, then displays the kind of domination his coach talks about in the second.

“I think too much about the game, put too much pressure on myself,” Draughan said. “In the second half, I get to relax.”

Although the season is not over, Draughan knows what he needs to do to improve his game. Although he has gotten stronger since getting to Yale, Draughan said he needs to add weight and strength to his lean 167-pound frame — he hopes to get up to 180 pounds — something that will help his ability to finish in the face of bigger defenders when he drives to the basket. He also needs to work on his perimeter shooting, as his hot nights from the arc this season have been tempered by cold ones.

While the hype with this year’s freshman class centered on Draughan, Gamboa came in as a point guard on a team that was in need of one.

“I knew Edwin was going to be a stud,” Jones said after Draughan and Gamboa combined for 35 points in a 76-56 win at Columbia. “Alex, to be perfectly honest, has been a great surprise to me.”

With returning point guard Chris Leanza ’03 recovering from shoulder surgery for the first half of the season, Gamboa seized the opportunity to make an immediate impact. Inserted into the starting lineup in Yale’s third game, the 6-foot freshman from Reno, Nev., scored 14 points and dished out six assists to only one turnover in the Elis’ 87-74 victory at Penn State.

“Alex is as good as any point guard in the league,” Jones said. “A lot of people were surprised by that.”

The most surprising part about Gamboa’s season may not be found in his numbers, but in his ability to display the leadership required of a point guard while only a freshman.

“I have felt more comfortable with being vocal more and more as the year has went on,” Gamboa said. “On our team, nobody is selfish, nobody is yelling at me to say, ‘Get me the ball.’ So I can’t stress enough how much they have made it easier on me.”

It is not a lock that Rookie of the Year will go to Gamboa or Draughan. There are other candidates, like Brown’s Jason Forte or Penn’s Tim Begley. But it is pretty clear that the Bulldogs would not be where they are, on the brink of an Ivy League championship, without them.

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