In Arizona coach Lute Olson's office, amid the burbling miniature rock garden, family snapshots and guide-to-living tomes, there's a photograph of Olson and junior point guard Jason Gardner. Taken at a recent Tucson celebrity chefs fund-raiser, it shows the two men wearing chef's hats, matching aprons and identical shrugged-shoulder smiles that say, We have no clue what we're cooking here, but this is fun so let's roll with it. They could have been conveying the same idea about the No. 6 Wildcats, whose three wins against Top 10 teams have vaulted them from unranked afterthoughts to the surprise of the young college season.
Left for dead after four starters from last year's NCAA runner-up skedaddled to the pros, pooh-poohed by pundits for counting five freshmen among its nine scholarship players, Arizona was 5-1 through Sunday despite a preposterous early-season schedule in which it played—and beat—then No. 2 Maryland, No. 6 Florida and No. 5 Illinois. (The only blemish was a Hagler-versus-Hearns 105-97 loss to then No. 8 Kansas on Dec. 1.) "I had no idea this would happen," says Olson, eyes wide. "I looked at that schedule and said, 'This could be a disaster.' The biggest thing you worry about with a young team is losing confidence, and most people would have figured we'd be 1-5."
Instead the Wildcats have thrived, thanks to the steady play of junior forwards Rick Anderson and Luke Walton, the quick-study freshmen and, most of all, Gardner, the Iron Chef himself. Rebuffed by NBA scouts after a humbling predraft camp last summer, Gardner returned to Point Guard U to become, six weeks into the season, the nation's most valuable player, averaging 24.2 points a game. "We've had a lot of great point guards at Arizona," says Olson, "but given the level of competition, and given the inexperience Jason has around him, we've never had one have a stretch of six games like that."
"He's the best point guard in the country," says Walton, rattling his saber at Duke's Jason Williams, who until recently seemed to have that title locked up. After being named freshman of the year over Williams by several media organizations two years ago, Gardner saw his standing slip last season along with his scoring average (from 12.6 to 10.9) while Williams soared in both categories. "It was hard for Jason [Gardner] last year because he had four scorers around him," says Gilbert Arenas, one of those scorers, who's now a rookie with the Golden State Warriors. " Jason Williams had a green light to do anything he wanted, and when you let players do anything they want, their true talent comes out. Coach Olson has given Jason the green light this year, and people are seeing what he can do."
Gardner is shooting 48.8% from the field after clanging all but 38.0% of his shots in his first two seasons (talk about iron chefs). Though he doesn't have Williams's height—at 5'10", Gardner is four inches shorter—or his ability to slash to the hole, he was outpacing his Duke counterpart in scoring (24.2 to 21.3 points per game) and three-point shooting (46.3% to 33.3%) while staying about even in assist-to-turnover ratio (at roughly 1.2 to 1). In other words the gap between the two players has narrowed. " Jason Williams had to score last year for Duke to win," Gardner says. "My role was to get 10 or 15 points, a few assists and steals, and keep guys happy. This year I know my role is to score and be more of a leader."
Gardner's resurgence is an uplifting chapter in what could have been a cautionary tale. Few observers thought he should have considered the NBA after last season, but they underestimated the influence of friends—particularly when three of them leave school early for the pros—and family. Gardner evidently has no shortage of relatives telling him how good he is. Take Don and Greg Livers, two of Jason's uncles, who call themselves Team Gardner and produce the fansite ShepherdOfTheCourt.com. In addition to Uncle Don's and Uncle Greg's hyperfavorable analysis of Jason's NBA prospects, the site comes replete with an explanation of their nickname for Jason ("one who keeps watch"); the Web page's logo, a silhouette of a player carrying a ball in one hand and a staff in the other (the kind of thing Nike might create for, say, Moses); bewildering references to Redd Foxx and The Wizard of Oz's "Julie [sic] Garland"; and the motto, There are no shortcuts!—an odd choice considering Gardner wanted to leave college after two years. In one commentary Uncle Greg rates the facets of Jason's game, awarding him an 8 for NBA readiness and 10s for quickness, ball handling, potential and intangibles.
NBA scouts came to different conclusions when Gardner struggled at the NBA predraft camp in Chicago last June. Gardner made a total of six of his 28 shots in three games, jacking up attempts from as far as 26 feet. Says Gardner, "I wanted to make every shot, every pass, every steal. I was thinking too much."
When Jason returned to Tucson, he and his mother, Stephanie, met with Olson. "I could tell he was down," Olson says. "I told him that Damon Stoudamire ended up being NBA Rookie of the Year after four years here, and he was no more ready than a man on the moon after his sophomore year. Jason Terry wasn't ready either. Steve Kerr wouldn't have made it in the NBA if he hadn't hurt his knee and gotten a fifth year with us." Of Olson's splendid point guards over the years only Mike Bibby left early and reached the NBA. The day after the meeting with Olson, Gardner announced he would return to school.
Not hiring an agent (thus preserving his college eligibility) was one of many signs that Gardner had grown up since his freshman year, when he and Arenas would shoot paintballs at Walton's beat-up Cadillac and at the ceiling of Stephanie's apartment. Another indication: Even while he thought he'd go pro, he kept up with his grades as a business management major. Also, his girlfriend, Jackie, whom Gardner has known since the sixth grade, moved to Tucson this year from their hometown of Indianapolis. Gardner is downright domestic these days.
Similarly, his maturity at the point has been crucial for the young Wildcats. "I would take Jason coming back over any of the guys who left," says Anderson, a guitar-playing, big-wave-surfing SoCal product who was averaging 14.5 points through Sunday. "People don't realize how good a point guard and a leader he is."