Kadji making strides during SEC play

Published: Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 12:12 a.m.

It was a baby step.

Nothing more.

Florida’s basketball team needed another one from Kenny Kadji Saturday in the Gators’ 80-65 victory over Arkansas.

Baby step to the glass. Baby step in the paint. Baby step down the floor.

For 23 minutes of action Saturday afternoon, Kadji was a factor. He scored 10 points, grabbed four rebounds and had a big block on Arkansas’ center Michael Washington late in the game.

“I’m jumping higher, I’m running faster,” said the 6-foot-9 freshman. “It’s getting easier.”

We’ll see. Because for Kadji, it’s not as much the baby steps he’s taking, it’s avoiding the giant step backward after a good game.

He’s a typical freshman, overwhelmed at times by everything he has to do and not afraid to take the easiest path. That’s why he and the Stairmaster at Florida’s basketball facility have become such good friends.

All of those steps to nowhere have led to the baby steps.

“The first couple of weeks when I got here, I couldn’t keep up for two minutes,” he said.

The Stairmaster, cranked to Level 13, has helped.

But it’s a process.

Some take longer than others.

“More than any player I’ve ever coached,” said Billy Donovan, “he has to get a whole lot better at handling success. When he has a good day, you know the next day there’s going to be a loss of focus, a loss of intensity, a loss of work ethic so to speak. He’s got to get a lot better at dealing with his level of fatigue.”

That’s what the game of basketball is all about, especially the brand that Donovan’s teams play. Everybody is going to get tired. You think games are tiring, you should see the practices.

But it’s how you handle that fatigue that matters.

“All of the freshmen, when they get tired they have a chance to make a decision,” Donovan said. “And they often choose the path of least resistance. They’d rather have coach on their backs than go harder. Kenny’s trying to get over the hump. He knows it’s there.”

For much of the early part of this season, we wondered if Kadji was there. A few minutes here, a few there. Little production. There was the 15-point performance against Central Florida, then regression.

But in the last two games, Kadji has played 39 minutes and scored 21 points for the Gators, now 3-0 in SEC play.

Baby steps.

Nobody is expecting the giant step. That usually happens — if it happens at all — for a player in his sophomore year when he has spent a season getting to understand what it’s all about.

Against Arkansas, Florida needed a baby step. Alex Tyus, who is a perfect example of a player who takes a big step in his sophomore year, was in foul trouble. So was Dan Werner.

Kadji needed to play and he needed to play hard every minute he was on the floor.

“I’m going as hard as I can,” he said.

On this day, it sure looked like it. Especially on one play when he fumbled a rocket pass near the basket for a sure turnover. But Kadji sprinted after the loose ball, saved it to Nick Calathes as he was going out of bounds and watched as the Florida guard drained a 3-pointer for a 56-41 lead.

“He definitely didn’t come here focused,” Calathes said of Kadji’s early practice days. “He told me he was nervous. But I told him to just play hard. Don’t worry about the fans or anything. Just play hard.”

He’s getting there.

Baby step by baby step.

The question is whether he can keep taking those steps and avoid going in reverse.

Otherwise, the Stairmaster is waiting.

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