A week and a half ago, Oregon Ducks’ All-American center N’Faly Dante made his long-awaited return to the court in Eugene. After 8 weeks of street clothes and a seat on the end of the bench that stemmed from an early season knee surgery, the big man was seeing some action.
It was a Saturday night conference matchup with the California Golden Bears, and the 6-foot-11, 265-pounder gave 17 minutes of grit-and-grind effort, putting up 8 points, 2 rebounds, and one block. A game later, this time on the road against Colorado, Dante offered up 7 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 block, and 1 assist in 19 minutes against the Buffaloes.
It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that Dante started to really look like himself again. On the road at Utah, the minutes restriction was lifted, and N’Faly went to work, putting up 23 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks, and 1 steal.
While the numbers are great, and the presence of a dominant big-man is certainly a boost that this Oregon Ducks’ team needs at the current moment in the schedule, what Dante brings to the table means more than that. In fact, if you asked head coach Dana Altman, it means much more than you can truly put into words.
“There’s playing to win and there’s playing; N’Faly Dante plays to win,” Altman said on Tuesday after practice, marveling at what his center was able to give two days prior in a losing effort.
“Dante played at another level,” Altman said. “I mean, he’s been out eight weeks, and he looked like the only conditioned, tough, hard-nosed guy we had. And Jermaine (Couisnard) did a tremendous job on the offensive end, but Dante…”
After getting a minor procedure done on his knee after the first game of the season back in November, Dante has been unable to condition properly while he worked back to full health. His shooting stroke improved, since he could work on fundamentals without exerting his lower half, but Altman often cautioned anyone who would listen over the last month that we shouldn’t expect the “vintage” N’Faly back on the floor in short order.
I’m willing to say that what we saw on Sunday in Salt Lake City was “vintage” N’Faly.
“There was a series there where he gets his shot blocked, he’s standing out of bounds, he flies down the court, gets a hand on it, gets a steal, flies to the other end, and gets a dunk,” Altman recounted with a grin. “He led us in everything. He was 10 for 15 from the field, rebounding he led us, 11 deflections, six assists, one turnover — it was a heck of a performance.”
The next step is finding out how to properly build around him. While the Ducks did a fantastic job of weathering the injury storm throughout December not only with Dante sidelined, but also without fellow center Nate Bittle, they need to quickly readjust and learn how to properly play around a true big man. Going into last weekend, Oregon held a solo lead in the conference, but after back-to-back losses vs. Colorado and Utah, they are now in a three-way tie at the top.
According to ESPN’s latest bracketology, Oregon is considered as a team barely on the right side of the bubble, with very little room for error.
It became apparent on the mountain road trip that the perceived safety blanket of having N’Faly back on the court may have ultimately been a detriment.
“We’ve got a bad habit of just watching him. You know, we’ve got to do a better job,” Altman said. “He could have had a couple more assists. But guys, you know, we throw it in and everybody’s just like, ‘Go get a bucket, Dante.’ You know, we’ve got to help him out a little bit. And I think we’re putting way too much pressure on him defensively. ‘Oh Dante will clean up my mistake,’ you know?”
While the on-court production that Dante brings with his return is hugely beneficial, the heart that he provides off of the floor is immeasurable. Whether it’s his practice habits and efforts in the gym, his voice in the locker room, or his coaching on the bench during timeouts, Altman has found one of his favorite players to coach in recent memory.
“I can’t say enough good things about him; I’m just fortunate to coach him,” Altman said. “He practices hard. He cares about his teammates. He’s been loyal to Oregon. I love the kid. NIL, he’s more worried about taking care of his family back in Mali than himself. That unselfishness like that, what a quality. He just continues to impress me.”
It was hard not to be impressed by what N’Faly did on Sunday afternoon against Utah. Over the next couple of months, Dante’s last in Eugene, Duck fans will look to appreciate what the big man brings to the team, both on and off the court.