'He never quits.' Behind the quiet determination and enduring strength of Gonzaga's Graham Ike

Feb. 14—Jeff Linder uses three categories to quantify the nature of a player's relationship with basketball.

"There's 'live it' guys, there's 'love it' guys and there's 'like it' guys," the Wyoming coach said.

In 2019, Linder was hosting a recruit out of the Denver area during his final season as the coach at Northern Colorado. The official visit had ended, but the recruit's ride hadn't shown up, so Linder pulled up Northern Colorado game film to pass the time and give the prospective player a better understanding of how he'd fit into the team's offensive and defensive systems.

After 2 1/2 hours in front of a projector screen, the ride finally showed and Linder had his verdict on Graham Ike.

"He's a 'live it' guy," Linder said.

Coaches at two Division I programs can validate that much about Ike, the former Wyoming forward who transferred to Gonzaga this offseason to take on the decidedly daunting challenge of replacing Drew Timme, a three-time All-American who vaulted to cult hero status in Spokane while becoming the school's all-time leading scorer.

How's that coming along?

Ask John Calipari and Kentucky. Last Saturday at Rupp Arena, a UK frontcourt loaded with top-50 recruits, future NBA draft picks and athletic shot blockers couldn't withstand Ike's strength, allowing him to score a game-high 23 points in 24 minutes. Ike, four years removed from committing to a school in the Big Sky Conference, was the offensive catalyst in an 89-85 win against a blue-blood program that changed the complexion of Gonzaga's season as the Bulldogs continue their quest for a 25th consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.

Following an exhaustive rehabilitation process from the foot fracture he suffered prior to the 2022-23 season at Wyoming — one of a few injury setbacks he'll staunchly maintain helped, not hindered, his growth as a player — Ike's beginning to resemble the player the Zags wanted when they want searching for their next great big man.

"Nobody's Drew Timme, but (Ike) averaged almost 20 (at Wyoming), a guy that played primarily on the interior really dominated that paint area like Drew would," Gonzaga assistant Brian Michaelson said. "You watched the way he was able to function and the different ways he was able to score, it was clear how he'd fit basketball-wise, and then from the first time you talked to him, he is an unbelievably special kid.

"We've had a lot of really good people here and Graham goes right to the top of that list."

An old photograph still floats around among Ike's circle of friends back home in Aurora, Colorado.

Overland High School basketball coach Danny Fisher doesn't reveal the contents of the image, or who to contact for a copy, but suggests it emanates from Ike's days as a middle school wrestler, warning "he would hate for the world to see (it)."

Ike, the nephew of two-time NFL champion tight end Daniel Graham, was a city champion wrestler who was more interested in exploring his potential on a hardwood court than on a rubber mat, but faced an obstacle that precluded him from doing either at a high level.

"I was pretty chubby all the way up until like 17, 18," Ike laughed, perhaps giving up another clue as to why the aforementioned photo remains hidden from the world.

Not until the early stages of his senior season at Overland High did Ike realize he'd need to confront his body composure issues. That's also when he confronted the first of two injuries that kept him from the court for an extended period of time.

A handful of minutes into the first quarter of his third game as a high school senior, Ike tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), disrupting Overland's plans to win a state championship and derailing the star player's recruitment.

Without the ability to compete, Ike was left to contemplate.

"I was in a dark room for a week or two, because I couldn't move and they didn't want me walking or anything," Ike said. "That's when I was really figuring myself out and what I want to do with basketball and where I want to take it. I was like, 'OK, made a commitment, we're going to take this all the way and let's not play around with it.' That's where my love grew stronger for this."

It's not like there was an obvious backup plan, either.

"This is plan A, this is plan B and all of that," Ike said.

Ike took a more calculated approach to his nutrition, realizing no good would come from a bad diet, especially if he wasn't sweating for two to three hours every day on a basketball court. He also consulted longtime Denver Nuggets Director of Performance Steve Hess to lead his rehabilitation. Ike had known Hess since he was 6, playing for a youth basketball team sponsored by Hess' health club.

"If he doesn't tear his ACL and he doesn't go through the rehabilitation process, I don't know if he locks in to every aspect of it," Hess said. "As he's going through that, he's locked in to every aspect of it. His nutrition, his hydration, his recovery, his recuperation. All of those things. But you had to go down that road first."

Even as offers vanished and interest from other DI programs declined, Linder kept up his end of the bargain, ensuring Ike he'd still have a scholarship waiting for him at Wyoming. Ike missed time at the start of his freshman season in Laramie but blossomed into an All-Mountain West forward as a sophomore who essentially averaged a double-double for the Cowboys — 19.5 points and 9.6 rebounds per game — while leading them to the NCAA Tournament.

Hess stays in touch with most of his former clients, but in his line of work, it's usually a bad sign if they're reaching back out for his professional help. Now working as the chief performance officer for the Panorama Wellness and Sport Institute, Hess got a call from Ike a week before his junior was set to begin.

This time, the diagnosis was a right foot fracture that sidelined Ike for the entirety of Wyoming's 2022-23 season. Another year without the game. More early mornings with Hess working to rebuild the bones in his foot when he should have been building a campaign for Mountain West Player of the Year.

"I'm not going to say I want these kinds of things to happen to me, because I definitely don't. Nobody does," Ike said. "But when it does happen, I look forward to it, the adversity of it. Of just seeing how much better we can get from it."

Ike dialed in his routine. The average rehab day began with a 4:15 a.m. wakeup call, vegetable soup for breakfast — normally consumed on the go — followed by an hourlong workout at Hess' Denver-area facility or a pool at the nearby Lifetime Fitness. Then right back home, nap, back to the gym for stationary shooting drills, back home again, video games with friends, dinner and straight to bed.

"Then do the same thing over," Ike said.

Depending on the stage of progression, Hess' "tactical plan" for Ike encompassed things such as blood flow restriction therapy, speed and agility, acceleration/deceleration, change of direction and jump mechanics. Every day looked different, usually hinging on what Ike's body could tolerate.

Tolerating Hess' enthusiasm at the crack of dawn was another thing. With a bodybuilder's frame, the 56-year-old trainer stands a good 15 inches shorter than Ike and delivers his barking orders in a thick South African accent.

"This hurts beginning to end. It's not pleasant," Hess said of his workouts. "I'm like highly energized at 3:50 in the morning, you're listening to me screaming ... Never quits, he never quits."

The clientele list Hess has amassed includes NFL players from the Denver Broncos, MLS players from the Colorado Rapids and every Denver Nugget who walked through the team's doors for 21 years. In 2014, when the Nuggets used a second-round pick on an overweight, unathletic center from Serbia, Hess was the man tasked with getting him into game shape.

Hess is understandably reluctant to make too many overarching comparisons between Ike and Nikola Jokic, who's now a two-time NBA MVP and reigning NBA champion, but he's had a central role in the transformations both players have made.

"There's very few people on this planet that you only wish the absolute best for, you just want them to succeed," Hess said. "You see the dude and you just want them to succeed. Two or three of them, one is Jokic, the other one is (Ike). I hope every good thing that can happen to him happens to him. Why? Just because he's a magical individual."

For a handful of years, Fishers' high school program at Overland cycled through a list of Division I-bound big men. When Ike was a sophomore, Overland had one of the area's top seniors, Laolu Oke, who now plays at Montana.

Oke, as Fisher put it, "used to destroy Graham in practice" and "took no prisoners" with his younger teammate

Fisher characterizes Ike as the hardest worker that's come through Overland during his decade-plus at the school.

"Graham is probably the most competitive player I've ever coached," Fisher said. "He just never let up. He didn't know how to let up."

When Overland's varsity team got together for workouts in the spring or summer, it wasn't uncommon for Ike to handle his business with the bigs then hop in on guard drills, insisting he'd be the best player there, too.

"He would absolutely be trying to win," Fisher said, "and he would be seething mad if he didn't even win the guard drills."

It was still important for Ike to leave his mark as the best big man to come through Overland. During a short time period, the school produced Oke, as well as De'Ron Davis (Indiana) and Ryan Swann (Air Force).

"The rest is up to you guys, two through four, two through five, but I'm No. 1," Fisher remembers Ike telling the other Overland bigs, who'd return to visit during their college offseasons.

Fierce competitor is only one side of the player current GU forward Ben Gregg described as the "big, friendly giant" when asked to supply nicknames for each of his teammates during an episode of the "Benny G Show" podcast earlier in the season.

When Ike's ACL injury occurred, Overland was preparing for a popular high school tournament, the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas. Fisher advised that Ike stay home and rest. The altitude could lead to swelling, worsening his injury. But Ike was adamant about being there, eventually convincing his coach to make the trip.

"He served as an assistant coach and his and mine conversations started to change," Fisher said. "I think that kind of triggered another level of his IQ, seeing things from the bench. Now we're talking basketball, now we have this team that's undersized and we have to be really creative and he's just seeing things in a different light."

Most mornings for Ike start with a foam roller. Mobility and flexibility routines follow. Sometimes rubber resistance bands are involved. All of this before Ike even gets to Gonzaga's facility, where the real work begins.

When he gets home, Ike likes to strap on ankle weights and go through another circuit of exercises, gripping the air with his feet and stretching them in different ways to stay active. He's a big proponent of ice water as a recovery tactic and recently picked up a tip from his mother.

"It's a little trick I just learned about white vinegar and ice," Ike said. "It makes the ice colder. So that's been really helping me."

Since he's taken a more calculated approach to his diet, Ike has gained weight while shaving body fat. In high school, he weighed 230 pounds and brought that number up to 240 while at Wyoming, with 11-12% body fat. Ike's weight has shot up to 250 pounds at Gonzaga, but he's trimmed his body fat to 6%.

"It's insane to me, man," Fisher said. "When I give him a hug and put my hand on his back and (you) feel the chiseled nature of his upper body."

The physical work Ike's done to stay in peak shape sounds impressive until you hear about the hours he's spent working on the intellectual side of the game.

The story of Ike's long film session during the Northern Colorado visit isn't the only one of its kind. There was a running joke among Wyoming's assistant coaches, who'd occasionally tell Linder, "There's never been a player in the history of college basketball that's spent more time in a head coach's office than Graham Ike did in your office."

There was no telling what would be on the projector screen.

Linder and Ike studied tendencies of top NBA bigs, but they'd mix it up, too. Ike figured he could also glean something from watching European hoops — EuroLeague, EuroCup and so forth. Jokic and Joel Embiid became staples of Ike's rotation, but so did Brandon Davies, the former BYU star who's on his seventh stop in Europe.

"We're watching some obscure post player that's playing in the Adriatic League and we'll sit there and watch it for four or five hours," Linder said. "Then we'll come back. Basketball is what he loves."

The same stories are beginning to surface at Gonzaga.

"He'll watch something as a small group or as a team and then there's been a lot of days where I've heard the office door open out front and in comes Graham and he'll say, 'Can we watch those clips again?' " Michaelson said. " 'Can we review what we've already watched?' "

Every now and then, Ike also studies film of his college peers. Long before Mark Few's staff created a line of communication with the transfer forward, Ike was watching cut-ups of the vaunted Gonzaga post he'd wind up replacing.

"I was watching a lot of Drew last year," said Ike, who got to spend time with the departing player on his campus visit last spring. "... When I met him, just asked him some little things and how he would look at the game. It was like barbecue chicken to him."

The more reserved, soft-spoken Ike will never replicate Timme's loud, extroverted personality — nor is anyone asking him to — but Gonzaga's coaches believe he can fill a similar on-court role for a program that's been at its best when a dominant, all-conference-caliber big man is wheeling and dealing down low.

Ike's had experience with a high-usage role similar to the one the Zags are hoping he can embrace.

No college basketball player in the history of Synergy Sports has registered more total "post-up possessions" — any possession that results in a scoring chance (made/missed shot, foul, turnover) — than Ike did during Wyoming's 2021-22 season. He had 481 such possessions — more than the 439 post-up possessions Purdue's Zach Edey recorded last season to rank second on the all-time list that dates back to 2005-06.

Other notable names on the top 10 are Gonzaga's Timme (328 in 2022-23), Jock Landale of Saint Mary's (346 in 2017-18) and Duke's Jahlil Okafor (328 in 2014-15).

This season, Ike ranks fourth nationally in post-up possessions with 180 through 24 games. Edey, coming off national player of the year honors, is first at 294 possessions and still unlikely to break Ike's record from 2021-22.

Synergy's "post-up points per possession" tool is a better reflection of how impactful a player is in post-up scenarios. Ike ranked 74th with a PPP of .911 in 2021-22, but he's been much more efficient with the Zags, ranking 10th this season with a PPP of 1.083. That's not far off the PPP that Timme recorded during his past two All-American seasons — 1.102 in 2021-22 and 1.101 in 2022-23.

It also explains why Few's implored Ike, on at least three or four occasions this year in postgame news conferences, and likely a few dozen other times behind the scenes, to demand the ball more than he has. In short, a more assertive Ike leads to a better Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are 8-1 when he scores at least 20 points.

"On our team, everybody can eat," Ike said. "You never know whose night it's going to be. It's been a little bit of that, but also I've had to step up to the plate a little bit more in some games and demand it as well. But understanding Gonzaga produces great big men and that's what we do here. My job is to get a catch and get the right shot and if it's a double team, make the right play."

Ike's recent numbers show he's starting to settle in. He's scored at least 20 points in eight of GU's 13 games since Dec. 20 and would probably be one of two front-runners for WCC Player of the Year — take your pick of Saint Mary's Gaels for the other spot — if the regular season ended today. He ranks second in WCC field-goal percentage (60%) and continues to be Gonzaga's most reliable option at the free-throw line (77%).

Ike's success at Gonzaga is surely a relief for someone who worked tirelessly rehabbing his foot last offseason just to get back on the floor in a competitive setting. It's also why he can't afford to take his foot off the pedal, even if GU teammates occasionally rib him to cut down on the overtime hours.

"Shoot, we'll have a hard ... practice and I'll come back like 30 minutes later, walk down to the court and Graham's still out there shooting, working out," senior forward Anton Watson said. "I'm like, 'Bro, you've got to go home eventually.' But that's just the type of guy he is."

Overwhelmingly, without question, a 'live it' guy.