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Gill steps up for La Salle as Explorers' freshmen shine again

12/14/2020, 7:30am EST
By Jerome Taylor

Anwar Gill (above) has quickly acclimated to Division I basketball and had his best game on Saturday. (Photo courtesy La Salle Athletics/Greg Carroccio/Sideline Photos)

Jerome Taylor (@ThatGuy_Rome)

After his senior year at Gonzaga College High School (D.C.) ended in 2019, Anwar Gill decided to head south on I-95 to Montverde Academy (Fl.), with the mission of improving his game before heading off to college. 

It’s not as if Gill’s high school experience didn’t give him experience playing big time basketball, or the ability to show he could play at a high level. At Gonzaga, playing in the loaded Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) he earned second team all-WCAC honors in the powerhouse after averaging 11.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists as a senior, capping that season off by leading the Eagles to their third league title in five years.

At Montverde Academy, he joined a program that’s become known for churning out NBA players from its prep team. The No. 3 overall pick in 2014, Joel Embiid and No. 1 overall in 2016, Ben Simmons, both Sixers selections, are Montverde alums; R.J. Barrett, (No. 3 in 2019), Precious Achiuwa (No. 20/2020), and expected 2021 No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham also came out of Montverde, as did many other high-level hoopers.

Even before Gill had stepped foot on the Montverde campus, he had already earned offers from James Madison, High Point, George Mason, and others, for their 2019 classes. When he decided to do a prep year at Montverde, he had a checklist for what he was looking for in a program. 

"Basically a team-first environment, a family environment," Gill said. "And a coach that's going to let me play to my strengths, a coach that lets everybody else play to their strengths, basically a team that's hungry and a team that wants to win. The underdogs, basically."

And while he was playing in Florida, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound guard didn’t take long to find a program that fit all of those needs. When La Salle head coach Ashley Howard became the first school to offer Gill as a member of the 2020 class, Gill quickly formed a bond. A visit to Philadelphia followed, and by early October he was committed to play for the Explorers.

At La Salle, he joined a program coming off a 15-15 (6-12 A-10) season, the second under Howard. Howard, who’d become known as a top recruiter during five seasons under Jay Wright as a Villanova assistant (2013-18), also had coached as an assistant at Drexel, Xavier and La Salle before going to the Main Line. 

Gill liked how Howard had constructed the Explorers’ roster thus far. They were going to be a young team—six sophomores, four freshmen—with promise, one that already had three players from the DMV (grad student Scott Spencer, plus sophomores Ayinde Hikim and Sherif Kenney) on the roster. That young roster, combined with a deep rotation, also gave him the opportunity to contribute right away.

"Once [Ashley Howard] started recruiting me, I took a visit there, loved everything about the visit, I loved the team, all that. It was a no-brainer," Gill said. "When Coach Ash started to recruit me, I felt like he was the best coach for me and the best fit for me, and the best group of guys that fit around my game."  

Gill's freshman year certainly can't be how he envisioned his college career beginning: no screaming fans, no boisterous bands, and uncertainty surrounding every game. And that's before getting to the on-court play. 

The Explorers came into Saturday's contest against Drexel losing three of their first four games, and Gill only played in the most recent two due to what a team spokesman called a “minor injury.”

In Gill's first game, against Army, he only played seven minutes. The next game against D-II Lincoln was the first time he saw significant minutes (25) and he was able to show off some of the skill that appealed to Howard, dropping 10 points, dishing three dimes, and pulling down five boards. 

It wasn’t all good though, as Gill registered three turnovers in the 80-62 win. But Gill knows that's something he has to work on.

"When I first got up here I wasn't really making the right decisions," Gill said. "Coach put me in the film room and showed me the mistakes I was making and I got better and my teammates helped me with that, too." 

Against Drexel (3-2), Gill took another positive step in the early stages of his college career, and it resulted in his team finding the right side of the ledger for the first time against a Division I opponent.

In the first City 6 game of the 2020 season, the freshman dropped 15 points and was the pivotal piece in closing out a 58-48 La Salle victory over the Dragons.

From the first time he got into the game, Gill showed off his touch around the rim, going 6-of-12 overall and 3-of-4 from the foul line; he also grabbed eight rebounds and dished out one assist without a turnover in 24 minutes.

Showing off his trust in the freshman, Howard had Gill on the court at the end of the game, and it paid off. With La Salle (2-3) holding a four-point lead and two minutes remaining, two key free-throws from Gill pushed the lead to six; with one minute left, a mid-range jumper made it an eight-point lead and all but put the game out of reach.

"He came in here and he did today what we had confidence that he could do," Howard said. "We're happy that he's healthy and we're excited about what he's bringing to the table for us."

Throughout most of the first half, the Explorers looked like the far superior team locking down the Dragons, which was highlighted by a field goal drought that lasted 11 minutes. During that time, the Explorers found themselves up by as much as 18 points. 

But then deja vu reared its head. In La Salle's second game this season, they got out to a first-half double-digit lead over Army, only for it to be cut to eight before the break and squandered in the second half, losing 63-58. So, when the Dragons cut the deficit to nine before the intermission, the same challenge awaited the Explorers. 

The Dragons took advantage of some more careless basketball in the second half and clawed back from down 18 to within one point, getting three different possessions with a chance to tie or take the lead. Gill’s classmate, Coatesville grad Jhamir Brickus, made up for four first-half turnovers with two clutch 3-pointers that pushed the lead from one to seven with seven minutes remaining, helping keep the Dragons at arms’ length.

Gill’s performance on Saturday propelled him to third on the team in scoring (8.7 ppg) and highlights the uniqueness of the La Salle lineup. The Explorers currently don’t have a single player scoring over 10 points but have 10 players averaging more than 15 minutes a game. Howard’s utilized four different starting lineups already, and if Gill keeps up his strong play it’s hard not to see him getting a chance at some point.

Considering Gill played alongside the likes of Chris Lykes (Miami), Prentiss Hubb (Notre Dame), Myles Dread (Penn State) and others at the same Gonzaga program that also churned out Villanova hero Kris Jenkins, it’s surprising that he didn’t get plucked up before his postgraduate year. But it certainly seems like the Explorers have a good freshman class on the backs of Gill and Brickus (8.8 ppg/3.0 apg). 

I think that postgraduate year at Montverde really helped him,” said DMVElite News editor-in-chief Marcus Helton, who covered Gill in high school and on the summer circuits. “Versatility has always been a big strength of his, he’s always been able to do a lot of things fairly well. He didn’t really show (his scoring ability) until later in his high school career.”

For the Explorers, the next step is putting together a strong game from tip-off to final buzzer. The next opportunity they have to show the growth that coach Howard is looking for will be at the start of A-10 play when UMass comes to town on December 16 (barring a COVID-19 postponement).  

For Gill, he understands that this should just be the beginning for him and the Explorers, and he expects to see that improvement by season's end.

"Coach always emphasizes improvement, he wants us to improve every day and we're working towards that now as a team." Gill said, "We're nowhere near what we want to be as a team, so we're going to be a different team in March than we are now."

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