Standing at the front of the basketball media room at Williams Arena, camera lights shining on his forehead, Maverick Ahanmisi seems to belong.
A year ago, the now-senior was often on the bench, watching his role dwindle and minutes shrink.
But after showing promise in spurts last season and embracing a grueling summer under new coach Richard Pitino, Ahanmisi has gone from plucky faux-hawked spot shooter to a legitimate starting contender.
The 6-2 guard, who averaged only 10.5 minutes a year ago, has solidified himself as a central part of this season’s Minnesota team, voted by the players to be a tri-captain, along with junior Andre Hollins and senior Austin Hollins.
On Tuesday, those three players represented the team during a media session a month before the regular season begins.
“He’s going to have to play a lot,” Pitino said. “He’s certainly a good leader — he’s one of our better leaders, and he’s got a great disposition on the court.”
Where exactly Ahanmisi fits in schematically is yet to be determined. Pitino emphasized playing a lot of guards and using them in different ways in his new, up-tempo offensive system. Both Andre Hollins and Ahanmisi could play point or shooting guard at any time, and Austin Hollins could scoot over to small forward, if need be.
Right now, Pitino doesn’t seem to have any preferences as far as specific guard positions, noting that in his run-and-gun style there isn’t a huge distinction. But though the coach has shuffled things so far in preseason practices, a lineup that includes all three has been used frequently.
“Absolutely,” Pitino said when asked whether they all might start. “I would say there’s a very good chance of that.”
Former coach Tubby Smith experimented with that lineup in 2012-13 as the season wore on — though never as a starting group — including in the Gophers’ signature win of the year, an upset of No. 1-ranked Indiana at Williams Arena.
Andre Hollins noted that it worked pretty well then, and Ahanmisi said it’s a combination with which he’s very comfortable — the past two years the pair always has guarded each other in practice.
“I feel like we accent each other well,” Ahanmisi said. “That’s where it helps team chemistry, really. When we play against each other, that really helps us when we play with each other, because we know [the other’s] tendencies.”
In theory, having a plethora of natural floor generals would only enhance the effectiveness of a fast-paced system, but in the case of the Gophers, improvements will be needed to make ball handling a strength, not a weakness.
As a whole, Minnesota struggled with turnovers last season, finishing 250th nationally in turnovers per possession. Ahanmisi was one of the worst, turning the ball over 27.6 percent of the times he touched the ball.
In the past, Ahanmisi has been honest about struggling with his self-confidence as his status with the team fluctuated. With a new outlook and a coach intent on addressing the team-wide issue head on — ball handling was to be one of the focuses in Tuesday’s practice, Pitino said — perhaps the obvious weakness can be gradually fixed.
In the meantime, it seems Ahanmisi has done enough to warrant both the trust of the head coach — and his fellow players. As the Gophers head into a new year, Ahanmisi has become one of the faces of Gophers basketball, poised at the front of a room to talk about his team.
Soon, he could be leading them on the court as well.