Davonte Fitzgerald’s name often came up last fall when Gophers men’s basketball players and coaches were asked which newcomer impressed them the most.
When the Atlanta native stretched out his arms to block a shot, it was almost like trying to score over a 7-footer. Fitzgerald, who had to sit out the 2015-16 season after transferring from Texas A&M, was just as comfortable pulling up from deep as he was finishing an alley-oop dunk in transition.
Richard Pitino envisioned a year ago being able to play a bigger lineup with the 6-8, 220-pound junior forward. But Fitzgerald’s season quickly ended before it started because of a major left knee injury last October.
He has spent almost a year recovering and eyes a breakout season this fall. But big news this past week complicated matters, creating both sadness and opportunity.
Nearly a year after Fitzgerald went down, Gophers sophomore Eric Curry suffered the same season-ending injury Thursday in a pickup game. Now, the team will need Fitzgerald to be the type of impact player it envisioned a year ago.
“He was out for two years,” Pitino said Monday of Fitzgerald, who turned 23 Saturday. “When he was playing and when he was healthy, he was making a difference. He can block shots. He plays hard. He can rebound. He can play multiple positions. But you just don’t know.”
Fitzgerald, who was awarded two more years of eligibility by the NCAA this spring, was scheduled to see doctors this week to give him the green light for full contact when the Gophers open practice later this month.
“I should be cleared this week to pretty much do everything,” he said Monday, three days before Curry suffered his injury. “It’s been 10 months. The recovery process has been pretty good. It definitely motivates me. I’m most excited to play, because it’s been so long.”
Three years ago, Fitzgerald saw an impressive freshman season at Texas A&M cut short by a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Through 24 games, he was averaging 7.3 points, blocked 17 shots and shot 35 percent from three-point range. He said that recovery process was tougher than the past year.
“It was really hard last time, because I got hurt at the end of the season,” he said. “I didn’t really have as much time as this time to get ready for the following season. That was a blessing. We had a great year last season, so that makes it a lot easier to come into such a good situation.”
The Gophers were deeper in the frontcourt before Curry suffered a torn ACL, medial collateral ligament and meniscus Thursday. Pitino talked before that about Curry pulling defenses out of the paint with his outside shooting.
Fitzgerald played both wing and power forward during his two years with the Aggies. His range is a strength, but he will likely see more playing time inside this season with starter Jordan Murphy needing an experienced backup.
Senior center Reggie Lynch, who sat out the 2015-16 season with Fitzgerald, remembers tearing up last fall when hearing the news that his fellow transfer was lost for the season.
The roommates talked often about being impact transfers together. Now, they will get that chance, a year later than planned and with the added pressure of replacing Curry’s presence.
“When he hurt his knee last year it was heartbreaking because I wanted to play two years with him,” Lynch said. “I think he’s going to bring a lot of explosiveness, shooting ability and versatility on the court. I’m just excited to have another good piece with us.”