No Gophers men's basketball player has started more consecutive games than Joshua-Ola Joseph's 34 and counting the last two seasons.
But his role for Ben Johnson's team has never been in the spotlight more than right now.
Known for his crowd-pleasing dunks, the springy 6-7 sophomore made his biggest impact after Johnson benched him in the Big Ten opener last week.
Ola-Joseph was forced to sit as the second half opened for not rebounding. The benching sparked him to not only crash the boards harder but also to fuel the comeback win vs. Nebraska.
"He was possessed," said Johnson about Ola-Joseph, who has led the team in scoring the last two games. "This is something for him to build on. Where now the standard is at a certain level for him."
His energy. His effort. His motor. That's what the Gophers (7-3) need more consistently from Ola-Joseph; not just scoring, but rebounding. He could carry a heavier load with the Gophers' frontcourt banged up entering Tuesday vs. IUPUI.
Leading scorer Dawson Garcia's ankle injury will keep him out for the second straight game. Garcia's replacement at center, Pharrel Payne, is recovering from a groin injury after he was limited earlier this season with foot issues. Reserve center Jack Wilson's battling a sore hip.
With more touches, Ola-Joseph led the Gophers with 32 points combined in the past two games, including a career-high tying 17 points in Saturday's 77-57 win vs. Florida Gulf Coast.
The Brooklyn Park native's averaging a career-best 10.2 points while leading the team with 13 dunks. But despite his 46-inch vertical leap, Ola-Joseph ranks sixth on the team with 2.9 rebounds per game. Johnson said Ola-Joseph should average five to seven boards a game.
"[They're] challenging me to make rebounding my identity," Ola-Joseph said Saturday. "I have athleticism and the tools to go out there and rebound against any team in the country. So, it's about me being locked in and wanting it more than other guys."
Ola-Joseph has a very similar size and athleticism to former Gophers standout Jordan Murphy, who at 6-6 became the program's all-time leader in rebounding and second in Big Ten history with 1,307 from 2015-19.
"I brought up Jordan Murphy a lot to him," said Johnson, who recruited Murphy as a Gophers assistant. "It's very comparable in terms of, you don't have to be 6-9, 250 to go get rebounds. You can be the long, athletic-type build. If you have the right mentality, you can go get them."
As a supremely athletic but undersized three-star power forward, Ola-Joseph came off the bench after transferring as a high school senior from Osseo to a loaded Compass Prep team in Arizona. But Johnson saw potential in the least heralded player in the U's 2022 class that included fellow Minnesotans Payne and Mr. Basketball Braeden Carrington.
While starting 24 games as a Gophers freshman last season, Ola-Joseph once had to battle Purdue's 7-4 All-American Zach Edey. He never backs down from a challenge in the paint. But he wants to show he can play on the perimeter, too.
"I just have to find that fine balance," Ola-Joseph said. "I'm obviously a guard [body-type], but I have to utilize what I'm gifted with, just going out there and rebounding hard. Not shying away from that."
This offseason, Ola-Joseph worked tirelessly on his shot to prove to the Gophers he could start on the wing. He's shooting career-highs in three-point percentage (60%) and free throw percentage (82.6%) this season.
And after being benched for grabbing zero rebounds in the first half vs. Nebraska, Ola-Joseph had five offensive boards and 13 of his team-high 15 points in the second half last Wednesday. He topped the four offensive rebounds total in the first eight games in one half.
It's exciting for the Gophers to see one of the best dunkers in the Big Ten add a jumper to his arsenal, but they expect rebounding to be a bigger part of his game as a starting forward.
"I want him to be able to expand his game and grow," Johnson said. "But at the same time, I know he's not losing sight of what he does really well and what can impact winning and what can really help us."