Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – There's a distinct difference in styles when you cross the border.
Dustin Gatzki did just that after finishing high school in Westlock, AB and landing an opportunity to play basketball at a prep school in Philadelphia.
That kick-started a journey of learning an aggressive one-on-one U.S. style at Eastern Wyoming College and packing it with him in his suitcase as he returned closer to home last season to play for the MacEwan Griffins.
"I think it definitely changed how I see basketball," he said. "Growing up, I was a point guard and I was always a pass-first player. Going down there actually made me be more aggressive, I would say. It made me a stronger player, for sure."
Gatzki will lead the Griffins (0-4) into Canada West action this weekend when they welcome the Winnipeg Wesmen (2-2) on Friday (8 p.m.) and Saturday (7 p.m., both games David Atkinson Gym).
The 6-foot-4 wing is coming off a 15-point effort against Lethbridge last Saturday that led all MacEwan scorers.
"Dustin's been working through an ankle injury this season and he finally started to get back to his aggressive and explosive self," said Griffins head coach Eric Magdanz. "He's an aggressive athlete with a pretty unique and diverse skill-set. It's fun to be able to see him play to his potential."
Gatzki brings a unique style to the Canada West ranks, but it's taken him some time to adjust to the game played north of the border, different than the post-up defensive-oriented style in the 35-second shot clock world of the NCAA.
"I would definitely say the States is a different type of basketball," he said. "It's not as team based. Their single players go at each other. It's more one-on-one type of stuff. It's definitely more of a dog mentality."
Canada West ball, in contrast, is more about quick team ball movement to find an open man and defeat the 24-second shot clock. Gatzki is beginning to adjust to that without losing his own aggressive style honed in the U.S.
"We've seen him become far more comfortable in our offence and within his own skills in the FIBA game," said Magdanz. "It was a challenge for him transitioning from a year in junior college to a more up-tempo, perimeter game here in the FIBA style. There was a learning curve for him. We knew he would figure it out. It was just a matter of time. Just to see him blossom into the player he can be is encouraging for us."
In his first year with the Griffins last season, Gatzki broke the MacEwan record for most blocks in a Canada West game with five against Manitoba. His offence was a work in progress, though, as he finished seventh on the team with 5.8 points per game.
His latest effort, though, is an encouraging sign that the points are coming.
"He's starting to adjust to the style of play, he's starting to adjust to having a level of freedom within our offence and use his skills," said Magdanz. "As he gets more and more comfortable you'll see production from him."
While the Griffins are coming off a loss to Lethbridge, there were plenty of encouraging signs, including five players hitting double digits. As a result, they were only four points back with five minutes left before they gambled to rally late and the score ballooned to 96-79.
"I feel like we were neck and neck with them until the end but we had a couple of mental lapses and they just pulled away," said Gatzki. "It was definitely a big learning curve for our team as a whole.
"I feel if we can control (those mental lapses) we'll be able to compete with most teams."
They'll host a Winnipeg team that is coming in off a split with UNBC last weekend. If the Griffins can come out aggressive like they did last Saturday, they'll have a shot at netting their first win of the season.
"There's a lot of great takeaways from all of our first four games," said Magdanz. "It's been a continual process of growth even if the results weren't what we wanted.
"We knew going into this season that these first two weekends were going to be difficult for us and it was going to be a good measuring stick to see where we were starting this season from. We recognize these next four weekends that these matches are going to be crucial in our quest to make playoffs.
"Being able to build off that, we know if we keep with that level of intensity and effort, throughout this season, we'll start to get better results."