ATHENS — Georgia junior Yante Maten was talking with beat writers via teleconference on Friday afternoon, ostensibly to preview the next day’s game at South Carolina, when someone crashed the call.
“Hi, this is J.J. Frazier,” a voice said. “How does it feel to be named a finalist for a national award for centers?”
It wasn’t clear how Georgia’s senior point guard got on the call — he may have just grabbed the phone from a team spokesman — but everyone had a good laugh, including Maten, who gave the perfunctory answer about it being an honor.
“Next question from the media,” a team spokesman said, good-naturedly.
Maten was named one of 10 players on the final “watch list” for the Naismith Hall of Fame’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar award, which goes to the nation’s top center. Of course there’s only one problem: Maten doesn’t play much center anymore. He was originally on the watch list for the power forward award, named after Karl Malone, then was moved to the center award by the Naismith Hall of Fame’s selection committee, for reasons it did not explain.
“I consider myself a basketball player, let’s just put it like that,” Maten said, with a chuckle. “Wherever they want to try to put my game in, that’s really up to them. But I just play basketball how I play basketball.”
And in an otherwise disappointing season (so far) for Georgia, Maten is playing it well. He’s averaging 19.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, second in the SEC in both categories. He has scored in double digits in 21 of Georgia’s 22 games, with nine 20-point and three 30-point performances. He also has five double-doubles, second-most in the SEC.
At 6-foot-8, Maten began his career as purely a low-post player, but has gradually expanded it. He has become a reliable 3-point shooter.
Maten was asked Friday if he’d like to develop more into a small forward for the next level. He’s a junior right now.
“Right now I’m just mainly focused on college basketball. But yeah I’m trying to keep getting better, like every basketball player should,” Maten said. “Dribbling, shooting, being more efficient from the field. Getting more rebounds. My main focus right now is playing better defense. I’m just trying to get better overall in general.”
Georgia (13-9 overall, 4-5 in the SEC) plays at No. 19 South Carolina (18-4, 8-1) on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET. The Gamecocks won the first game, last month in Athens, 67-61, and since then the Bulldogs have dropped a number of close games that have made their path to an NCAA bid very steep.
“We definitely have a sense of urgency,” Maten said. “We have to learn from the past but we can’t dwell on it.”
The Abdul-Jabbar award will be whittled to five finalists in early March, and the winner announced on April 7.
The other 10 players on the final watch list are: Eric Mika, Brigham Young; Tacko Fall, Central Florida; Justin Patton, Creighton; Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga; Tim Kempton, Lehigh; Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s; Thomas Welsh, UCLA; Josh Hawkinson, Washington State; and Ethan Happ, Wisconsin.