Shedding finesse for power

By Antonya English, Times Staff Writer
Published February 9, 2008

GAINESVILLE - It's not an easy thing, the business of being 18 or 19 years old and trying desperately to figure out where you fit in. It's even harder when it's in front of thousands of people every time you step on the basketball court.

For 1 1/2 seasons, that's been Florida forward Dan Werner's life. But life is about change and finding what works best. And now midway through his second season, Werner is learning exactly what that is for him and the Gators.

The sophomore from New Jersey is now a starter for the Gators, averaging 8.7 points and 6.8 rebounds. His improvement has hinged on his understanding of something coach Billy Donovan has repeatedly told him: The most successful players are those who can figure out how to affect their team most, regardless of whether it comes naturally.

"That is the whole essence of college basketball right there," Donovan said. "It's all about reinventing yourself. There are a handful of guys coming out of high school that are so talented and so gifted that they can do exactly what they did in high school and it translates right into college. Dan Werner was this scorer, a shooter, all this other stuff. But he's reinvented himself into this hard-nosed, tough, gritty guy."

At Christian Brothers Academy in Middletown, Werner was known as a prolific scorer and finesse player, averaging 21 points per game. His initial reinvention began as a freshman last season trying to find his way on a squad filled with veterans on a championship run.

"I knew coming in I wasn't going to start or anything, but I just wanted to learn everything I could from those guys," Werner said.

Werner, 20, played in all 39 games last season, averaging 1.8 points. A midseason shooting slump hampered him he went 2-for-16 in the final 16 regular-season games.

Admittedly, it got into his head. And it affected his shooting in the early going this season. After a long talk with Donovan, he realized that to help this Gator team he was going to have to change again. At 6 feet 7, 235 pounds, he doesn't possess the size you'd normally see banging in the paint in the SEC. But Werner worked hard on passing, rebounding and becoming more aggressive in the paint.

"In high school, I was taller than everybody else so I probably got by with a lot of stuff," Werner said. "Now I've got to concentrate more on things like boxing the other guy out and holding him off for a couple more seconds before I go after the ball. I'm not the most athletic guy, so I'm not going to jump over anybody. I have to make up for it with intensity, good fundamentals and things like that."

His effort hasn't gone unnoticed by his teammates.

"He's playing aggressive, he's got confidence in his game now and that's great for us," junior Walter Hodge said. "He's playing with a lot of energy. He's the guy who'll go hard, go to the glass, and do a lot of stuff for the team. And that's good for the team."

In his effort to invent his new role, Werner is becoming an all-around player. He's had eight double-figure scoring games and eight with eight or more rebounds.

"Dan went from a guy last year that I thought was way too passive, wasn't very aggressive, wasn't very physical," Donovan said. "He wanted to play, in my opinion very pretty, running around with very little contact. And now he's understood playing against some of these guys that a lot of times ... there are things I can do with the God-given abilities I have that I can affect the team and I can affect the outcome of the game and I can be a really good contributor to our team."

Werner said his game is so different now even family and friends joke with him about his newfound power game. That's fine. He's very proud of the change.

"I want to do whatever I can to help this team," he said. "If that means taking shots, I can do that. If it means banging inside or being aggressive, grabbing rebounds. I'm just happy that I've found things that I can do. It's not about stats, it's all about winning."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.