Hunter Maldonado is “recovering pretty much flawlessly.” His knee is “doing really well.”
Now comes the hard part.
Wyoming enters the season with a void left by the departure of Justin James, the Mountain West’s leading scorer at 23.3 points per game. Much of that responsibility is likely to fall on the Vista Ridge graduate.
He feels ready.
“I wasn’t able to lead by example last year, and not being able to play I learned to lead more vocally and taking that into this summer and into this season,” Maldonado said. “I think it will help out a lot just in the sense of getting to convey the message to guys better and more efficiently.”
Maldonado averaged 13.8 points and 6.8 rebounds in eight games last year before a sprained knee ligament, followed by back spasms, ended his season. He qualified for a medical redshirt and will return this year as a sophomore again.
Coach Allen Edwards knows what it’s like to lose a strong player, recalling the departure of teammate Ron Mercer while at Kentucky. He says the Cowboys will collectively make up for the loss of James. But Edwards seems excited for what he has in Maldonado.
“He’s always been a high basketball IQ kid, and that’s why he got on the floor early as a freshman,” Edwards said. “You saw the progression even before his injury that he was starting to take the next step. Obviously the injury was a setback, but to be honest with you it probably helped him even grow more as a student of the game because he was now allowed to watch practice and even listen to us as coaches articulate the message to our guys. I thought he’s grown in the department just in maturity. And now it’s almost like restarting his sophomore year. I think that’s an exciting part of having him. I think he’s matured as a leader and as a basketball player, too.”
Wyoming also returns guard Jake Hendricks (10.8 ppg) and Hunter Thompson (8.8 ppg) along with Maldonado, bringing back three of the top four scorers from a team that struggled at 8-24, 4-14 Mountain West.
James was the first player since Penny Hardaway for Memphis in 1993 to average over 22 points, four assists, eight rebounds and one steal. So the loss is huge. But with four starters returning, so too is optimism growth from a young roster (Hendricks and A.J. Banks are lone seniors) will leave the team more options.
Wyoming opens the conference season with a visit from Air Force on Dec. 4, then visits the Falcons on Feb. 22.
Maldonado enjoyed visiting the academy last year while injured, but is really excited about returning this year on the floor.
One of just a handful of NCAA Division I players to come out of the Springs area this decade — Josh Scott (Lewis-Palmer; Colorado), Wesley Gordon (Sierra; Colorado), Canyon Barry (Cheyenne Mountain; College of Charleston/Florida), Alan Herndon (Widefield; Wyoming) and D’Shawn Schwartz (Sand Creek; Colorado) are some other high-profile examples — Maldonado said his roots are never far from his mind.
“It’s where I’m from and I always want to represent the city the right way,” he said. “But at the same time, now I’m a Poke and I want to represent the Pokes the right way.”