Georgia’s Yante Maten goes up between Dwight Coleby (22) and Lagarld Vick (2) for two of his 30 points against Kansas last month. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Photo: Jamie Squire
Photo: Jamie Squire

Maten scoring big points as a Bulldogs leader

So, he grows up in the very bosom of the Big Ten, where kids of his dimensions and deftness are expected to stay and apply themselves in a nearby gymnasium.

Instead, he crosses them up. You’re going where, Yante?

In the basketball circles of the metropolitan Detroit area — his little patch was in Pontiac, Mich. — “A lot of people didn’t think anything of Georgia,” Yante Maten recollected.

“A lot of people were looking at me sideways and funny because I wanted to go to Georgia and people wanted me to either go to (Michigan) State or Indiana.”

And you’re going to study what, Yante?

“The (fisheries and wildlife) major contributed to my decision a lot. Other schools offer similar things, but once you graduate from Georgia, you can be a certified wildlife biologist.” So said the young fellow who grew up in a part of the world where the indigenous wildlife is more likely steel and chrome — like the Mustang and Impala, the Bronco and Stingray.

A little different sort is Yante Khaaliq Diayann Maten. (The first name is a sort of word scramble of common letters from his parents’ first names, Toiya and Bryant, with an “e” added to the end. The two middle names have a spiritual meaning that Yante admits he doesn’t get exactly.)

With his academic life, the 6-foot-8 Maten doesn’t aspire to be the world’s tallest park ranger, a wildfire spotter requiring no tower. He tilts more toward the study of exotic animals, and sees himself wrestling with them one day in some distant veldt. That’s what happens when you grow up watching as many nature shows as Pistons games.

There has been much science and math to wade through before getting to any of the neat, hands-on wildlife stuff, not the easiest path to take when also engaged in advanced basketball studies.

“Sometimes in life the easy route isn’t the best route,” he said, speaking in a unique voice for a 20-year-old. “If you really have a passion for something, go do it. Who’s stopping you?”

Challenging himself is an approach that might prove especially helpful for Maten’s extracurriculars. He’ll tell you he pushed more than ever this offseason, conditioning himself to stay longer on the court and to be more effective with his increased minutes. All to better to “carry the load” — an image he employs often.

And with that athletic segment of his life, hasn’t Maten demonstrated to the dubious up north that there is some basketball respect to be gained in the faraway land of Athens? (Even if Tuesday’s Georgia-Georgia Tech game generates a fraction of the wattage of last month’s football meeting.)

Maten woke up Wednesday leading the SEC in scoring (20.6 points per game), and second in rebounding (9.0). His five blocks against Louisiana-Lafayette boosted him into the top five of that category, too.

In Georgia’s highest profile game to date this season — a 65-54 loss to current No. 3 Kansas — Maten scored 55 percent of the Bulldogs points (30), the most points by a Georgia player against a top-10 team in 14 years. That’s a certain way to shed the “under-appreciated” Post-it note that had been stuck to Maten’s back his first two seasons.

“I think everybody done realized how good he is,” Georgia point guard J.J. Frazier said.

Illuminated by those numbers is the rich diversity of Maten’s skills. “A very good and very complete player,” his coach, Mark Fox, calls him. Maten, the presence inside even if slightly undersized, also has made 47 percent of his 15 three-point attempts.

Disguised by those same figures is the initial disregard Maten held for being an offensive centerpiece when he rolled into town.

He was one of Fox’s more celebrated recruiting triumphs, showing an uncommon reach for a basketball program that has exactly one NCAA tournament victory this century. Fox and assistant Jonas Hayes worked that distant precinct hard, becoming one of the family. “I remember carrying groceries in during a snowstorm,” Fox smiled. And for the first time in his coaching life Fox was able to play the we’ve-got-a-great-fisheries-and-wildlife-program card.

On his end, Maten and his mother looked beyond the usual secular sources for answers, regularly praying on the question of where to go. Indiana was a strong option, Michigan State a lukewarm suitor until right at the finish. They kept coming up with visions of Georgia.

“I felt it on my heart,” Maten said.

“I was thinking about what God wanted for me, and that’s why I love Georgia so much.”

And Maten swears that moments after committing himself to the Bulldogs he heard this tune playing in the background on the TV at home — Sweet Georgia Brown.

The three-star recruiting rating that followed Maten to Georgia did not seem to take into account his instinctual scoring touch. The challenge was getting him to deploy it.

In one ear was Fox, prodding the sometimes too deferential big man to become more assertive with the ball. That included sitting Maten during a game last season to emphasize the point.

“He’s probably one of the most unselfish players that we’ve ever had,” Fox said. “To be aggressive and nasty and mean and to think about scoring is not the most natural thing to him because he’s a very unselfish teammate. He wants everyone else to do well. That’s probably been a big step for him.”

And in the other ear was diminutive guard Frazier. He is the motor of these Bulldogs, and what he required of Maten was to be the sturdy chassis.

“My goal was to make him as mean as possible. It was me trying to get under his skin,” Frazier said.

“He’s a great guy, a genuine human being. I knew what kind of player he could be for us, what kind of player he could show the world that he was. But I always thought he was too nice. He didn’t play with a chip on his shoulder.”

As Maten remembered it: “He never stopped talking. I was like, ‘J.J., shut up.’ When we first were friends we started kind of a love-hate relationship. I loved J.J. because he was my teammate, but he’d always have something to say. He tried to make me tougher on the court — which I do appreciate.”

Of all the slanders in the world, that of being too nice is hardly the worst that can leveled at a person.

But it won’t be good manners that will take the 6-3 Bulldogs (entering Saturday) where they need to be. What they require, following such meaningful preliminaries as Tuesday’s game at Tech, is a strong run in the SEC. And with some dynamism outside and in from Frazier and Maten, they need to get back to the NCAAs.

“No, I don’t think I’m too nice. I’m right where I need to be,” Maten said. With a smile.

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