LARAMIE — The last time Hunter Maldonado played in a basketball game for the University of Wyoming, he was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.
On Dec. 11, Maldonado was undercut by a University of Denver player, and landed hard and awkwardly on the Arena-Auditorium floor. The fall further injured his back, which he was having spasms with during the first few weeks of the season, and he also injured his left knee and ankle.
Nearly seven months later, the 6-foot-7 redshirt sophomore guard looks strong and healthy.
“Everything feels good,” Maldonado said after UW’s workout Wednesday. “I’m able to do everything, but we are monitoring everything every single day to make sure I am good, continue to feel good and be good all season.”
Maldonado played in only eight games last season, but averaged 13.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.1 steals per game. Maldonado said he was cleared to participate in all basketball-related activities about six weeks ago.
“When he is out on the floor, he looks like the old Hunter, but more mature,” fourth-year Cowboys coach Allen Edwards said.
While all is going well in Maldonado’s recovery, there have been both physical and mental hurdles to clear. The physical hurdles have included getting over the soreness and stiffness of getting back on the court and in the weight room, along with getting back into basketball shape and re-establishing his lateral quickness.
Maldonado said he may have cleared his last mental hurdle last week.
He worked out with the United States’ under-19 team at the Olympic Training Center in his hometown of Colorado Springs, Colorado. He played in two 40-minute games.
“In one of the games, I landed straight on my back, but it didn’t hurt at all,” he said. “I felt good down there. I felt great compared to last year. Nothing will probably ever compare to that pain.”
Edwards has bragged about Maldonado’s understanding of the game since he was a true freshman. That season, he played in 29 games, including 19 starts, and averaged 5.3 points, 2.2 rebounds and 21.2 minutes per game. Expectations were high for Maldonado heading into last season, where he was a team captain.
Heading into this season, there will be more expectations on Maldonado, especially with the departure of senior guard Justin James, who averaged a team-best 22.1 points per game and also led the Cowboys in rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots. James was the 40th overall pick by the Sacramento Kings in last week’s NBA Draft.
Edwards expects and needs Maldonado to take on a bigger role this coming season, but not necessarily to be the next James.
“What I try to get people to understand is he is not the same kind of player as (James), but he is more than capable of stepping into a role of that magnitude,” Edwards said. “(Maldonado) would do it differently.
“(James) was good in isolations, one on one and off ball screens. That’s not (Maldonado’s) game. He is a good slasher, moves well without the basketball, is probably our best post-up guy, and he is smart enough and capable enough to play the point.
“His jumper is getting better, and his 3-point shooting is getting more consistent. We need to utilize him on different spots on the floor, as opposed to (James).”
Edwards thinks Maldonado is capable of making the Mountain West’s all-defensive team, and possibly the best defensive player in the entire conference this season.
When asked if he is a different player now than he was prior to last season’s injuries, Maldonado said it is important for every player to add something new and continue to learn new things about their game.
“I think I’ve improved on everything, and there is still room to improve even more,” he said. “While I was out, I watched a lot of film and what the guys had to go through (an 8-24 record and the most losses in a season in school history).
“Now is the time to bring in new things and make them a habit over the summer. I want to help these guys be the best team we can be. They are listening to me, and it helps that I am out there on the court going through it all with them.”
Redshirt sophomore forward Austin Mueller suffered a season-ending right knee injury after just eight games last season. Mueller is participating in summer workouts, but mostly in individual drills. Edwards said he anticipates Mueller will be ready for the season. … True freshman guard Kwane Marble II played his senior season of high school in Denver on a broken left foot. He has been limited this summer.