Great players in any sport usually combine natural talent with a strong work ethic, an unflappability in big moments and an ability to make those around them better.
Gage Malensek possesses all of those traits — and he's only a sophomore.
After flashing his talent as a freshman, Malensek broke out this season for Brookfield Central's boys basketball team, earning Now Newspapers All-Suburban honors after leading the Lancers to a Greater Metro Conference title and a trip to the WIAA Division 1 state semifinals.
But despite all of his positive qualities, it was hard to see Malensek's giant leap coming. He upped his scoring average from 9.2 points per game as a freshman to 20.3 as a sophomore and was named first-team Division 1 All-State and Greater Metro Conference Player of the Year.
"We obviously saw he was a special player as a freshman," Brookfield Central coach Dan Wandrey said. "As a coach, you always expect your players to get better and hope they follow your plans and their plans and make those improvements. But to say I expected him to double his scoring average and become the conference player of the year, I don't think anybody expected that.
"What I've come to know about Gage is that the guy is an absolute gym rat, a hard worker and is as competitive as they come."
Filled the stat sheet
Malensek sufficiently filled the scoring void left by the graduation of 2015-16 Greater Metro Player of the Year Andrew Bruggink, who averaged 20.1 points per game.
In addition to leading the Greater Metro in scoring, he averaged 3.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.4 steals with a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Malensek shot 54 percent (183 for 335) from the field, 41 percent (31 for 75) from 3-point land and 81 percent (150 for 184) from the free-throw line.
"I didn't know what to expect," Malensek said. "I do set goals before a season. I wanted to be first-team All-State, make it to state, make All-Suburban. But that stuff really doesn't matter to me. It is cool at the end of the year but I know if I just focus on winning and being a good teammate that kind of stuff will take care of itself at the end.
"I just really wanted to step up late in games. We had Andrew Bruggink last year, but he was gone and we needed someone to create and step up late for the team."
Malensek scored at least 20 points in 15 of Central's 27 games, including a career-high 33 points against Germantown. He got to the basket at will against most defenders and was a clutch free throw shooter down the stretch in games, as the Lancers played through him in crunch time, including in two sectional wins.
He was unfazed by big moments, a rarity for a sophomore.
"He knows he wanted the ball and his teammates knew he wanted the ball," Wandrey said. "When he got it, you could count four, five, six games, including some of the playoff games, where his shooting percentage from the line the last three or four minutes of the game was astronomical."
The only sophomore named Division 1 first-team All-State and one of just three sophomores voted first-team All-State in any of the five divisions, Malensek has established himself as one of the premier players in the state.
He will combine with fellow sophomore and high honorable mention All-Suburban selection Cole Nau to form one of the more formidable backcourts in the state over the next two seasons.
Looking to get even better
But there's still plenty of room to grow, especially on the defensive end.
"I don't want to be looked at as just an offensive player," Malensek said. "I want to get it done on both ends. I also want to lead the team by doing the right things on and off the court to make coach Wandrey's job easier."
Wandrey would also like to see Malensek become more of a willing outside shooter.
"He's had so much success getting to the basket that he doesn't shoot it as much as he could or should," Wandrey said. "He'll need to get better on the defensive end, but part of that could come from us. We ask him and other guys to play a lot of minutes. Cole and Sam were our primary defenders. It is hard the way we expect them to play defense with him handling the ball as much as he does and playing all those minutes.
"The other thing is to become a little bit more of a vocal leader to feel that this is his team. I'd like to keep seeing him evolve in those areas. He's accomplished incredible things in two years and I'd like to see that continue."
In addition to Malensek making first team All-Suburban and Nau (10.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists) being high honorable mention, senior guard Sam Rohde (10.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 46 percent on 3-pointers) and junior guard Andres Peralta-Werns (15.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, 38 percent on 3-pointers) received honorable mention All-Suburban.
Wandrey, who was the Greater Metro Coach of the Year, earned high honorable mention All-Suburban as a coach.
"It is an honor and a privilege to play for a coach that takes it so seriously and devotes so much of his time," Malensek said of Wandrey. "He really goes out of his way and has a passion for the game just like we do. He's just such a great coach and did so many great things for our team."