Player of the Year: Gardner Has Bigger Goals in Mind

If you pick up a copy of today’s Daily Journal, you’ll find a whole lot of D.J. Gardner in it.

The Parade magazine insert lists its 55th annual All-American team, of which Gardner is a member. If you missed my report last week, the Okolona star and Mississippi State signee is one of 10 members on the first team; there are four teams and 40 players in all. Pretty heady stuff.

In our sports section, you’ll find a great deal more about Gardner, because he is the 2011 Daily Journal Player of the Year. He certainly earned it, averaging 32.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.3 steals per game this past season for Okolona. He also shot 40 percent from 3-point range and 81 percent from the free throw line.

As John Wilbert writes in today’s story, Gardner is still haunted by the Chieftains’ final game of the season, an overtime loss to Drew in the North semifinals, in which Gardner missed a game-winning shot.

“I stay at home watching that tape,” he said.

He’s obviously someone who wants to win and is singularly focused on improving, and in my talk with Gardner last week, I found him to also be someone who wants to do things both through and beyond the game of basketball. I asked him if there was pressure being a basketball star in a small town that adores basketball.

The only pressure he might feel is self-imposed, and it goes beyond simply being a good player. He wants to make it to the NBA and use the resources that come with that to give back to Okolona.

“There’s no pressure, but I’d like to give back to my community,” Gardner said. “That’s all I think about, going to make it big and coming back to the community. Because there’s a lot of people in the community that helped me.”

It’s no secret that the town of Okolona – located about 20 miles south of Tupelo in Chickasaw county – has been seeing hard times for a while. And just last year, the Okolona school district was taken over by the Mississippi Department of Education.

Gardner, however, sees plenty of good in this town of about 3,000 residents.

“Okolona ain’t that bad; it’s a good place to be around,” he said. “People make it seem what it ain’t, but it is a good place to be at.”

From what I’ve gathered, Gardner seems like a kid who can make something of himself and accomplish his long-range goals. He’s got good support from his mother, Angela Gardner.

“She stays on me, got to get them grades first. Grades first. Grades first.” As he said that, he tapped the table resolutely.

• You can catch more of Gardner at 3:30 p.m. today when CBS airs the 2011 National High School Slam Dunk & 3-Point Championship. He’s competing in the 3-point contest, which was held Friday in Houston and is being shown on tape delay.

I gave away how he did on Twitter the other day, but if you didn’t see that, I won’t spoil anything here. My boy Kedrick Storey, of the Southern Sentinel, was on hand for it and took some photos, including the one above.

“It’s been wonderful to me,” Gardner told Storey. “I’m talking about people out here from like California and West Virginia. And look at me, I’m from Okolona – a little small town in Mississippi. It’s all good. Everything’s good.”