College Sports

Tough, versatile Jon Axel Gudmundsson: Davidson’s Viking

Davidson’s Jon Axel Gudmundsson (3) is the Atlantic 10’s player of the year.
Davidson’s Jon Axel Gudmundsson (3) is the Atlantic 10’s player of the year. TIM COWIE -

On the inside of both of Jon Axel Gudmundsson’s wrists is a small tattoo. Etched on his left wrist are the letters: TCC. On the right is the word: Fjölskylda.

TCC stands for Trust, Care, Commitment — Davidson’s basketball motto and mantra, passed down through the years by coach Bob McKillop.

Fjölskylda is Icelandic for “family.”

The significance of the tattoos mean everything to Gudmundsson, Davidson’s versatile junior guard from Grindavik, Iceland.

“My family is one, and there is TCC,” Gudmundsson. “That means I have two families.”

In his third season playing for the Wildcats, Gudmundsson has already made a name for himself in the program’s rich history. Earlier this week, he was named the Atlantic 10’s player of the year, the third time in Davidson’s five years in the league a Wildcats player has won the award.

He’ll lead second-seed Davidson (23-8) into a quarterfinal game Friday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., against the winner Thursday of Duquesne and Saint Joseph’s

Gudmundsson joins sophomore Kellan Grady (also a first-team all-conference player this season) in what is probably the A-10’s best and deepest backcourt. The Wildcats actually start four guards, with sharp-shooting freshman Luke Frampton and 6-foot-6 matchup-nightmare KiShawn Pritchett also in McKillop’s first five.

Gudmundsson, though, has been the player who makes the Wildcats go.

“I always wanted to be this guy who does everything for his team,” he says, “to help us win any way he can.”

The Viking mentality

There are only a few players from Iceland playing Division I basketball. Along with Gudmundsson, they include Appalachian State’s Breki Gylfason, Nebraska’s Thorir Thorbjarnarsson, and Florida Tech’s Valur Valsson. Gudmundsson’s younger brother Ingvi briefly played for Saint Louis but left the program earlier this season.

Gudmundsson keeps up with his compatriots, all of whom are his friends and teammates on Iceland’s junior national teams. After Thorbjarnarsson recently blocked a shot to help Nebraska win a game, Gudmundsson tweeted: “A real Viking!”

Gudmundsson isn’t afraid to use that characterization on himself.

“It comes from my parents, but growing up I wanted to be the tough guy,” he said. “People call it the Icelandic Viking mentality. I guess I get it from the Vikings.”

That trait is what first attracted McKillop to Gudmundsson, whose parents Gudmundur Bragason and Stefania Jonsdottir both played basketball (his father professionally) through their mid-40s. But like most kids in Iceland, Jon Axel also started out playing soccer.

“I was a central defender, but I wanted to go up for corner kicks and head the ball in,” Gudmundsson said. “I wanted to play offense. That’s one reason why I liked basketball — you can play offense and defense, do whatever you can.”

So Gudmundsson switched to basketball. He played with his brothers and friends at their school playground at all hours during the warm summer months — literally. It doesn’t get dark in Iceland until around 2 a.m. that time of year.

He quickly progressed, playing on several of Iceland’s junior national teams, getting good enough that he wanted to give playing in high school in the United States a try.

That led him to Philadelphia’s Church Farm School, where he arrived with what he said was perhaps a naïve idea that he would play in a college-basketball atmosphere similar to what he’d seen on television back in Iceland. Disappointed, he returned home.

But McKillop, who has far-reaching international recruiting ties, got word of a lanky guard from Iceland with a sweet jump shot who also wasn’t afraid to mix it up under the basket with the big guys.

“I was told about a kid who came to States then left,” McKillop said in 2018. “He kind of went off the map.”

McKillop reconnected with Gudmundsson. After a recruiting visit to Davidson – which he found more to his liking than Philadelphia – Gudmundsson signed with the Wildcats. He has blossomed into more of a player than McKillop anticipated.

“I saw the toughness. I never saw the versatility,” McKillop said. “He’s far better than what we thought. I told him that. He knows that.”

‘About will power’

An adept ball handler, shooter and passer, Gudmundsson rotates with Grady and the other guards running Davidson’s intricate offensive sets. Gudmundsson goes to the basket and finishes with regularity, often after his 6-foot-4, 190-pound frame has taken a hit from a player several inches and pounds larger.

Then there’s his rebounding. Most of them are defensive (a league-leading 6.6 per game), so he’s able to start a fast break or kick the ball out to a teammate like Grady, who averages 17.1 points per game and is equally as dangerous in the open floor.

“It’s not something I ever really worked on,” Gudmundsson said of his rebounding prowess. “It’s just about will power that you find in yourself. I don’t care if a guy is 5 inches taller; I’m going to go get it.”

The versatility that was a key factor in him winning the A-10’s top individual honor is reflected in the numbers. Gudmundsson is the only A-10 player to rank in the top five in scoring (third, 17.2), rebounding (fifth, 7.3) and assists (fifth, 4.7). He is tied for third in assist-turnover ratio (2.0), sixth in free-throw percentage (82.4), 15th in steals (1.3), 12th in 3-point percentage (35.7) and sixth in minutes played (36.6). Gudmundsson also has eight double-doubles this season and a triple-double of 20 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists against Rhode Island on Feb. 22.

While Frampton and Pritchett must also be dealt with defensively, Gudmundsson and Grady drive the Wildcats offense.

“We have a pretty solid idea of where we’re going to be; we know our sweet spots and where to get the ball to each other,” said Grady, who was the league’s freshman of the year last season. “The beauty of having two high-teen scorers in the backcourt is that it’s hard to stop both at the same time. A lot of times there will be driving lanes open for Jon Axel, or driving lanes open for me. If the defense collapses when one of us drives, then somebody’s open for a 3, and that can be for (Frampton or Pritchett), too.”

The final test for Gudmundsson’s transition to playing at Davidson came with his ability to learn English. He’s now fluent in the language but it was something he struggled with during his first two years. McKillop recalled how Gudmundsson’s “guttural” Icelandic accent was often hard for teammates to understand on the court.

Gudmundsson, among the six international players on the Wildcats roster, speaks so well now that is he usually one of the Wildcats made available in post-game news conferences.

“It was a challenge, for sure,” he said. “But I wanted to improve my English so much; it was a challenge I took.”

Recently, his parents called from Iceland on Face Time. Jon Axel began the conversation in English.

“They’re saying, ‘Yo, you’re speaking English, cut that out!’ ” Gudmundsson said, laughing. “But it’s a habit now.”

Although Iceland is about 3,200 miles from Davidson, Gudmundsson’s family regularly visits now. They bring Jon Axel treats from home.

“Reindeer meat, it’s really good,” Gudmundsson said.

Spoken like a true Viking.

David Scott: @davidscott14