After Kelly Olynyk scored 31 points to his 12 in a 83-78 loss at Gonzaga in January, Saint Mary's 6-foot-10 center, Brad Waldow, had an epiphany: If it worked for Olynyk, maybe it will work for me. Did Waldow decide to redshirt his junior year to work on strength, footspeed, and hand-eye coordination? No. He stopped cutting his hair.
Unlike Olynyk, who still keeps his brownish tresses in check with a thin headband as a Boston Celtic, Waldow sports a shaggy two-inch Afro that is almost big enough to bounce when he runs. Teammates tease him about it, but you can't argue with results: Thanks largely to Waldow's team-leading 17.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and two blocks a game, the Gaels are off to a school-record tying 9-0 start, their best start ever under 13--year coach Randy Bennett.
If anyone tells you he predicted either Waldow's emergence or the Gaels' unblemished star, he's lying. The Gaels, who lost three starters from last year's 27-8 team, including point guard Matthew Dellavedova, now a backup point guard with the Cleveland Cavaliers, were expected to be a West Coast Conference also-ran. As for Waldow, who averaged 10.2 points, six rebounds, and .9 blocks as a redshirt sophomore starter last year? "It's such a big leap," says Bennett, sitting on a couch in his office after the Gaels beat American 59-44 Thursday night. "(Former Gael Omar) Samhan had a leap like it (in 2009-10) but you could kind of see that one coming. Didn't see this one coming, not like this."
Four years ago, when he made Waldow the first player at Ponderosa High in Shingle Springs, CA, (pop. 4400) to receive a DI scholarship, Bennett just wanted a big body. "He had good feet and good hands and he was 265 pounds," says Bennett. "It's hard for us to get that at Saint Mary's. We just needed a body. We didn't know he'd turn into this."
Glancing at the box score, Bennett notes Waldow's 17 points on 6-13 field goal shooting. "That's an off-night for him," he says. Waldow, a career 64 percent shooter, has always been effective at taking a drop-off or grabbing an offensive board and putting it back up, often with a soft jump hook, before anyone else gets off the ground. "He's always been a good finisher," says Bennett. "But he's become a good passer, and that has changed the whole deal."
Waldow's assists are up eight-fold over last year, from .3 to 2.4. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 4.4, 24th in the country.
Waldow isn't much better at explaining his improvement than his coach is. Part of it can be attributed to reps: a soccer goalie, hurdler and shot-putter as a grade-schooler, Waldow didn't start playing basketball seriously until eighth grade. He didn't start really liking hoops until after a five-inch growth spurt took him up to 6-7 as a sophomore. Another part, he says, stems from the confidence he gained from regular workouts this offseason with Samhan and another former Saint Mary's big man Diamon Simpson, and from the team's summer foreign tour in Australia. "Against their men, 25, 30-years old, Brad was the place we could go to get a basket," says Bennett.
Then there is the bigger hair, the mystical influences of which might require a separate column. But that's not Waldow's only new look this season. After he took an elbow in the mouth and lost a front tooth in the WCC tournament semis against San Diego last March (a well-circulated video of Waldow trying to hand his bloody incisor to an unwilling Bennett can be seen here), Waldow started wearing a UFC-approved mouthguard. His is black, with white fangs. "I thought it was cool," says Waldow, a long-time UFC fan. "UFC fighters have to have ridiculous cardio so it's really good for breathing, too."
The mouth guard gives Waldow a touch of menace that is otherwise nowhere to be found in his goofy, friendly presence. "He doesn't take himself too seriously," says Bennett. "He's refreshing."
Once an aspiring doctor, Waldow had to switch majors from biophysics to business administration because the three-hour labs conflicted with practice and travel. But he didn't leave science completely behind. In one Vine he recently posted on twitter, he transfers heat in a groundbreaking way -- by warming up cold pizza with a floor heater.
He further entertains teammates by serving as the team DJ. When music is called for, on the road or in the weight room, Waldow is counted on to bring his computer and speakers and start mixing. "He's awesome at it," says senior point guard Stephen Holt, Waldow's best friend and roommate. "I'd hire him at my party."
Waldow's good at blending on the court, too. Despite his big numbers and rising profile, he feels no need to star every night. Three other Gaels, including Holt (13.3 ppg) are scoring in double figures; and as with most Bennett squads, this group is terrific at moving the ball. "This is the first team we've had in a long time no all-league guy returning, so these guys know they have to do it together," says Bennett, who will have to serve a five-game suspension at the start of WCC play for recruiting violations. "And each guy has got to keep getting better for us to get where we're trying to get. We're not done yet. This team has a lot of room to get better."
Likewise, Waldow's Afro is nowhere near its ceiling. "He's told me he's going to grow it out, maybe get Jheri curls and a head band," says Holt. "If he's playing this well, I certainly don't want him to cut it."