Tuesday July 15th, 2008

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- Point guard John Wall makes it no secret that he hopes to play one year in college and bolt for the NBA, but Wall might be the first potential one-and-done to make this pledge. "If I go one-and-done or two-and-done," Wall said this weekend, "I'm going back to school and finish regardless. I promised it to my mom."

At this weekend's Nike Peach Jam, Wall, a 6-foot-3, 188-pounder from Raleigh, N.C., proved why Rivals.com considers him the nation's top prospect in the class of 2009. Wall was the only player at the 24-team tournament to finish pool play in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding and assists. Playing against some of the nation's best, Wall averaged 21 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists.

A long list of schools -- including Memphis, Kansas, Oregon, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and N.C. State -- covet Wall's ability to slash from the top of the key to the rim and either finish or dish to an open teammate for an easy bucket. Wall can maintain sprinter's speed even as he dribbles, and he always seems to see his teammates through the pile of defenders collapsing on top of him. He also has spring-loaded calves; on one play Sunday, he swooped in from the middle of the lane to dunk an inbounds pass.

Wall said his one-and-done plan is an assist of its own. "My dad passed when I was 10," Wall said. "After he passed, I was the man of the house. I realized I wanted to go somewhere and get my family in a better situation."

Wall's father, also named John, died seven years ago of liver cancer. The younger Wall felt he needed to take care of his mother, Frances Pulley, and his two sisters. Pulley said she wants her son to go to the NBA for himself. She also said she has harped on the importance of a college degree since Wall was an eighth-grader, and the message stuck. Wall watched NBA stars Vince Carter and Shaquille O'Neal return to college and finish their degrees, and if he makes it to the NBA, he intends to follow their lead.

Of course, a host of college coaches won't even consider Wall because they refuse to recruit potential one-and-done players. Last week, Arizona's Lute Olson swore off the phenoms after signee Brandon Jennings opted to play a year in Europe instead of suiting up for the Wildcats. Wall said he wouldn't consider the European option unless he didn't qualify to enroll in an NCAA school.

Other coaches remain more than happy to recruit the Walls of the world. Kansas coach Bill Self -- who was asked a general question about one-and-dones and did not address any specific players -- said he will continue to recruit the best players, regardless of their intentions.

"I recruit them all, just about. I recruit them because you never know," said Self, who led Kansas to the 2008 national title. "One-and-dones sometimes stay three years. Kids who look like they're four-year guys stay two. You never know. So just go ahead and recruit as hard as you can, and if you're fortunate enough to get some really talented guys and they leave after one, it probably means you've won quite a few games."

Among the more cringeworthy aspects of elite travel-team basketball -- which include a general lack of defense and guards who refuse to feed the post lest their numbers fall -- is the horrendous free-throw shooting. This past weekend, scores of one-and-ones went unfulfilled, and teams erased mammoth deficits late because their opponents couldn't make free throws.

So it was refreshing to see Xavier Henry, a 6-6, 214-pound guard from Oklahoma City, make 30 of 34 (88.2 percent) attempts in five games of pool play. Henry, who is ranked the nation's No. 2 prospect for 2009 by Rivals.com, also led the tournament in scoring with 23.8 points a game. So what is Henry's secret at the stripe?

"I won't lie," Henry said with a wide smile. "I hardly ever practice my free throws. ... I just know to concentrate. It's all in your head. It's not like a like a jump shot where you're moving and you've got to shoot over someone. It's a free throw. Take your time."

Henry is considering Kansas, Memphis, UCLA and Texas. He said he wants to take official visits to all his finalists before he makes a decision.

Sylvia Wright looked at her son and smiled. "He really doesn't eat that much," said Wright, the mother of 6-9, 290-pound class of 2009 star Keith Gallon.

In truth, Wright said, the power forward everyone calls "Tiny" used to be much bigger. He weighed almost 12 pounds when he was born. As a ninth-grader, Gallon weighed 375. But even as he closed in on four bills, Gallon said, he still had the same soft hands and nimble feet. "I was the same, but I was just slow. I was dunking, but they were baby dunks."

Gallon's size, skill set and ironic nickname have produced obvious comparisons to Glen "Big Baby" Davis, who helped LSU to the 2006 Final Four and who was a role player this season for the NBA champion Boston Celtics. Mississippi State, a program that saw plenty of Davis during his three seasons in the SEC west, is the favorite to win Gallon's signature, but Gallon also is considering Oklahoma, Cal, USC, UCLA and UNLV.

Gallon, who is from Humble, Texas, but plays for Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., led the Peach Jam in rebounds (11.2 a game in pool play) and offensive rebounds (4.4 a game), but even more impressive was his ability to guard players on the wing. Gallon, playing this weekend for Houston Hoops, had no qualms about guarding a player near the three-point line, and his quick feet allowed him to stay with much smaller players.

Gallon knows conditioning will be a priority when he gets to college, though. "I want to get toned up," he said. "Basically lean." If he can, he can avoid sequences such as one from Monday's quarterfinal game. Gallon spun past a bewildered defender on the baseline for a reverse, one-handed dunk, but he did not get back on defense fast enough and Houston Hoops allowed an easy basket. That likely didn't dissuade any college coaches, who probably remember how Davis slimmed down during his time at LSU.

By the way, Gallon appreciates the comparisons to Davis, but he would like to clear up a few things. "I can jump more than him," Gallon said with a laugh. "And I'm quicker."

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