Franklin, a 6-foot-5 junior guard with a 40-inch vertical, is a frequent recipient of lob passes, and during a pickup game in July 2011, teammate LaBradford Franklin (no relation) threw one that required Jamaal to take a hazardous flight path. It ended with him dunking the ball through the rim, then catching his upper-left front tooth on the rim -- "and snapping it completely out of my mouth," he says, "so that it fell onto the court." Four months and three oral surgeries later, Franklin had a fake tooth in its place, and a (hopefully) permanent reminder of the risks of flying too close to the rim.
Although no film exists of that incident, the story of it spread enough that it became Franklin's most legendary college dunk. Until, that is, he did what he did against Fresno State last month. As the ballhandler at the center of a 3-on-3 fastbreak, one step outside the top of the key, Franklin decided that the most sensible option was a two-hand chest pass -- off the backboard, back to himself, who caught it in mid-air and finished off what is widely considered the slam of the year. Behold:
The Fresno State defender closest to Franklin, 7-footer Robert Upshaw, was bewildered. "He turned around to follow the ball, thinking I was throwing an 'oop to a teammate, and he lost track of me," Franklin said. It played out just as he expected. Although Aztecs coach Steve Fisher likes to say, Don't do something in a game that I've never seen in practice, and he had never seen this in practice, he said that the play seemed "so thoughtful, with the way [Franklin] had the floor spaced," that the coach was not upset.
It wasn't Franklin's debut attempt of the dunk, either. He had done the off-the-board maneuver once at Serrano High School in Phelan, Calif., another time in an AAU game, and multiple times in the summer Drew League in Los Angeles, playing alongside pros and other college stars. And it was hardly the first thing he'd done to get noticed in college hoops. The owner of its No. 1 dunk is also considered an elite defensive guard (particularly for his 7.4 defensive boards per game), ranks as the third-leading scorer in the Mountain West Conference (17.2 ppg), and, due to his struggles with self-censorship, leads the NCAA in technical fouls, with six.
Franklin is also the rare prospect with a shot at first-round selection in the NBA draft after once being a zero-star recruit on Rivals.com. Although he plays as if he's nursing a grudge, he says he never cared about his star rating. "If assistant coaches weren't seeing me because of my ranking, that just meant they were lazy," Franklin said. "Coaches who just go on the Internet to find recruits aren't doing their jobs."
Former Aztecs assistant Justin Hutson, who's now at UNLV, made the 2.5-hour trek to Serrano on multiple occasions. "I really thought," Hutson said, "that I'd found a diamond in the rough."
Hutson had scouted Franklin on various AAU teams that boasted bigger-name prospects -- including Jeremy Tyler (who went pro out of high school), Nick Johnson (Arizona) and Gary Franklin (Baylor) -- and realized that his scoring potential had been obscured. Jamaal had no semblance of a jump shot, but at Serrano he was finding unorthodox, and occasionally breathtaking, ways to average more than 30 points. At one of the games Hutson attended, rather than maneuvering around an undersized defender on a fastbreak, Franklin just jumped clear over the kid's head and dunked.
Franklin was a 7-foot high jumper in high school (he had track genes from his mother, Felicia Price, who ran at Cal State Bakersfield) as well as an all-state wide receiver, and his lack of specialization in hoops also limited his exposure. Some schools were also scared off by his academic standing; until late in his senior year, Franklin figured he'd have to go to the (junior) College of Southern Idaho for two years before landing on a D-I team. It was Hutson who convinced Franklin to take a smarter route, by straightening out his grades for a season at Phoenix's Westwind Prep, and set himself up for a full four years of eligibility at San Diego State.
His shooting form was still so flawed when he joined the Aztecs in 2010-11, and their roster was so deep, that Fisher told Franklin it would be in his best interest to redshirt. Franklin mulled this over and informed Fisher that it was not going to happen. "I felt like redshirting would have been me telling myself that I'm not good enough to work my way into the rotation," Franklin said. "I told him, 'By the end of the year I'll be in the rotation.'"
That was the season San Diego State went 34-3. Teams that successful rarely make late lineup alterations, but by the time the Mountain West tournament rolled around, Franklin had forced his way into the rotation as the eighth man out of eight. The work-ethic lessons he learned from that year's star, Kawhi Leonard, who's now with the San Antonio Spurs, helped Franklin grow into a competent-enough shooter to emerge as one of the Mountain West's best players the following season, and his defensive athleticism could help him eventually join his ex-teammate in the NBA. But before that, Franklin will have at least one more chance to alter his college legacy: Will he be best remembered as a highlight dunker with a rep for losing his cool, or as someone who can put a team on his back during an NCAA tournament?
His freshman season ended in the Sweet 16, with Franklin picking up a momentum-changing technical foul during a dead-ball situation against UConn, when he put a shoulder into Kemba Walker as they headed to their respective benches. Walker flopped -- a fine piece of acting -- and drew a T that ignited a Huskies comeback. In Franklin's sophomore season, which concluded with a first-round upset by 11th-seeded N.C. State, he was responsible for an infamous flipping-the-bird incident at New Mexico. It was debatable whether he directed it at a ref or a fan, but it resulted in another tech.
In the first two-and-a-half months of this season, Franklin picked up a nation-high six technicals, mostly for arguing with referees. Much of his offense comes on basket-attacks, and he said he wasn't getting the calls he was used to getting as a sophomore. "I've had to tell myself to stop expecting refs to give me the easy way out," he said. Franklin has gone the past eight games without a technical -- for him, a small victory.
He has also figured out that if he cannot stop himself from talking, it is at least better to do it out of their earshot. After drawing what he felt was an overdue, and-one foul during a fastbreak at UNLV on Feb. 16, Franklin veered away from the refs, the other players and the benches, back toward midcourt, and bellowed such a remarkable string of profanity that it caused Las Vegas Sun writer Taylor Bern to tweet from his courtside seat, "Everything Jamaal Franklin just said ... is unprintable. I mean, like, not one word."
Fisher has chosen to let Franklin be Franklin -- to a degree -- as the 19-7 Aztecs head toward their fourth straight NCAA tournament. "He can't play without emotion," the coach said, "but I tell him that he has to walk that line, of being emotionally charged toward the game, rather than anyone around him." If Franklin can do that, some of his other antics will be excused. He would, for example, like to pull off the one dunk that athletically trumps his backboard 'oop: a between-the-legs slam. He failed in his first attempt, on a breakaway against Wyoming during his freshman season, and it did not go over well with the coaches. But Franklin has an idea of how he might be able to get away with it.
"The best thing you can do if you try something like that," he said, "is to make it."