If you caught last spring's NCAA tournament, you no doubt saw 7-foot Eric Montross of North Carolina take his buzzcut to interior defenses like a Brillo pad to dirty dishes. But if you concluded from the Tar Heels' championship that Double-Aught Eric and his prehistoric game represent the standard for college centers today, there's someone we'd like you to meet.
His name is Avondre Jones. He'll be a freshman at Southern Cal this season. And he harbors a very specific fantasy.
"I want to bring Shaq out on the wing, O.K.?" Jones says, referring to that icon of inside domination, Shaquille O'Neal of the NBA's Orlando Magic. "I'd pump to the right, give him that Tim Hardaway crossover dribble, then spin past him...like that!"
This reverie wouldn't be so remarkable were it not for one niggling detail: Jones stands 6'11". He can essentially look O'Neal in the eye. Yet he's hardly alone in possessing the potential to one day act out so impudent a scenario. This season's freshman class features a whole new species of big man, a highly skilled, low-post-resistant strain. Jones, Duke's Joey Beard and Greg Newton, Wisconsin's Rashard Griffith, North Carolina's Rasheed Wallace, Massachusetts's Marcus Camby and Arkansas's Darnell Robinson all go 6'9" or taller. They join an existing group of Balanchine behemoths—players like 6'9" Juwan Howard of Michigan, 6'11" Cherokee Parks of Duke, 7'3" Constantin Popa of Miami, 6'9" Clifford Rozier of Louisville, 6'10" Othella Harrington of Georgetown, 6'11" Sharone Wright of Clemson and 6'11" Derrick Alston of Duquesne—players who have a jumper and a handle and can run the floor. Together they threaten to reconfigure the game for the next millennium.
Not since the arrival on campus of the high school class of '88, which ultimately delivered Alonzo Mourning, Christian Laettner, Shawn Kemp, Oliver Miller and Jerrod Mustaf to the pros, has a group of first-year players held so much promise. "This class may have more depth and quality in its big kids than any previous recruiting class," says Van Coleman, who follows the recruiting scene for Future Stars magazine. "As many as 10 of them could end up in the NBA."
Jones's coach, George Raveling, calls the new kids "camp boomers." They have played year-round for so many seasons, doing all the station drills on the game's fundamentals at summer camp after summer camp, that they're now eager and able to unleash those skills over 94 feet. A cut from O'Neal's new rap album, Shaq Diesel, could be the anthem of this confident and versatile new breed. It's title: (I Know I Got) Skillz.
What's so noteworthy about these big men is how they can be deployed. Time was when most pivotmen were like Montross or Oklahoma State's 7-foot Bryant Reeves (page 44) or George Washington's 7'1" Yinka Dare, centers who were comfortable with their backs to the basket, playing the low post as the hub for an offense's wheel. Using that fixed point, teammates played Take a Number—1, 2, 3 or 4—for spots around their redoubtable 5.
Having such a big man meant almost a sure trip to the Final Four. Yet a full decade has now passed since Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, Houston's Akeem Olajuwon, Kentucky's Mel Turpin and Virginia's Olden Polynice did orthodox battle in Seattle at the 1984 Final Four. Since then frontcourt supremacy in the postseason has been ceded to smaller, quicker big men like Laettner of Duke, Danny Manning of Kansas, Larry Johnson of UNLV and Chris Webber of Michigan, all of whom became forwards in the NBA.
A basketball-savvy generation—call it Generation X 'n' O—has taken note. "In the recruiting process, you can lose a lot of kids if you tell them they're going to be down in the paint," says Jeff Jones, coach at Virginia, which has featured a faster, more diminutive frontcourt ever since Polynice left, in 1986. Adds Western Kentucky's Ralph Willard, "We sell our big kids on how they're not going to be sumo wrestlers inside. They're going to face the basket, put the ball on the floor, shoot the three and become complete players."
Bob Bender, the new coach at Washington, just shakes his head. "Calling a player 'real hard-nosed' used to be a compliment," he says. "Now it's almost become a negative. Like, Don't I have any talent?"
The new kids have talent, gobs of it, and that's the happy problem. Raveling practically unraveled while wooing Jones. Over the final two weeks before last May's signing date for recruits, he wrote the Jones family roughly 90 letters each day (page 96).
At Artesia High in Lake-wood, Calif., fans had a nickname for Jones: Earthquake 7.0, in reference (with a little rounding up) to his height. But if he had his druthers, Jones would rather register on the fun meter than on a seismograph. "I always wanted to be a point guard," says Jones, who writes songs and plays keyboards for a rap group called 3Wayz. "I don't want to take only turnarounds and jump hooks. Out on the wing other teams are going to have their biggest man on me, and I'm a whole lot quicker."
Operating from the wing has virtually become school policy at Duke, where back-to-the-basket big men went out with Mike Gminski in 1980. So limited a role would be far too confining for Beard, a 6'9" former soccer player from Grant Hill's alma mater, South Lakes High in Reston, Va. Like Beard, the 6'11" Newton was a good enough athlete to distinguish himself in another sport, but since he was Canadian, that game was ice hockey. Newton is more of a classic big man than Beard, in build and disposition, but he nonetheless chafed under the walk-it-up style favored by his high school team in Niagara Falls, Ont. Beard and Newton will take their places in Duke's long line of skilled big men: first Mark Alarie, then Danny Ferry, then Laettner and now even Parks, who arrived in Durham petrified to look at the basket but who has since developed a face-up jumper and first step to be proud of. "Why do we call them guards, forwards and centers?" says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose motion offense has never featured rigid distinctions. "They all run up and down the court. They're not, like, third basemen. They're just players."
There are players, and then there's the 6'11" Griffith, who stood 6'10" as an eighth-grader when the college recruiters first began coming around. By the time he had finished his four seasons at Chicago's Martin Luther King Jr. High, the team had won two state titles with undefeated seasons. His mother, Elaine Griffith, wrested control of her son's recruitment from powerful King coach Landon (Sonny) Cox, and when Rashard's low scores on the qualifying ACT test threatened to put him on the shelf for his freshman year, she paid for the college-board prep course that helped him make the grade.
At 265 pounds, with the ability to bench-press 280, Griffith would be wasted playing outside the arc for the run-and-shoot Badgers. "He really does have the disposition to dominate the paint," Wisconsin coach Stu Jackson says. "He gets his perimeter fulfillment from playing H-O-R-S-E and joking around in practice." But Griffith feels he needs that "perimeter fulfillment" nonetheless—and Jackson envisions him eventually burying threes in games.
Like Griffith, with whom he shared the MVP award at Magic Johnson's Round-ball Classic in April, Wallace has a mom who closely monitored her son's recruitment and led the cheers when he met his Prop 48 test-score requirement on his final try. Then Jackie Wallace and her son turned the college-application process on its ear. She asked 10 front-running schools to fill out a detailed questionnaire so Rasheed could better decide if they were the right school for him. She also tape-recorded every coach's visit to her Philadelphia home. But where Rashard won't be drifting outside for a few seasons yet, Rasheed could show up anywhere for North Carolina this season. It scarcely seems fair for someone who stands 6'10", but Wallace has a 31-inch vertical leap, runs a 4.5 40 and earned letters in cross-country and track at Simon Gratz High. Bob Kurland he ain't.
Needless to say, Tar Heel coach Dean Smith probably thought he had the prize recruit of the season. Then he ran into NBA television analyst Hubie Brown at the U.S. Olympic Festival in San Antonio in July. "Sorry, Dean," Brown needled Smith, "but you got the wrong guy." Like everyone else at the festival, Brown was dazzled by the 6'11", 215-pound Camby. At the Capital Classic a few months earlier the UMass signee had scored 19 points, grabbed 19 rebounds and blocked six shots, winning the MVP award even though he played on the losing team. (Perhaps he wouldn't have been on the losing team if he had played more than 22 minutes.) Then he blocked 21 shots in three games at the Olympic Festival as Wallace's backup, causing a number of players to ask, "Where'd you come from?"
The short answer is Hartford. The long one is a bit more complicated. Camby began his high school career at Conard High in suburban West Hartford as part of a voluntary busing program, and he played two seasons there. But several games into his junior year, he transferred to Hartford's Public High because he missed his cityside friends. At Public he had to sit out the rest of that season and all of the next because of state transfer rules. Credit the Minutemen, true to their moniker, for having mobilized early and recruited him as a ninth-grader. Camby grew about 10 inches between his freshman and senior years, and UMass's early interest made it easy for him to resist the importunings of four Big East schools that tried to muscle in on UMass late in the game. According to Xavier coach Pete Gillen, Camby is "the biggest sleeper since Rip Van Winkle." Big, yes, but Camby won't be a back-to-the-basket center. (Seeing a trend here yet?) "What he is," says UMass coach John Calipari, "is an athletic big forward. He'll play low. He'll play high. He's a good passer."
Down at Arkansas there's only one other creature on campus bigger than Robinson. Every day, the Razorbacks' 6'11", 255-pound newcomer makes a point of dropping by to visit the Truth, teammate Corey Beck's 8'6" python. "Don't want him on my bad side," says Robinson.
No recruiters trying to get on Robinson's good side were permitted to visit his home in Emeryville, Calif. Nor did Robinson, who scored more points than any other player in state scholastic history, officially visit any school other than Arkansas. He signed early with the Razorbacks last November. "I just looked at the way Coach [Nolan] Richardson coaches the game, and it spoke for itself," says Robinson. "It's instinct and reaction. He doesn't put any shackles on you."
At tiny Emery High, where he was one of only 106 students, Robinson averaged 30 points, 20 rebounds and 10 blocks over his last two seasons. But he was Gulliver in Lilliput. "In high school I'd get double-and triple-teamed," says Robinson, who sank 15 three-pointers as a senior. "I had to go outside if I wanted to be part of the game." Now he's taking on another challenge, the withering pace of Hawgball. "Here he knows he's got to run or he won't get to shoot," says Richardson.
If he plays in the NBA some day, Robinson says, "I'll be real honored—and real prepared." To be sure, we'll see most of these young men in the pros. But will we ever see them in the Final Four? Such young NBA All-Stars as Mourning, O'Neal, Brad Daugherty, David Robinson and Dikembe Mutombo never played in one, much less won an NCAA title. "Even a great center has to have the other pieces to the puzzle," says Gillen. "He's not like Atlas, who can carry the world on his shoulders." But the early elimination of so many impressive big men in recent NCAA tournaments still raises a question: Considering the rules of the college game today, are coaches making the best use of size when they get it?
No factor has had more impact on the evolution of the big man than the three-point shot. "It opened up the game and greatly influenced the way kids want to play it," says Kansas coach Roy Williams. In the early '80s, before the three-pointer was introduced, most successful centers were 6'10" and solid. The average Final Four center stood 6'10¼" in 1982, 6'10" in 1983, 6'11½" in 1984 and 6'11¼" in 1985. But since the three-pointer became part of the game, in 1986-87, the average height has been barely 6'9". This suggests that because defenses are now more spread out, the shot has both diminished the advantage of a single huge player and rewarded the more agile, smaller front-courtman who can operate in the unclogged lane. (Of course a team that has complementary outside shooting can still effectively use a big man in traditional fashion. Without an outside threat, though, O'Neal took such a beating from collapsing zones that he left LSU early for refuge in the NBA. But with Donald Williams showering threes for Carolina in last year's tournament, Montross won a national championship.)
For all their complaints about the unwillingness of today's big kids to go low and bang, coaches must accept some blame for not forcing them to. The vogue in motion offense over the past dozen years has created a generation of post players who would sooner work on their jump shot than on their power move, but it has also spawned coaches who couldn't teach classic center play if they wanted to. Hall of Famer Pete Newell, the professor of the post and a former coach at Cal, believes that's a particular shame, because the three-point shot should make big men who play close to the basket more effective than ever. "What prevented Ewing and Olajuwon from being real offensive forces in college was the massed defense that motion brings," says Newell. "They had no room to develop jump hooks and turnarounds. The three-point shot un-massed the defense by stretching offensive movement out. Coaches are slowly realizing the value of dumping the ball inside. We should be getting back to more post offense with good outside shooting."
About now you're asking, Isn't there something wrong with this picture? Just as the evolving importance of the outside shot cries out for throwbacks down low, here comes a boatload of camp boomers enamored with playing outside. Their drift away from the paint stems from the new generation's fixation on Magic and Michael and the pro game. But in the NBA you get only 24 seconds to shoot. In the colleges, where you have 11 extra seconds to build a basket, it behooves a team to go into the post at least once per possession, if only to get the defense to collapse so the ball can be kicked back out for a three.
Montross contemplates a universe of possibilities when he fields an entry pass: Do I whip the ball back out to Donald Williams beyond the arc? Or lay it off to Brian Reese slashing to the hoop? Or do I wheel and power to the basket myself? Of course a player in such a position must be a rare athlete and decision-maker, and most schools can't expect to land a Montross, or even a rough cut like Reeves. What's more, for every big lug who blossoms like Reeves, there's one who wilts. When Western Kentucky took out favored Seton Hall in the second round of last spring's NCAAs, the Hill-toppers were able to pull lumbering Luther Wright, the Pirates' 7'2", 270-pound center, away from the hoop, where they pick-and-rolled him silly. Wright didn't score a basket, was too slow to discharge his defensive responsibilities and was benched after 12 minutes in which he looked utterly clue-free. "Going in, everybody was asking, 'How are you going to stop Luther Wright?' " says Willard. "My thinking was, Who is Luther Wright going to guard on our team?"
But even if Seton Hall couldn't afford to use Wright in its most important game of last season, the Pirates could less afford not to recruit him out of high school three years earlier. Given the chance, the coach at Cabinet U is still going to sign 6'2" Janet Reno to the scholarship and ask 4'10" Robert Reich to walk on.
The question is whether coaches even know how to teach the dying art of the post. It pains Newell to think that the next Bill Walton is being wasted somewhere, shuffling aimlessly through the key, setting screens in a motion offense. "Sure, you want the big man to rebound and outlet the ball," he says. "But is he just a workhorse, supplementing the other men around him? I remember the first time I saw [7'6"] Shawn Bradley play. [BYU was] running motion, and he spent most of his time 15 feet from the basket!"
Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton is a rare and fortunate coach. Since the three-point rule came along, he has won with Reeves and with another All-America in the middle, 6'6" Byron Houston. Given the choice, he'll take Reeves. "With Reeves, you can pound the ball in or shoot the three-pointer. You're not locked in one way or another."
In other words, you're versatile. Maybe not versatile in the way that camp boomers fantasize, but versatile in a team sense, inside and out. Or, to put it in terms they would understand, in 2Defwayz. Solid and stationary though he may be, Montross is a monument to why the Tar Heels won one championship. And why they should win another.