Search

SUDDEN IMPACT EARLY DEFECTIONS TO THE NBA HAVE HURT THE GAME, BUT THEY'VE CREATED CHANCES FOR FRESHMEN TO SHINE AS NEVER BEFORE

Dec. 15, 1997
Dec. 15, 1997

Table of Contents
Dec. 15, 1997

SUDDEN IMPACT EARLY DEFECTIONS TO THE NBA HAVE HURT THE GAME, BUT THEY'VE CREATED CHANCES FOR FRESHMEN TO SHINE AS NEVER BEFORE

In retrospect it was a reckless thing to say, a
loose-lips-sink-ships kind of comment. But there it was, on the
Internet, where anybody, including a particular freshman at
Connecticut, could access it. In a recent Charleston Gazette
article previewing the Dec. 3 Big East game between UConn and
West Virginia, the Mountaineers' 6'5" freshman guard, Jarett
Kearse, referred to the Huskies' 5'10", 200-pound freshman point
guard, Khalid El-Amin, as a "little chubby kid" who "lacks foot
speed" and was "too short" to guard him. Adding to the
disrespect, West Virginia coach Gale Catlett suggested that
El-Amin would have trouble against his team's press and that
El-Amin would have a long night on the blocks trying to defend
against the Mountaineers' big guards.

This is an article from the Dec. 15, 1997 issue Original Layout

At the time El-Amin was leading Connecticut in pep talks given
and ovations received and was second on the team in points
scored. He may have been a freshman, but he was no little kid.
And he hated being called chubby. So, as El-Amin personally
flushed West Virginia's five-game winning streak down the toilet
with a 29-point performance--his second in a row--Kearse, who
scored one point in the Mountaineers' 88-75 defeat, learned a
lesson that's being taught all over the country: This isn't a
good time to underestimate freshmen.

"Before the Fab Five came along at Michigan [in 1991], every
freshman in the country came to school thinking he should
start," says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who is starting two
freshmen. "After the Fab Five, the freshmen started coming to
school thinking they should start and be immediate superstars.
The trend of kids leaving early for the pros has not only
created more opportunities for guys to play, it has also created
the mentality that freshmen should start, leave for the pros in
two years and get a shoe deal."

Bob Gibbons, who publishes the newsletter All Star Sports Report
and has followed the recruiting scene for 27 years, says it's
too early to tell how good this pack of freshmen will become.
"The greatest freshman class I can remember was the group in
1979, with Ralph Sampson, Sam Bowie, Isiah Thomas, James Worthy
and Clark Kellogg," Gibbons says. "Not all of them came in and
made an immediate impact though. Some did, some didn't. But this
group is going to have more opportunities to play as freshmen."

"We don't have a choice but to play them," says Oklahoma coach
Kelvin Sampson. "We're lucky to keep them now. There are at
least three great high school prospects right now who are
seriously considering the NBA. We live in an
instant-gratification society, and these kids want it now, and
they want it to be spectacular."

Spectacular is just what a handful of freshmen have already
proved to be. Besides UConn, Duke, which has the year's best
recruiting class (SI, Dec. 8), Georgia, St. Louis, Tennessee and
UCLA are relying on high-impact first-year players and are off
to fast starts as a result. "There are a lot of great players in
this class," says one of the best, Bruins point guard Baron
Davis. "They're popping up all over the place."

Indeed, in their thirst for immediate playing time, top-quality
freshmen are spreading out to more schools than in the past.
"Players are much more savvy about finding places where they'll
fit in," says Georgia coach Ron Jirsa.

One reason El-Amin signed with UConn instead of Minnesota, the
school to which he gave a verbal commitment as a high school
sophomore, was that the Huskies seemed comfortable last spring
when he started barking orders at them in a pickup game--during
his recruiting visit. But El-Amin, a two-time Minnesota Player
of the Year and a McDonald's All-America, has turned out to be
much more than the charismatic, vocal leader Connecticut lacked
last year. "I'm not saying he's the best freshman ever to play
here," says coach Jim Calhoun, "but Khalid has made, from a
numbers standpoint, the biggest impact. He had 58 points in two
games, which is phenomenal for a freshman. I don't think there's
any freshman doing any more than he's doing right now for his
team."

Unless that freshman is 6'5" guard Larry Hughes, whose decision
to stay in his hometown has transformed the program at St.
Louis. Hughes, who is considered by many to be the cream of this
rich crop, declined offers from Illinois, Kansas, Michigan and
Syracuse to stay close to his mom, Vanessa, and his 11-year-old
brother, Justin, who had struggled all his life with a deformed
heart until he received a heart transplant last Jan. 2. "Justin
may be the only reason I'm here," says Hughes, the first
McDonald's All-America to play for the Billikens, "but now that
I am here, I want to have fun and see where we can take this
team."

At week's end Hughes's wicked crossover dribble and strong,
well-rounded game--he was averaging 23 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.3
assists and 2.5 steals--had carried St. Louis to a 6-0 record,
including wins last week over Vanderbilt and Illinois. But those
aren't the only fancy figures for which Hughes can claim
significant responsibility. Besides the 32,429 fans who showed
up at the Trans World Dome to see the Billikens and the Illini
last Saturday--the largest crowd ever to watch a basketball game
in Missouri--there's St. Louis's dramatically enhanced shooting
percentage. With Hughes and fellow freshman Matt Baniak in the
starting lineup, the Billikens were scoring 75.7 points a game
and shooting 47% from the field, compared with 57.8 points and
36.6% a year ago. "It's night and day," says junior forward Ryan
Luechtefeld. "A lot of the credit has to go to Larry. He makes
everybody else better because he draws attention, he passes
really well, and he has tremendous confidence and poise. He's
come in here as a freshman, and he's not scared of anybody."

Not that Hughes radiates much bravado on or off the court. He
likes his clothes big and his music loud, but he's otherwise a
low-key guy and an unselfish, unassuming player. "He's brought a
lot of life and happiness to this program," says coach Charlie
Spoonhour. "The best thing is that the game is now a lot more
fun for all of us."

"Larry makes you get up off your seat when he plays," says
Billikens assistant Derek Thomas, who coached Hughes for two
years at Christian Brothers College High. "After all these
years, I still get up off my seat when he plays."

People are also leaping to their feet in Athens, Ga., where
Jumaine Jones, a 6'8" power forward from Camilla, Ga., has
broken into a talented veteran lineup and, at week's end, led
the Bulldogs in points and rebounds, with 16.0 and 8.0 a game,
respectively. Jones is drawing comparisons with Dominique
Wilkins, the last freshman to lead the Bulldogs in scoring, in
1979-80. Like Wilkins, Jones is a bit of a showman: He likes to
electrify crowds with an assortment of thunderous dunks,
resounding rejections and three-point bombs. "The students love
him," says Jirsa. "They want to see SportsCenter in their own
building."

Jones, the youngest of 14 siblings, is the first in his family
to go to college, but few observers believe he'll stick around
Athens long enough to earn a degree. He is too good a pro
prospect. "Jones will definitely be in the NBA," says Stanford
sophomore forward Mark Madsen, who had to guard Jones as the
freshman scored 15 points and had 11 rebounds in Georgia's 76-74
loss to the Cardinal last Saturday. "The only question is when."

These days, that question hovers over all impact freshmen,
including UCLA's Davis, the most coveted of this year's point
guard recruits. Like most of his classmates, Davis becomes
uncharacteristically hesitant when discussing his basketball
future. He has seen riches and glory accrue to those who jumped
at the right time, but he knows disappointment can be the lot of
those who leave school too early. "I have no timetable," says
Davis. "At the moment my goal is to graduate. I would like to
stay four years. But it depends on if I feel mature enough and
feel physically and mentally ready to play against the best
competition in the world."

At this point the one clear thing about Davis is his enormous
promise. After leading the Bruins in scoring with an 18.3-point
average through their first three games, Davis struggled
offensively in a 69-58 win against No. 8-ranked New Mexico last
Saturday, getting only four points and four assists. So he
showcased his cling-wrap defense, helping to hold Lobos guard
David Gibson to two points. "Baron has a real passion for the
game that you can see on both ends of the court," says UCLA
coach Steve Lavin. "His insatiable desire to learn is what
really separates him from other players his age."

"It used to be unheard of for a freshman point guard to lead a
team to a national championship," says Gibbons. "But then Mike
Bibby did it at Arizona last year, and I think that has caused
people to say, Well, we better use these kids."

Tony Harris, at Tennessee, is another beneficiary of that
thinking. At week's end he led the Volunteers in scoring (15.4
points a game) and steals (2.1), and the Vols were off to their
first 7-0 start in 15 years. Harris is happy to be making a
contribution, but he doesn't care for the franchise-player label
that fans want to hang on him. "I'm not here to be a savior,"
says Harris, who rejected hometown Memphis to sign with former
Tennessee coach Kevin O'Neill in November '96 and had to be
re-recruited by Jerry Green when O'Neill left for Northwestern
in March. "But I am comfortable with pressure. My number 1
strength is my confidence level. If you don't believe, you're
not going to accomplish anything."

What's peculiar about these players who are boldly going where
few freshmen have gone before is that they stayed so close to
home to do it. El-Amin is one exception. Another is Duke's Elton
Brand, a powerful 6'8", 260-pound forward-center from Peekskill,
N.Y. Also unlike his fellow freshmen, who have an air of
entitlement about them, Brand seems surprised to find himself
leading the top-ranked Blue Devils in scoring. That is
understandable when you consider that Duke has a stable of star
veterans to go along with its top recruiting class. But Brand
can play in the pivot, where the Blue Devils most need help, and
he has provided it by averaging 15.1 points a game through
Sunday. He was Duke's second-leading rebounder as well (5.9). "I
thought I'd come here, work hard and come off the bench," says
Brand. "I never expected it would all turn into this."

There won't be much more sitting on the bench for Duke's hottest
newcomer. Like fans around the country Brand now knows the truth
about this freshman class: It's going to get you out of your
seat and on your toes.

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Inhuman highlights like this block against Stanford have stirred comparisons of Jones with Wilkins. [Jumaine Jones and opposing player in game]COLOR PHOTO: PHIL HUBER Hughes, a hometown favorite, has caused a sharp rise in the Billikens' play and their attendance. [Larry Hughes and others in game]PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Harris doesn't want to be called a savior, but he has the Vols off to their hottest start in 15 years. [Tony Harris and opposing player in game]

THE BEST OF THE REST

Here are 10 other first-year phenoms to keep an eye on as the
1997-98 season progresses:

Ron Artest, St. John's
The Red Storm's third-leading scorer (13.0 ppg), the 6'7"
forward needs to improve his outside touch (41.8%)*

Luke Axtell, Texas
Listed at forward but really the game's tallest shooting guard
(6'9"), he has made 23 of 44 threes (52.3%)

Ricky Davis, Iowa
The Hawkeyes' 6'5" shooting guard wears number 23 and leads Iowa
with a Jordanesque 16.8 scoring average

Dion Glover, Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets are biggest surprise in Top 25, thanks to
6'5" Glover and his 19.3 points per game

Kenny Gregory, Kansas
The 6'5" guard is coming off the bench to play the point for
now, but he'll be a star shooter in the future

Kaspars Kambala, UNLV
A 6'9" forward from Latvia, he leads the Runnin' Rebels in
rebounding (10.6) and is second in scoring (17.6)

Marques Maybin, Louisville
The 6'3" guard scored 22 in his debut against Hofstra, top
first-game total for a freshman in coach Denny Crum's 27 years

Byron Mouton, Tulane
This explosive 6'6" swingman leads the Green Wave in scoring
(17.3 ppg) and assists (2.0)

Robert O'Kelley, Wake Forest
The 6'1" guard hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer in his
third collegiate game, against Georgetown

Luke Recker, Indiana
A 6'6" swingman, this former Indiana Mr. Basketball has started
all but one game for Hoosiers

*All stats through Sunday