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Hidden Talents Look carefully: Many of the most promising pro prospects in college hoops play at schools where few can see them

Nov. 20, 2000
Nov. 20, 2000

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Nov. 20, 2000

College Basketball 2000-2001

Hidden Talents Look carefully: Many of the most promising pro prospects in college hoops play at schools where few can see them

Tennessee National Guardsmen, take note: If the Cumberland River
overflows its banks anytime soon, there's a first-rate
sandbagger in your midst. Whenever Austin Peay's senior swingman
Trenton Hassell takes on the nation's elite players--as he did
while working as a counselor at the Nike All-America Camp for
the last two summers--he'll don his red Governors practice
jersey and act like a chump. You don't gotta worry about me,
man. I can't shoot. I can't do nuthin'. Look, I'm from Austin
Peay!

This is an article from the Nov. 20, 2000 issue

"Mind games," Hassell says, snickering. "By the time they start
playing hard on me, it's too late. They're bullwhipped."

Call it what you will: Bullwhipped. Hasselled. Or simply very
impressed. In workouts in front of pro scouts at the Nike camp,
Hassell has more than held his own with the "It" boys of college
hoops, rebounding at both ends, playing defense like a demon and
skying through the lane off the dribble. "He's incredible," says
Michigan State's Charlie Bell, one of Hassell's camp victims. "No
doubt, he'll be a pro," testifies Arizona's Richard Jefferson. "A
perfect example of no secrets anymore," says Charlotte Hornets
scout Kip Bass. "Everybody knows about him."

Well, not everybody. For even though 300 college games will be
televised nationally this season, Hassell is scheduled to appear
only once, on a January Saturday at noon when you'll probably be
cleaning the garage. Pity, because he's the finest talent you've
never seen (2000 edition), a rugged 6'6" slasher who was the only
player in the country last season to rank in his conference's top
five in points (18.1 per game), rebounds (7.4) and assists (5.2).
Of course, when that conference is the Ohio Valley, people tend
not to notice. "The first time I went to Nike camp," Hassell
says, "everyone thought Austin Peay was in Texas."

There's a rich world beyond the tube, folks, a landscape dotted
with hidden gems, and if you don't see them, you can be sure the
pro scouts do. In the past five drafts NBA teams have selected 39
players from colleges considered mid-major and below, in hopes of
uncovering the latest Scottie Pippen (Central Arkansas) or Vin
Baker (Hartford). What's more, every year TV mainstays such as Ed
Cota (North Carolina) and JaRon Rush (UCLA) go undrafted, while
such unknowns as Cal Bowdler (Old Dominion), Speedy Claxton
(Hofstra) and Devean George (Augsburg) accept their Stern
handshakes as first-round picks.

It's enough to make you wonder: Might there be advantages to
playing at smaller schools instead of basketball factories?
Nobody's saying that hoops backwaters are a surefire ticket to
the NBA, but as the evidence shows, such schools certainly don't
doom a player's pro aspirations. "You have 270 schools that never
get the top players out of high school, so they develop them,"
says NBA director of scouting Marty Blake. "These guys get to
play every type of competition, and the coaching they get is
probably as good."

Look around. Blue-blooded programs are littered with the remains
of once promising NBA futures, players whose development was
stunted by pine time or by being locked into the hermetically
sealed roles of Passer, Screener or Rebounder. If nothing else,
top prospects at smaller schools are allowed to breathe. "Good
players can get lost at a North Carolina or a Kentucky," says
Bass, "because they don't get to do as many things as they would
at a place where there aren't as many talented players."

That's one answer, but not the only one. As we introduce you to
five of this season's top-rated sleepers according to NBA scouts,
follow the prose to learn why they'll be pros.

REASON NO. 1: Late bloomers get a fighting chance at smaller
schools. When Tamar (the Trey) Slay, then a forward, signed with
Marshall out of Woodrow Wilson High in Beckley, W.Va., he was a
6'7" forward who weighed a mere 167 pounds, "a thermometer
taking jump shots," says Thundering Herd coach Greg White.
Though Slay won his state's player of the year award as a
senior, only West Virginia and Marshall seriously pursued him,
and ultimately White persuaded him to spurn the Big East for the
rock-ribbed Mid-American Conference, a wellspring of NBA talent
over the years. "If Wally Szczerbiak [a MAC alum and 1999 NBA
first-rounder] goes to an SEC school, is he a pro today?" White
asks. "At Kentucky you have to win now, but when we recruit a
guy like Slay, we can offer him the starting position for four
years because here you can invest in a player."

Two years later Slay, now a guard, has growth numbers that
resemble those of a mid-1999 Dow Jones ticker. Through weight
training and genetic fortune, he has added two inches and nearly
40 pounds to his frame, spurting to 6'9", 205 pounds. Likewise,
his bench press has improved from 185 pounds to 275, while his
scoring average leaped from 6.0 points as a freshman to a
MAC-leading 19.9 last season. (He also shot 43.3% from
three-point range.) One NBA player personnel director describes
Slay as "a long, athletic three man who can swing out to the
perimeter and shoot," and White says he wouldn't trade him for
any guard in the country. "You don't realize how much putting
weight on helps," Slay says. "Now I can go inside and outside,
and I'm not getting pushed around anymore."

REASON NO. 2: Smaller colleges can reap full returns on partial
and nonqualifiers. Hassell's tale resembles that of his teammate
at Clarksville (Tenn.) High, Shawn Marion, now a Phoenix Suns
forward. Like Marion, Hassell saw major programs (Colorado,
Georgetown, Tennessee) back off in their recruiting after he
failed to reach the NCAA's minimum academic standards. Yet while
Marion spent two years at a junior college before signing with
UNLV, Hassell attended hometown Austin Peay, where his family
could afford the tuition while he sat out a year under NCAA
rules. As a sophomore he impressed Portland Trail Blazers scout
Tates Locke so much that Locke recommended him as a counselor for
the Nike camp. "The camp was a real eye-opener," says Peay coach
Dave Loos. "That's where Bubba Wells [a Peay alum and 1997 NBA
second-rounder] made his name too."

If Hassell graduates as scheduled next May, chances are he'll
have the luxury of deciding whether to return for another season
(partial and nonqualifiers can earn back their fourth year) or to
enter the draft. Fortunately, even after his sandbagging days are
done, he'll still be able to deliver his favorite line. "When I
get the best of somebody, I'll say, 'You just let somebody from
little ol' Austin Peay school you,'" Hassell cracks. "That's my
favorite part."

REASON NO. 3: Reclamation projects make the Man. Just as coaches
gain renown for turning unheralded programs into winners, so too
can players. After starring at Dallas's Kimball High, Jeryl
Sasser had suitors from Arizona, Texas Tech and USC, but the 6'6"
guard crossed all those schools off his list after SMU coach Mike
Dement offered him something more. "He wanted two things, to
develop his dream of playing in the NBA and to play for a
winner," says Dement. "His concern was that we hadn't won. I told
him he could help us do that, and it would enhance his reputation
as a player."

In turn, Dement allowed Sasser to play point guard ("Everywhere
else he kept hearing wing, wing, wing," says Dement), which has
made him attractive to scouts. "He can play a couple of
positions, if not three of them, he's long, and he can defend,"
says Milwaukee Bucks director of scouting Dave Babcock. "When he
starts finding his shot [he was a percussive 27.8% from
three-point range last season], look out." Even with his weakness
from the outside, Sasser's 17.3 points and 8.3 rebounds a game
led the Mustangs to 21 wins last season, their most in 13 years,
confirming Dement's vision and spawning expectations that they'll
reach the NCAAs this season for the first time since 1993.

REASON NO. 4: A pro-style offense is a pro-style offense, no
matter where the school is. When coach Larry Shyatt left Wyoming
for Clemson after the 1997-98 season, most observers expected
Ugo Udezue, a 6'8" center from Nigeria, to follow him. Shyatt
had recruited Udezue (pronounced oo-DEZ-oo-way) after spying him
in Greece at the 1996 junior world championships, and now Udezue
had a chance to play in the ACC. Then, new Wyoming coach Steve
McClain rode into town and everything changed. "I told Ugo he'd
get 20 shots a game after he'd been getting four," McClain says.
"I think he liked that."

Udezue stayed, and under McClain's run-and-gun offense his
scoring skyrocketed, from 3.5 to 20.5 points a game in 1998-99.
"With Coach Shyatt you played more if you took more charges and
had more rebounds," says Udezue, a junior. "He didn't care about
scoring. Coach McClain worked on my offensive game." According
to Udezue, the cartilage damage in his left knee that sidelined
him for most of last season (and allowed him an extra year of
eligibility) has healed, which means scouts will again be able
to admire his turnaround jumper and his zest for running the
floor.

REASON NO. 5: Smaller schools have their own Obi-wan Kenobes.
Pepperdine's Brandon Armstrong, a 6'4" junior guard, shares many
facets with his fellow hidden gems. Like Hassell, he wasn't a
full academic qualifier, which drove off such big-name schools as
Arizona State, Villanova and Washington. Like Slay, Armstrong
didn't range far from his hometown (in his case, Vallejo, Calif.)
to join the Waves. Like Udezue, Armstrong uses his enormous
athletic gifts in a system that maximizes them, in this case a
full-court defense that capitalizes on his speed. ("We call
ourselves PressureDine," Armstrong says.) Finally, like Sasser,
Armstrong was welcomed "as an instant impact player you could
build an offense around," says Waves coach Jan van Breda Kolff.

But in Van Breda Kolff, Armstrong has something more, a mentor
who recently coached at a major program (Vanderbilt), once
played in the pros and knows how to get to the next level. "I
tell Brandon that you have to develop a basketball IQ," Van
Breda Kolff says. "We've had him study Reggie Miller and how he
sets his man up to get open for his shot. Those nuances make a
difference: the footwork, the pivoting, reading a screen, how
you catch and sweep the ball through on a shot."

A quick study, Armstrong averaged 14.4 points last year, but his
defining moment came when he lit up two defensive titans, Indiana
(22 points) and Oklahoma State (19), in the NCAAs. In the process
he piqued scouts' interest with his ability to score both as a
spot shooter and off the dribble. "He's so athletic," the Bucks'
Babcock says of Armstrong. "The West Coast Conference isn't known
as an athletic conference, but he stands out."

Odd, isn't it? In Malibu, amid the greatest concentration of
television stars on the planet, Pepperdine will have almost no
national TV presence this season (only one game, in fact: its
opener at Indiana). Armstrong tells a story about the time last
season when his teammates bumped into Pamela Anderson at a
Malibu restaurant. "We stopped in our tracks," he says. "She was
nice enough to let us take a picture with her as a team."

The punch line? Unlike Anderson, Armstrong and his hidden-talent
brethren don't need TV to tell them they're VIPs. The NBA will do
that soon enough.

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY LEAH BECKER/THE GROUP Y; PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY (SLAY); BUD FREUND, INDEX STOCK (IVY WALL) Emerging star Slay has bloomed in obscurity at Marshall, where he's been spotted by the NBA.COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY LEAH BECKER/THE GROUP Y; PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY (HASSELL); DARREN CARROLL (LOCKERS)COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY LEAH BECKER/THE GROUP Y; JIM GUND (UDEZUE); DARREN CARROLL (SCOREBOARD)
Says Hassell, "When I get the best of somebody, I'll say, 'You
just let somebody from little ol' Austin Peay school you.'"
"I told Ugo he'd get 20 shots a game after he'd been getting
four," McClain says of his Wyoming star. "I think he liked that."