LAS VEGAS – Dominic Woodson
didn't gravitate toward the sport of basketball until eighth grade. There was no early indication he was destined to become one of the nation's most highly-prized recruits.
"He sucked," said Shavona Woodson, Dominic's aunt and guardian. "People kind of teased him about it, but that didn't stop him. It motivated him."
At 6-foot-10 and 288 pounds, nobody is teasing Dominic (pronounced Dominique) these days. He carries the weight well and is about as physically imposing as a teenager can be.
And he definitely doesn't suck at basketball.
Woodson was named the top center in the Class of 2013
last week by MaxPreps and could be in line for five-star status when the Top 100 is updated in August. His game is a mixture of brute force and well-schooled post moves, often finished with a soft touch belying his offensive lineman-type stature. He won't allow the acclaim to slow his progress, however.
"It makes me feel like I've accomplished a few of my goals, but I've got to accomplish more of them," Woodson said. "Rankings are just rankings. Anybody can be in the rankings. It's just a matter of who is going to play the hardest between the lines."
This past weekend, he was one of 93 elite high school prospects participating in the LeBron James Skills Academy. The road to Las Vegas, where he played in front of King James himself Sunday, hasn't been an easy one.
His mother and stepdad were drug addicts, leaving Dominic and nine siblings to fend for themselves. He doesn't know his father. Shavona recalls him heading off to a nearby corner store at an early age for handouts – usually potato chips.
Shavona – known by most as "Auntie" – stepped in to take custody of Dominic and six of his siblings when he was 9.
"He's always appreciated the little things," Shavona said. "I don't have much but I've tried to give him a lot of love and consistency, which he didn't always have."
Not long after taking custody, Shavona moved her new family from Louisville, Ky., to Austin, Texas, where he was connected with Kevin Robinson and former Michigan Fab Five member Ray Jackson, who operates a club team know as Ray Jackson's Rising Stars.
"He used to play with another team across town and my team used to always beat him," Robinson said. "One weekend we beat him and I told him, 'Come to Dallas with us so you can see how we play.'
"I got to know his situation, knowing about his parents, living with his aunt, not knowing his dad and not living with his mom. I said, 'This is a kid I can help.' I started being around in his life, helping him out, keeping him with me and mentoring him. And then he just grew to be 6-10."
Despite his attention-grabbing frame, Dominic didn't rocket to stardom as a freshman like so many of his peers on the roster at the LeBron James Skills Academy. He started to find his way onto the radar as a sophomore at Stony Point (Round Rock, Texas)
, but things really took off after a trip to Orlando with the Rising Stars last July.
"Dominic played great when everybody was watching," Robinson said of the Orlando trip. "He got to shaking the shot clock and shaking the rim (with dunks). When we got out of there, everything went crazy."
As a junior, he made the move to Vermont Academy (Saxtons River, Vt.)
in an effort to shore up his academics. Even with her hands and house full with seven children, Shavonna hated the idea.
"I was against it," Shavona said. "I flat-out refused his 10th grade year. You always feel like nobody can take care of yours like you."
Dominic's relationship with the coaching staff at Vermont Academy went sour late in the year. Another relocation is in the works, this time to Huntington Prep (W.Va.)
, where he will play with a star-studded cast that includes top 2014 prospect and fellow LeBron camper Andrew Wiggins
A stigma exists in the basketball world with players who bounce from school to school, but it hasn't slowed interest from college programs in Woodson's case. Louisville, North Carolina State, Oklahoma and Rhode Island are all in the picture. Robinson recently received an email inquiry from Kentucky.
"Toward the end of the summer, we are going to narrow it down to five and sit down with his aunt and try to make the best decision," Robinson said.
Becoming the first of his siblings to graduate from high school and attend college is more than enough for Shavona.
"He's not the kid that he was eight years ago. He's grown and matured so much," Shavona said. "His attitude is different on the court. He's aggressive but he's really a gentle giant. He would give you the shirt off his back."
Perhaps someday he can give Shavona even more.
"I always knew that God had a plan for him," Auntie said. "I just didn't know it would be this big."