By Steve Spiewak
Packed gyms with scouts in the stands. A deluge of media attention to accompany high expectations. Dealing with growing pains while trying to fit in with established upperclassmen.
Such are some of the experiences of the nation’s top freshmen. Yes, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, and Eric Gordon all deal with the aforementioned. Yet these triumphs and tragedies are shared by Tony Wroten, Darius Nelson, Tony Kimbro, and a host of other freshmen who this season have arrived on the scene – the high school scene, that is.
Across the country, elite ninth graders are having the same type of impact as college basketball’s top freshmen. At the ripe age of around 14, these wunderkinds are still unknown to most on the national scene. But for those who keep tabs on rising grammar school players, many of these stars-to-be have long been making a name for themselves.
Tony Wroten Sr. knew there was something special about his son, Tony Jr., in the second grade, when the youngster’s on the court intelligence was beyond his years.
“His IQ of the game, his ability to see the floor even at a young age was pretty incredible,” Wroten Sr. said “I can remember him being able to pass through two defenders.”
Wroten Jr. has not looked back since his days of nifty pee wee passes, and has blossomed into the nation’s most impressive freshman.
“In my opinion, he’s the best freshman in the country,” said Rob Taylor, editor of the Buckeye Prep Report, a middle school scouting service.
The 6-foot-5-inch guard attends Seattle’s Garfield High School, alma mater of Portland Trail Blazer guard and former University of Washington star Brandon Roy.
Sixteen games into his high school career, he’s already encountering high praise and even loftier expectations.
“Out here they’re calling him the best player ever, so on and so forth,” said Wroten Sr., himself a former athlete, having played football at the University of Washington and eventually for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Wroten Jr. has been outstanding early on, averaging almost 20 points per game, while contributing over eight rebounds and four assists per contest.
He leads the team in each of those categories, and helped the Bulldogs notch their biggest win of the season against state-ranked Federal Way (Wash.) at the King Holiday Hoopfest Jan. 21.
Facing a 44-35 halftime deficit, Wroten Jr. commandeered a comeback, displaying advanced maturity and unselfishness. He finished with 18 points in an 83-76 victory for Garfield.
Still, with so much expected from him, it’s easy to forget that he’s only a freshman and makes freshman mistakes.
“The expectations are through the roof. If he doesn’t have a good next game, people will say what they say,” Wroten Sr. said. “My son is still only 14.”
With so many expectant eyes on him every time he touches the court, Wroten Jr. has had to develop and mature in front of an audience, something atypical of freshman players, and freshman persons.
So far, he has certainly managed to do so.
“In the beginning he was trying to do too much. He even said it himself, he got a little caught up,” said Wroten Sr., referring to Garfield’s early-season loss to Seattle power Franklin, a game in which Wroten Jr. failed to involve other Garfield players.
Less than two months later, he’s already a better player.
“The biggest complement I can give him is that he makes his teammates better,” Wroten Sr. said. “I’m extremely proud of him.”
Interstate 71 Sensations
Basketball might be king in Kentucky, but in Louisville – home of the nation’s biggest high school football rivalry and the most exciting two minutes in sports – competition certainly exists.
That doesn’t stop people from piling into DuPont Manual High School on a frigid Wednesday night in January. The Crimsons are coming off an impressive run of victories to capture the title at the Louisville Invitational Tournament, and are hosting Ballard, traditionally a state power in basketball.
Tony Kimbro, the state’s top freshman, prepares to lead Dupont Manual to another victory. He’s 6-4 with long arms that suggest he has yet to finish growing. His broad shoulders imply he can continue to get stronger. He might be the most physically impressive player on the court, but he’s far from a complete product.
He starts off slowly, gathering points by virtue of being in the right place at the right time, putting in rebounds right under the basket.
Then he shows flashes of brilliance, as he spins between two defenders in the post and gracefully banks in a show that draws a roar from the crowd.
He is not above making mistakes, attempting to force a pass through a tight zone defense that leads to a Ballard fast break. Only seconds later, Kimbro races back and blocks the resulting lay up attempt.
Every mistake suggests there is room for improvement, but seems to get trumped by each rebound he pulls down over bigger defenders and each assist he dishes off.
“He’s still raw in a lot of ways,” says Manual first-year head coach Jimmy Just. Still, he admits that, with regard to other ninth graders, few can compare.
“He’s on another level,” he said.
Like Tony Wroten Jr., Tony Kimbro Jr. has athleticism in his genes. His father, Tony Kimbro Sr., was Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball in 1985, playing at Seneca High School before heading to Louisville.
Kimbro has big shoes to fill, but Just believes that he’s developing physically as well as mentally and emotionally.
“I’m sure he feels pressure,” Just said. “But he’s handled it well.”
Displaying a versatile game, Kimbro nets 16 against Ballard, but misses several free throws down the stretch as the Crimsons lose by four. He is visibly upset after the game.
“He needs to work at free-throw shooting, but he’s got a nice touch,” Just says.
That touch seems to be evident in everything he does on the court. His rebounding and passing against Ballard makes it easy to see why less than a week earlier, he recorded a triple-double against Jefferson with 12 points, 12 rebounds, and 13 assists.
“He’s the next big thing,” writes Jody Demling of the The Courier-Journal.
If Kimbro is the next big thing, Aiken High School’s (Ohio) Chane Behanan might be the next bigger thing.
Just 90 miles up Interstate 71, the 6-6 Aiken star is averaging 21 points and seven rebounds a game after making a name for himself on the middle school circuit.
“He’s got real good athleticism and real good balance,” Taylor said. “He tries to dunk everything in sight.”
Behanan, who was previously grouped in the class of 2012, reclassified this year to become a freshman in the fall. Playing against older competition has not slowed down one of the premier ninth grade post players in the country.
“Right now he’s good enough, strong enough to play the five at the high school level,” Taylor said.
He has scored more than 25 points four times already, and has twice erupted for 30 or more.
His ultimate destination might not be in the post, however, as Taylor foresees a move to the perimeter, where Behanan could potentially dominate the wing as a strong, 6-6 slasher.
“I would say his future is at the ‘3’,” said Taylor, pointing out that he has to work to improve on his perimeter skills.
Despite his success, Behanan has still flown under the radar, at least until recently. The fact that he reclassified grades has allowed him to sneak onto the high school scene with relatively little fan fare.
However, it’s hard to hide the type of production he has had this year. Behanan has been perhaps the top freshman in the entire state this season.
“If you ask 100 people in the state, 90 percent would say it’s either him or Stevie,” Taylor said, referring to his son, Stevie Taylor, a 5-8 point guard prodigy from Gahanna High School (Ohio) who is also making waves as a freshman.
Whatever the ranking, it’s certain that I-71 will be buzzing with the traffic of fans and scouts a like for years to come, flocking to see some of the nation’s most gifted players.
“Number 43...the youngest in charge. He’s an incoming freshman,” the speakers at the Rucker Park blast through the muggy air on a late August night in New York City’s most famous outdoor court.
“LaQuinton Ross, small forward, class of 2011.”
The lanky, baby faced ninth grader-to-be takes the court with players several grades older. Not only is the Boost Mobile Elite 24 Classic void of other freshmen, but the summertime exhibition of the nation’s best players also lacks any sophomores.
Just juniors and seniors. And LaQuinton Ross.
The Mississippi-born Ross seems quiet off the court. Surrounded by the likes of a world traveling 7-2, 18-year old (John Riek), a 6-8, 230-pound manchild (Samardo Samuels), and a blossoming New York City guard who some think could be playing for the Knicks at the Garden (Lance Stephenson), Ross’ timid reaction to the introduction comes as no surprise.
He looks every bit the part of the younger sibling, stuck among a group of older brother’s friends. At least until tip-off.
Running up and down the court like a deer, “Q” shows the attributes that landed him in Harlem with such a prestigious group of two dozen. He handles the ball better than 6-7 players should, has great leaping ability, plays the perimeter, and finishes under the basket. He performs admirably, scoring 10 points and grabbing a rebound against players much stronger and much older.
Following up on a strong summer that also featured stops at the Vince Carter Skills Academy as well as the LeBron James Skills Academy, Ross has had an impressive debut season at the high school level, leading Callaway High School (Jackson, Miss.) to a 16-9 record.
First-year head coach Wayne Brent has been impressed with Ross’ talents, but, as with nearly all players his age, sees room for improvement and development.
“Q’s got the ability to really shoot the ball,” Brent recently told The Clarion Ledger. “He just needs to work on getting stronger.”
His rail-thin frame, certainly not uncommon for players his age, remains an area for growth. Being one of Callaway’s primary ball handlers, Ross can also stand to cut back on turnovers, and needs to stay out of foul trouble, two adaptations that could make him unstoppable as an upperclassman.
“LaQuinton Ross probably has as much upside as anyone in this class,” Taylor said. “If he can keep up consistent intensity, he can really go all the way.”
Taylor also recognizes his skinny build, saying, “He’s going to have to put some some weight.”
If Ross even approaches the ceiling of his potential, Callaway high school could be an elite team, given Ross’ strong supporting cast. If last summer and this season are any indication, his star status will not be hard to track.
New Jersey’s Next Big Thing
Only three states are smaller geographically than the Garden State. With its nationally-acclaimed teams, abundance of college prospects, and success against out-of-state opponents, New Jersey has solidified its reputation as a power on the high school basketball scene despite its size.
The same exact words can be said of Plainfield (N.J.) freshman guard Tyrone Johnson.
Standing at 6-1, smaller than most of the other freshman starring on the varsity level this season, Johnson has been anything but small on the court, emerging as the catalyst for the Plainfield Cardinals.
“He’s a scoring machine,” says Taylor, who also noted that Johnson was very smooth and poised.
In a recent win against a talented and deep Paterson Catholic (N.J.) squad, Johnson demonstrated both traits, leading the Cardinals with 20 points en route to the upset. Surprisingly, Johnson received much less hype entering high school than another New Jersey phenom, St. Patrick freshman Michael Gilchrist.
“Certainly, Mike has gotten much more of the hype,” Taylor said. “But Tyrone is really right there.”
Production wise, it’s hard to argue against Johnson’s success. He recently grabbed MVP honors in the Freedom Fighters Hoop Challenge, notching 24 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists. His mature, versatile game belies his age, but has impressed CSTV recruiting analyst Van Coleman.
“He’s got an excellent first step, can explode to the hoop, and has a nice mid-range game,” Coleman said. “And don’t leave him open on the perimeter because he can hit the three as well.”
Plainfield has been a bastion of talented guards in recent years. Former Cardinals Jarell Thompson (Sacred Heart) and Anthony Nelson (Niagara) have moved on to Division I basketball, while current guards junior Anthony Baskerville and sophomore Isiah Epps have continued to gain recognition.
Johnson might be better than any of his recent predecessors.
“I think he can be better because of what he’s doing in his freshman year, and because of how big he’s going to be,” said Plainfield head coach Pete Vasil, who believes Johnson could end up being 6-5.
Interestingly, another highly-acclaimed freshman from Plainfield, guard Derrick Gordon, decided to enroll at St. Patrick (N.J.) this fall, while his twin brother Daryll suits up for the Cardinals. Having grown up playing together, the two have naturally drawn comparisons to each other. Vasil thinks Johnson’s intangibles set him apart.
“Derrick Gordon has leadership qualities, but not like Tyrone does,” Vasil said. “I think that’s where his edge is right now: the basketball maturity, the feel for the game, that court savvy.”
So with the coast clear for Johnson to rise to high stardom, it’s surprising he’s still somewhat under the radar, playing only 30 minutes outside of the country’s largest media market.
“I think he’s probably a little underrated by folks, only because they haven’t seen him,” Taylor said.
That is sure to change sooner rather than later. Plainfield could see St. Patrick in the Union County Tournament in what would be a high-profile showdown. A game against the Celtics would provide a match up of some of the most talented freshman in the country, and be both a challenge and opportunity for Johnson.
If that game happens and Johnson leads the way to victory, New Jersey fans will have witnessed the birth of a star. Plainfield fans, however, would probably say that it’s been a long time coming.
Coaching a freshman phenom can surely be both rewarding and challenging.
Sheldon (Sacramento, Calif.) head coach Scott Gradin sees both extremes of the pendulum. He is responsible for two super frosh on his squad.
Six-foot-six, 230-pound Darius Nelson, brother of Duke standout DeMarcus Nelson, and 6-8 Ramon Eaton, Nelson’s cousin, both have suited up for the varsity team this season at Sheldon.
Both highly coveted, coach Gradin saw it as a foregone conclusion that the duo would end up playing for him.
“I’ve known for a few years they’d be going to Sheldon. They went to our feeder school,” said Gradin, who added that Darius’ parents are the legal guardian for cousin Ramon.
While Eaton entered the season as the more highly-touted player, it has been Nelson who has adapted to the challenges of the high school game more quickly.
“He’s got guard skills, but likes to go inside because of his strength,” Coleman said.
Because he blends size with ball handling skills, Nelson presents match up problems for many opposing defenses, according to Gradin.
“We started him at the three, and teams put 6-2, 6-3 guards on him, so we started to post him up. Very few teams will put a big man on him” he said, referring to Nelson’s ability to go around larger defenders.
Nelson has been torching defenses for the Huskies, to the tune of 20 points and nine rebounds a game. His season high is 28 points, which he’s achieved twice, most recently in a loss to Folsom (Calif.).
Eaton has taken more time adjusting to the physical challenges of playing against older and stronger competition. Much slimmer and with finesse-centered game, Eaton has still managed to average almost 10 points and nine rebounds, showing glimpses of an even brighter future.
“Eaton has a seven-foot wing span, can bring the ball up court, shoot three pointers, and pass,” noted Gradin, who said his skill set was similar to that of Lamar Odom.
Coleman, who doesn’t think Eaton has stopped growing yet, also recognizes the endless possibilities for Eaton, saying, “I think he’s a high major prospect, and the potential to play after college is there.”
Despite the growing pains each will continue to endure, having two of the nation’s most gifted ninth graders certainly bodes well for the future of Sheldon basketball.
“The challenge is for Darius to stay ahead of Ramon,” said Coleman, who expects Eaton to blossom as he becomes more physically mature, helping narrow the gap between Darius’ production on the high school level and his own.
Regardless of who ranks higher, watching both Nelson and Eaton develop individually in the context of the Huskies team should be a pleasure for Sheldon basketball fans.
“Oh my goodness,” Taylor said. “I wish my high school had that kind of tandem.”
Challenges of a Phenom
Without question, a unique set of problems face this distinctly talented set of players. Usually, the least of which are found on the court.
The hype they begin their high school careers with presents a problem that is twofold. The first challenge that typically manifests itself is the pressure of high expectations.
“They’ve already received a great deal of hype at a young age, and it’s spilled into their communities and high schools,” Taylor said.
“To have to come into a varsity high school basketball situation, no matter what your skill level is, and be the leader of the team is somewhat overwhelming,” said Wroten Sr., whose son leads his team in four major offensive categories.
Even coaches recognize the significant expectations that these freshmen feel.
“They feel those expectations. When they play well or don’t play well, they feel it more than the average player,” Gradin said. “They get a lot of pressure from people outside of the team structure about playing great.”
The team structure itself can also cause a lot of stress for the young players, as displaced upperclassmen often can feel resentment towards their less experienced teammates who take up a bulk of the playing time.
“A lot of players and parents resent the fact that freshmen come in and are playing a lot of minutes, taking playing time from seniors and upperclassmen,” Taylor said. “There is resentment of their roles on varsity teams, and that’s difficult.”
For Gradin, it’s the responsibility of both the freshmen and upperclassmen to embrace the team dynamic.
“I don’t have freshmen, sophomores, juniors, or seniors. I have players,” Gradin said. “I have two seniors that aren’t playing much, and it’s got to be hard for them. But they have to respect the process and understand that we’re all players.”
The other problematic side of young stardom is that these young talents can begin to get wrapped up in their own hype and acclaim, which leads to a number of issues.
“You’ve got kids walking around like they’re in the NBA,” Wroten Sr. said “Unfortunately, I think some of those people don’t have the right guidance.”
Wroten Sr. believes it’s important for parents to treat freshman as what they often are: 14 year old boys who, despite what their performance on the court might have you believe, are just a year removed from middle school.
“We make home, home, where he’s just a 14 year old kid,” he said. “At home, if he wasn’t 6-5, you might not even know he plays basketball.”
Taylor, with standout son Stevie, also tries to set the right example under his own roof.
“At least in Stevie’s case, we try to limit his press clippings that he reads,” he said. “Even though I’m his biggest fan, I try to emphasize what he doesn’t do well.
“With a lot of parents, all they see is the positive in their kids, and just lavish them with all this praise while not also focusing on deficiencies and the needed areas of growth.”
Coleman thinks that a player buying into his own hype is dangerous for his on-the-court development, particularly when young players are compared to players who have gone on to succeed at a high level.
“We write based on potential, not based on where they’re at, and kids don’t read it that way,” Coleman said.
“I saw Kevin Durant when he was a freshman, and how he developed. I’m looking at a kid in that same time frame. A lot of people don’t understand that. They start thinking you’re comparing them to Kevin Durant as an adult.”
There seems to be a consensus that it’s important to keep perspective when encountering success as a freshman.
“The game is supposed to be fun at this level,” Gradin said. “Just enjoy the process, enjoy the teammates.”
Where Do They Go From Here?
Colleges are already eager to lure top freshmen toward their programs.
The University of Washington hopes that Tony Wroten Jr. stays in-state and becomes a Husky, but the University of Tennessee is also in the picture.
The University of Cincinnati and Xavier are each hoping that Chane Behanan will stay in the Queen City, but North Carolina is also reportedly interested. Down in Louisville, the University of Kentucky is interested in snatching Tony Kimbro Jr. from Rick Pitino’s backyard.
LaQuinton Ross will probably end up having his pick of colleges, with SEC schools in hot pursuit.
Tyrone Johnson is a Big East or ACC-caliber guard, and will continue to gather interest from schools up and down the East Coast. So far, Georgetown has shown the strongest interest.
Darius Nelson and Ramon Eaton have already practiced under the watchful eyes of coaches from UCLA and Washington State, and have received mail from across the country.
Regardless of where they end up, these and other top freshmen across the country are poised to continue to have an impact at the high school level and most likely beyond. Though only a few months into their ninth grade season, each has displayed production mixed with further promise that has parents, coaches, and fans excited and hopeful.
Each is also facing a set of challenges unique to only the cream of freshman crop. So far, each of these freshmen has been able to overcome such stress and strains. With many people hopeful that their future success is on par with their current potential, basketball fans across the country anticipate that these top talents will continue to blossom.
They may not be Michael Beasley, OJ Mayo, or Kyle Singler, but they are some of the nation’s best young athletes.
And they have arrived.