'The best thing for me'
Jonathan Bender hopes to make grade in NBA
Posted: Thursday July 01, 1999 09:06 PM
Jonathan Bender (left) listens as Mackie Shillstone discuss strength training techniques to help prepare for the NBA. AP
PICAYUNE, Miss. (CNN/SI) -- Picayune, Miss., would seem to be far from the noisy debate over whether the NBA should accept players straight out of high school, yet Picayune's finest schoolboy player is preparing to take that controversial step.
As his fellow graduates wile away the summer taking in the season's blockbuster movies and hanging out at the mall, Jonathan Bender is honing his jump shot and hardening his biceps. Though he became a local legend in his years with the Marroon Tide, he isn't a big name from a big market. So he will need both muscle and moxie if he is to make a name for himself in the NBA.
"See, he lives in a town called Picayune, Mississippi," said Bender's AAU coach Thaddeus Foucher. "You know, if Jonathan was in New York or California, his name would have been on every high school or major magazine in the country. "
From Moses Malone to Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. The list of high school phenoms turned NBA superstar is very short. But Bender says he's up to the challenge.
"It's a great opportunity for me and I think it's the best thing for me," said the 6-11 prep star. "So that's what I'm deciding to do."
Willie Maye Bender supports her son's decision to skip college and begin working in the real world.
"I raised him to make choices and to know that there are choices out there for him to make," said Ms. Bender. "So whatever choice he makes, whatever he decides he wants to do with his life -- as long as it's a good choice -- I stand behind him."
Bender earned national recognition when he scored a record 31 points in the McDonald's All-America game in March. He eclipsed the mark set by his idol, Michael Jordan, back in 1981 when Bender himself was just a few months old. But he says his McDonald's performance didn't influence his decision to turn pro.
"Most people say my decision was based on that game, but it's not really," said Bender. "I had decided months before the game what I wanted to do, I just didn't let it out."
Bender had led Mississippi State to believe he was college-bound, and had even signed a letter of intent with the Bulldogs. But on May 16, he changed his mind, deciding instead to enter the 1999 NBA draft
Like Garnett and Bryant before him, Bender will have to improve his physique as well as his skills. To that end, he's working with Mackie Shilstone, an athletic trainer in New Orleans who has worked with many pro athletes. With Shilstone's help, Bender is trying to become stronger and more agile. He also wants to add bulk to his 220-pound frame to better withstand the rigors of the long NBA season.
"He is not a center. His best position is going to be small forward," said NBA scouting director Marty Blake. "People say he is 6-11, don't worry about that, he has small forward skills. Eventually when he has a chance to work with weights, he'll build his body up."
Al Harrington, drafted out of high school last year by the Indiana Pacers, said Bender will definitely need to bulk up to play at this level.
I've seen him before, and he seems a little skinny," said the Pacers forward. "That's gonna be tough for him because these guys in the league are very strong
Foucher knows Bender's development will take some time.
"I think probably within a year or so he's going to be -- I mean it took Kevin a year," said Foucher. "Kevin came into the league with the same type of body Jonathan has. The same type of athleticism. I think it will take him a year just to mature as a young man so that he can take on some of, I guess, the pounding in the NBA."
And like Garnett, Bender brings an added dimension to the forward position. He likes to play facing the basket -- occasionally pulling up for a jumper. And he isn't afraid to drive into the lane and take the ball to the basket.
"He's a project," said Blake. "I don't think he's going to come around as quick as Kevin Garnett because Garnett was a once in a lifetime type player. But I think he has a chance to be a very good NBA player."
"I bring quickness. I think I can jump pretty well. I got a little shot, I can dribble a little bit. I can defend the '3'," said Bender describing his game. "I can play pretty good defense. I can get better. But when it comes right down to it, I think I'll be pretty good in a few years."
All the work on his muscles will surely help. But whether Bender ultimately becomes an NBA success story like Garnett and Bryant, or a poster boy for the stay-in-school advocates will depend as much on his emotional maturity as his physical maturity.