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Whiz Kids

Here's a switch! New-breed freshmen are hazing their elders by winning games and collecting MVP awards

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Posted: Wednesday December 08, 1999 12:09 PM

By Grant Wahl

Chart: Top 15 freshmen

  Click for larger image Prepped for greatness since eighth grade, Forte showed no fear while scoring 19 points against Michigan State. Manny Millan
In October the North Carolina players and coaches gathered in the Tar Heels' locker room to conduct their annual vote on which freshman would shoulder the Green Bag, the trainer's duffel that one freshman is assigned to carry back and forth between the bus and the locker room on every road trip. Lined up as though they were facing a firing squad, North Carolina's three freshmen were told to close their eyes as coach Bill Guthridge pointed at each one and asked for a show of hands. When Guthridge pointed at Joseph Forte, the freshman shooting guard couldn't help but peek -- and laugh. Every voter's hand was raised. "After a close race," Guthridge announced, "the winner is Joseph Forte!"

While freshman hazing may be alive and well off the court, first-year players are clearly no longer second-class citizens on the playing floor -- not after Nov. 28, when the plebes took over the academy. That was the night freshman forward Drew Gooden of Kansas was named Most Valuable Player at the Great Alaska Shootout, joining Forte (MVP of the Maui Invitational) and Arizona freshman shooting guard Gilbert Arenas (MVP of the Chase NIT) in an unprecedented rookie sweep. To put that in historical context, only one freshman (Kentucky's Chris Mills, at the 1988 Alaska Shootout) had won any of the 49 MVP awards previously given at the three tournaments.

As Arenas, Forte, Gooden and many other young hotshots around the country are making abundantly plain, freshmen are skipping the age-old rites of passage like never before, forgoing pine-splintered apprenticeships and angling for instant jackpots like a bunch of snot-nosed Internet entrepreneurs. "In his era Dean Smith said the best thing about freshmen was that they became sophomores," says high school recruiting expert Bob Gibbons. "Today, the best thing about freshmen is that they have an immediate impact on your program."

Why are freshmen having so much success so early in the season? The common perception is that the exodus of college players to the NBA has given freshmen greater opportunities to play, but that's only one reason. Duke has been forced to try to replace departed underclassmen William Avery, Elton Brand and Corey Maggette with freshmen, but the Blue Devils are exceptions. Arenas, Forte and Gooden aren't getting a single minute of extra playing time because of other players' premature defection to the pros. "The answer everybody gives is that the top players are leaving early for the NBA, but that's still only 20 guys a year," argues Kansas coach Roy Williams, who overstates the number -- last spring only 14 underclassmen went in the draft. "I don't think it's that big a deal."

Just as important are various other reasons that reveal the changing face of the game and explain why freshmen are arriving in college better equipped to make a name for themselves:

  • The precocity factor. Now that recruiting reaches all the way down to grade school, some players and their families are making life-altering decisions as soon as the kids hit puberty. Take the baby-faced, 6'4" Forte, whose 17.3 points a game led the No. 7-ranked Tar Heels through Sunday. As a 6'2" eighth-grader in Smyrna, Ga., Forte was so talented that he became the center of an epochal recruiting battle over which high school he would attend. The one in his district, Campbell High, threatened to petition the board of education if Forte went to any other area school, and 95 coaches applied for Campbell's vacant coaching position, presumably to latch onto Forte's upwardly mobile coattails.

    Convinced that the maelstrom was making her son dangerously cocky, Forte's mother, Wanda Hightower, a salesperson for Hewlett-Packard, arranged a job transfer and moved with Joseph and his brother, Jason, to Washington, D.C., so Joseph could be groomed by legendary coach Morgan Wootten at DeMatha High in nearby Hyattsville, Md. "I figured that at DeMatha Joseph could develop his talent to the best of his ability and that Coach Wootten would keep his head level," says Hightower. "I also knew that [playing there] would give him great exposure for college."

    "My mom had enough faith in Coach Wootten to uproot her whole life and go to D.C.," Joseph says. "That was a lot of insight on her part."

    Although Forte was a USA Today All-America as a senior at DeMatha, he was overshadowed by his teammate Keith Bogans, now a freshman at Kentucky, and nobody predicted that Forte would take over the Tar Heels' scoring burden so soon. Yet Forte provided a hint of what was to come during a chat with center Brendan Haywood during a preseason workout. "Joe's out there shooting jumpers, and I said, 'Can you keep the double team off me?'" Haywood recalls. "Real confidently he stepped back, hit a three and said, 'Yeah.'"

    In the 23 seasons from 1972-73, when the NCAA made freshmen eligible, through 1994-95, only eight North Carolina freshmen started their first games. Seven more, including Forte, have done so in the last five seasons, though none of the others has gotten off to a faster start than Forte. Unspooling his lethal jumper from all points of the floor, Forte scored 24 points in his college debut, against Southern Cal. That was the most points ever scored in a game by a Tar Heel freshman -- including Michael Jordan. If Forte can stay close to his current pace, he could become the most prolific freshman scorer in school history, outdoing the rookie seasons of Sam Perkins (14.9 points per game), Jordan (13.5) and James Worthy (12.5). "It's a little ridiculous," Forte says of the comparisons. "Those are great players, and just because they didn't come out of the gate as fast as I did, it doesn't mean I'll do what they did."

    Click for larger image A postgrad year made the Bearcats' Johnson bigger and better suited for college ball. Manny Millan  

  • The battle-tested factor. Thanks to the AAU and summer-camp circuits, today's top high schoolers play year-round against the best competition in major arenas all over the country -- sometimes all over the globe. "Freshmen can make the adjustment so much easier now because they're so much more worldly," says Williams. "Twenty-five years ago you'd find kids who had never been out of their home state, and now I'm recruiting kids who have been to Paris and Hawaii."

    Gooden, a smooth 6'9" slasher who was the No. 5-ranked Jayhawks' second-leading scorer (11.5 points a game) and top rebounder (8.0) through Sunday despite coming off the bench, was just such a youthful globetrotter. In high school Gooden made basketball-related journeys to such far-flung locales as The Hague, and once you've hooped at the World Court, the world's courts are a cinch. When the Jayhawks opened the season with three games in as many days in Alaska, Gooden was ready. "The travel wasn't any problem," he says. "In the summers I've always played three or four games a day in AAU ball. We'd go from Vegas to New Jersey to L.A. and back to Vegas again. You're basically away from home for two months playing basketball."

    In the process, of course, you're able to gauge yourself against the top players in your class. Kansas freshman forward Nick Collison, who was averaging 6.7 rebounds a game, credits his unflappability to having played the last two years on USA Basketball's Junior World Championship team that competed in the Dominican Republic and in Portugal. "Playing against quicker, faster, bigger guys has helped a lot, and so has playing for college coaches the past two summers," Collison says. "They ran the practices just like college practices, so I was ready for the intensity when I got here."

  • The PG-rating factor. Each year more and more top prospects gain maturity and experience by spending postgraduate seasons at prep schools, either by choice or because of academic shortcomings. For example, Cincinnati's 6'10" freshman guard, DerMarr Johnson, had slipped from No. 1 to No. 30 in one recruiting newsletter two years ago; then he shipped out for a postgrad year at Maine Central Institute. "It was the longest, hardest year he's ever had, but he went to practice every day with a purpose," says UNLV assistant coach Max Good, who was Johnson's coach at MCI. Bulked up with 30 pounds of extra muscle, Johnson has rediscovered his mojo and was the second-leading scorer for the top-ranked Bearcats, averaging 13.8 points a game.

  • The who's-recruiting-whom factor. Top prospects are so skilled at finding programs where they can play right away that they could have fall-back careers as recruiting experts. "Nothing escapes them," says Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson. "They have media guides from everywhere, they dial up the Internet, and they find out whom coaches are recruiting. Even if they don't do that, other coaches tell them. They know exactly where they can play right away."

    One freshman who refused to be an understudy is SirValiant Brown, George Washington's fun-and-gun freshman point guard who was second in the nation in scoring through Sunday with 26.3 points a game. The son of Camelot aficionados Robbie and Marcela -- the middle name of SirValiant's brother Cody is SirLancelot -- Brown has done everything for GW so far this season except pull a sword from a stone, pouring in 33 points on two occasions (though also amassing a heap of turnovers). Naturally, the main reason he picked the Colonials was that guard Shawnta Rogers graduated last year. "I couldn't sit down for three years," says Brown. "Who would want to do that, unless you ain't a player?"

    SirValiant may be proving himself worthy, but that hardly means all freshmen are as ready for the college game as they think. Because more players are having early success, the expectations of many others are laughably overblown. "Now the kids think that if you can't go to the NBA after one or two years of college, you aren't any good," says Villanova coach Steve Lappas.

    Sacramento State coach Tom Abatemarco, who was an assistant at North Carolina State in the early 1980s, remembers when the Wolfpack signed Vinny Del Negro and then barely played him for two seasons. "If that happened today, he'd have transferred," says Abatemarco. "You're talking about a 10-year NBA player, and we made him sit. He was comfortable with that, but he wouldn't be today."

    Consequently, coaches create opportunities for freshmen in ways they didn't always do before. "These days you find reasons to get players into games that have more to do than with just whether they can help you win the game," says Lappas.

    Still, coaches are a conservative lot, and many of them warn that the rookies who are playing so well in early December might have trouble come February. "It will be interesting to see how many of them can keep it up, because I believe that every freshman hits the wall, physically and mentally, usually during the conference part of the schedule," says Marquette coach Tom Crean. "As the season goes on, you learn which ones can overcome fatigue and be productive."

    No matter what happens, though, it's remarkable how much of an impact freshmen are having only a year after the NCAA opened (and closed) serious discussion about making freshmen ineligible once again. That initiative appears to be dead, but freshmen have enough to worry about anyway. Moments after Gooden won the Great Alaska Shootout MVP trophy, senior reserve Terry Nooner sidled up beside the shivering, overloaded freshman on the way to the team bus and uttered a greeting that we may start hearing a lot more often. "Hey, MVP!" he cracked. "Way to carry those bags."

    Chart: Top 15 freshmen

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