- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Colleges have been tapping the international ranks for decades, but the pipeline—especially from Europe—has dried up considerably in recent years as federations concluded that their future stars could be better developed in domestic pro leagues than in the NCAA. So you can understand the grumbling Ronny Turiaf heard when he told French basketball officials that he was leaving Paris (where the Martinique native had spent three years at the national sports school) to enroll at Gonzaga. As Turiaf recalls, "They were like, 'Ronny, you're not going to get better. And then you're going to come back here, and you won't make the national team.' "
Au contraire. In schooling Turiaf, now a hulking 260-pound junior, the Bulldogs' coaching staff has done its part to soothe turbulent U.S.-French relations. Turiaf, who speaks five languages, has listened well; Few calls him "the best learner we've ever had in our program," and his production has leaped accordingly, from 7.3 points and 5.0 boards a game as a 215-pound freshman to 15.6 and 6.2 last year. The coup de grace came when Turiaf beat out several pros to make France's roster for last summer's European championships. "Everyone was surprised to see how much better I got with my post moves, my confidence, my whole game," Turiaf says. Few is now operating under the assumption that Turiaf will be the first player in school history to leave early for the NBA.
The college landscape is littered with the carcasses of talented but overfed big men who couldn't stay away from the fast-food window long enough to develop. Such a fate could have befallen Missouri's Arthur Johnson when he touched down in Columbia three years ago weighing 308 pounds. "I had no clue what it was going to take when I got to Missouri," says Johnson, who was a star at Detroit's Pershing High. "I realized pretty fast I had a lot of work to do."
With the help of a nutrition program and a daily locker room chart called the A.J.-o-Meter, Johnson melted off the pounds and now tips the scales at a svelte 255. "Losing the weight has helped me in a lot of ways," says Johnson, who possesses a gossamer-soft touch and an 85-inch wingspan that makes him seem taller than 6'8'�". "I'm able to stay out there for longer stretches. I jump better, run better and have much more energy." Small wonder that Johnson is already Mizzou's alltime leader in blocks, needs just 194 more boards to set the school rebounding record and was selected (along with Okafor and Diogu) for last summer's Pan American Games team. "He loves taking his shirt off now," says Tigers coach Quin Snyder. "You know he's been working hard when he walks around with his shirt off."
"Playing taller" doesn't only involve creating inside shots more easily. For 240-pound Texas senior James Thomas it has meant adding 25 pounds of muscle—and an astonishing seven inches on his vertical leap—to turn himself into a rebounding machine who pulled down 11.0 boards a game last year. "I didn't touch a weight in high school, but here I've been all business," says Thomas, who "started exploding" as soon as he began working out three years ago, according to Long-horns strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright.
"He's the only guy we've had since I've been here who has cleared the little sticks on the Vertec [vertical-leap gauge]," says Wright. Tales of Thomas's Bunyanesque feats are legion, like the time he defied Kansas State wide-body Pervis Pasco's death grip on his left arm, leaped to sweep a rebound with his right hand and stuck the putback—drawing a foul on Pasco in the process. If Thomas sticks as a pro, it won't be because of his scoring (he averaged 11.1 points last season), but who cares? "I think I can rebound even better this year and have a future in the game," he says. He's already established himself as the kind of guy most players would rather play with than against. It says so right there in the tattoo on his right biceps: LOVED BY FEW, HATED BY MANY.