If you caught last spring's NCAA tournament, you no doubt saw 7-foot Eric Montross of North Carolina take his buzzcut to interior defenses like a Brillo pad to dirty dishes. But if you concluded from the Tar Heels' championship that Double-Aught Eric and his prehistoric game represent the standard for college centers today, there's someone we'd like you to meet.
His name is Avondre Jones. He'll be a freshman at Southern Cal this season. And he harbors a very specific fantasy.
"I want to bring Shaq out on the wing, O.K.?" Jones says, referring to that icon of inside domination, Shaquille O'Neal of the NBA's Orlando Magic. "I'd pump to the right, give him that Tim Hardaway crossover dribble, then spin past him...like that!"
This reverie wouldn't be so remarkable were it not for one niggling detail: Jones stands 6'11". He can essentially look O'Neal in the eye. Yet he's hardly alone in possessing the potential to one day act out so impudent a scenario. This season's freshman class features a whole new species of big man, a highly skilled, low-post-resistant strain. Jones, Duke's Joey Beard and Greg Newton, Wisconsin's Rashard Griffith, North Carolina's Rasheed Wallace, Massachusetts's Marcus Camby and Arkansas's Darnell Robinson all go 6'9" or taller. They join an existing group of Balanchine behemoths—players like 6'9" Juwan Howard of Michigan, 6'11" Cherokee Parks of Duke, 7'3" Constantin Popa of Miami, 6'9" Clifford Rozier of Louisville, 6'10" Othella Harrington of Georgetown, 6'11" Sharone Wright of Clemson and 6'11" Derrick Alston of Duquesne—players who have a jumper and a handle and can run the floor. Together they threaten to reconfigure the game for the next millennium.
Not since the arrival on campus of the high school class of '88, which ultimately delivered Alonzo Mourning, Christian Laettner, Shawn Kemp, Oliver Miller and Jerrod Mustaf to the pros, has a group of first-year players held so much promise. "This class may have more depth and quality in its big kids than any previous recruiting class," says Van Coleman, who follows the recruiting scene for Future Stars magazine. "As many as 10 of them could end up in the NBA."
Jones's coach, George Raveling, calls the new kids "camp boomers." They have played year-round for so many seasons, doing all the station drills on the game's fundamentals at summer camp after summer camp, that they're now eager and able to unleash those skills over 94 feet. A cut from O'Neal's new rap album, Shaq Diesel, could be the anthem of this confident and versatile new breed. It's title: (I Know I Got) Skillz.
What's so noteworthy about these big men is how they can be deployed. Time was when most pivotmen were like Montross or Oklahoma State's 7-foot Bryant Reeves (page 44) or George Washington's 7'1" Yinka Dare, centers who were comfortable with their backs to the basket, playing the low post as the hub for an offense's wheel. Using that fixed point, teammates played Take a Number—1, 2, 3 or 4—for spots around their redoubtable 5.
Having such a big man meant almost a sure trip to the Final Four. Yet a full decade has now passed since Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, Houston's Akeem Olajuwon, Kentucky's Mel Turpin and Virginia's Olden Polynice did orthodox battle in Seattle at the 1984 Final Four. Since then frontcourt supremacy in the postseason has been ceded to smaller, quicker big men like Laettner of Duke, Danny Manning of Kansas, Larry Johnson of UNLV and Chris Webber of Michigan, all of whom became forwards in the NBA.
A basketball-savvy generation—call it Generation X 'n' O—has taken note. "In the recruiting process, you can lose a lot of kids if you tell them they're going to be down in the paint," says Jeff Jones, coach at Virginia, which has featured a faster, more diminutive frontcourt ever since Polynice left, in 1986. Adds Western Kentucky's Ralph Willard, "We sell our big kids on how they're not going to be sumo wrestlers inside. They're going to face the basket, put the ball on the floor, shoot the three and become complete players."
Bob Bender, the new coach at Washington, just shakes his head. "Calling a player 'real hard-nosed' used to be a compliment," he says. "Now it's almost become a negative. Like, Don't I have any talent?"