Turning the Game Inside Out : Players Switch Positions in the Big Time

Times Staff Writer

Students of the game, let's face it. Basketball is a pretty easy science to figure out. Put a ball through a hoop and you score points.

Take all the exercises in strategy and screaming by all the coaches, all the talk about low-post this and power-game that, and it all comes down (or should that be up?) to putting the ball through the basket.

Coaches figured this out years ago. They also discovered that because the game was played 10 feet in the air, taller people seemed to have a distinct advantage at putting the ball through the basket and getting the ball when it failed to fall through.

You don't have to be Carl Sagan to figure this out. But here's a poser: How tall is tall?

Say, for example, that you're a senior in high school and you stand 6-feet 6-inches. You're tall. You see nothing but scalps as you walk the school's halls and nothing but the inside of the key when you play for the school's basketball team.

"A high school coach takes his tallest player and sticks him inside, close to the basket," said Jim Harrick, Pepperdine coach. "It makes sense, it's good basketball."

Harrick knows from where he speaks. He coached at Morningside High in Inglewood for nine years.

But then it comes time for you to take your 6-6 frame to college. You still stand out in Anthropology 101, but once you're on the court you're looking a lot of guys straight in the eyes. Others in the chin, one in the Adam's apple.

You're still 6-6, but instead of being IT inside, they're now calling you funny little names such as small forward or off guard.

Is that any way to speak about the former franchise of Hometown High?

The jump to college is tremendous. And one of the most critical adjustments a player makes is adjusting to a new position. To playing away from the basket, or facing the basket instead of posting up with his back toward the hoop.

"You're talking two different games, high school basketball to college basketball," Harrick said.

And different games need different players. More specifically, the college game demands taller players. Welcome to the BIG time.

So, 6-6 high school centers become small forwards in college.

Taking it a step further, Erik Martin, Whittier Christian's 6-6 center and Orange County's second leading scorer and rebounder, has signed to play at Texas Christian, where there is every indication he will play guard. Perhaps, point guard.

"I really think that with Erik's ballhandling skills that he'll end up playing guard," said Bill Cuccia, Whittier Christian coach.

Marina's Steve Guild (6-6) has signed to play at Pepperdine. He will play guard for the Waves.

Saddleback's Gylan Dottin (6-5) plays just about anywhere he wants these days, but projections for him in college definitely have him playing outside, 15 to 20 feet away from the basket.

The smart money says to start adjusting before college.

Now, it would be wonderful if that meant the tallest guy on the team would be allowed to play off guard so he could prepare himself for college. It's never going to happen.

Every coach interviewed, high school and college, agreed that a high school coach's first responsibility is to the success of his team.

"Everything else is secondary," said Steve Keith, Irvine coach. "You're hired to coach a team, not one kid."

The high school coaches interviewed did say they had no problem with helping a player develop those skills he will need in college. The difference is, they work with him during practice.

"I think you owe it to the exceptional kid to help him out," said Jim Perry, La Quinta coach. "You've got to help him develop the skills he'll need in college, and you've got to let him know what position college coaches are considering him at."

But when it comes to a game, a high school player is going to play where he's going to help the high school team. Last season at Tustin High, that meant 6-3 Rog Middleton played inside. Middleton had an uncanny ability to get the ball up in traffic against 6-6 centers.

But when he signed to play at Utah, he was put at a guard position, away from the basket. Less than two months into the season, he had left Utah.

Middleton said he left because he couldn't make the cultural and environmental adjustment. Translation: Too slow, too cold.

But Harrick thought it was a mistake for Middleton to go to Utah from the start.

"Some guys can't make the adjustment from inside to outside," he said. "Guards have to master many more skills than front line guys. Some guys can't do it. Knowing Roger, I thought it would be best for him to find a school that would let him play inside."

In fact, of the schools Middleton is currently considering, one strong candidate is the University of San Diego, which has told him they want him to play inside.

It can be done. Perry McDonald is not only a 6-3 forward at Georgetown, but he's the Hoyas' leading rebounder.

And yes, the examples set by 5-7 Spud Webb at North Carolina State and 5-3 Tyrone Bogues at Wake Forest are an inspiration to us all. But you're talking about extraordinary talent.

For the most part, as Harrick puts it, "college coaches are paranoid of any player that isn't at least 6-3."

So you start with a 6-3 to 6-5 point guard and work up.

Finding out where you fit in to the high rise landscape is part of the adjustment. More and more players are getting tough with college coaches and asking tougher questions.

"It's like a business," Guild said. "You look at who they have, who they have coming back and at what position. You have to pin them down to find out where you are probably going to play.

"You talk to them about tempo and the style of basketball they play. They're looking for something particular and so are you. It's business."

Guild decided on Pepperdine after he checked out that he would probably not be needed to bang bodies inside.

"I'd get killed in there," he said. "At off guard, where I'll play, I'll be able to drive and take the outside shot. But I won't take the pounding."

As Guild pointed out, finding a college may be the first time in a team player's career that he has to be unabashedly selfish.

George Dottin, Gylan's father, is a businessman, who, on business trips, has been known to stop in to practices of schools interested in his son. Most recently he checked out Joey Meyer's DePaul team.

"In my life I've just seen too many kids get lost by going to the wrong school that runs the wrong system for that kid," George said.

Keeping that in mind, George takes a hard line when talking to recruiters.

"I let them make their market pitch, then I got on them to tell me specifically where they plan to utilize Gylan," he said.

Said Gylan: "You've got to protect yourself."

In that precarious leap from high school to college, a tall body's best protection is versatile skills.

"The more things you can do, the more places you can play," Gylan said. "It's really that simple."

Like basketball itself.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World