As high-risk college basketball recruits go, J.R. Rider doesn't rate anywhere near Lloyd Daniels, the former New York City standout who was arrested in a Las Vegas drug bust and who is the focus of an NCAA investigation charging major violations against the Nevada Las Vegas program.
But Rebel Coach Jerry Tarkanian certainly took some flak for signing Rider, whose checkered past didn't seem to wash with the school's supposed effort to upgrade its image.
The Rider rap sheet:
After averaging 25 points and 13 rebounds a game during his junior year at Alameda Encinal High School, Rider was ruled academically ineligible to play his senior year and dropped out of school.
He signed with Kansas State but failed to qualify under Proposition 48 and went to Allen County College in Iola, Kan., where he averaged 31 points in 1989-90.
But Rider flunked three classes during the spring semester and ran into trouble with the law when he was arrested on misdemeanor theft and battery charges in connection with a fight. The theft charges were dismissed and Rider pleaded no contest to battery charges. He was given six months probation and fined $201.
Rider then enrolled at Antelope Valley College, where he was initially declared academically ineligible but successfully appealed that ruling and joined the team after seven games. Rider, a 6-foot-5 swingman, averaged 33.6 points last season, leading Antelope Valley to a 25-6 record.
When Rider signed with UNLV last spring, the Las Vegas media tore into Tarkanian. "The Father Flanagan of Basketball, Jerry Tarkanian, has done it again," wrote one columnist.
Tarkanian, though, didn't consider Rider a gamble.
"I liked the kid from the first time I met him," Tarkanian said. "He's a real personable guy and loyal. It's incredible that he came here even after I announced I was resigning. I didn't pay attention to all that other stuff."
Now that Rider is leading the Rebels in scoring entering tonight's game against Cal State Fullerton; now that Rider has stayed out of trouble in Las Vegas, fulfilled his academic requirements to remain eligible and appears to have matured, Tarkanian believes public opinion of Rider has changed.
"The local papers ripped us all the time for signing him, but now they love him," Tarkanian said. "He's the best interview on the team, and he's done nothing but positive things since he's been here. He's been to more grade schools to talk to kids than anyone on the team. He's been great--he hasn't caused any problems at all."
Rider, who missed Monday's victory over San Diego State because of a sprained ankle but is expected to play tonight, is averaging 21.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists for the 8-2 Rebels. And he doesn't really care what people think of him.
"When I first came here, people thought I was a real bad guy," Rider said. "But once they heard me speak, saw me on TV, saw my conduct in public, they changed their minds.
"I had problems in high school--I didn't do my work my senior year--and I'm still a little lazy when it comes to school. But I'm playing at this level now, and that speaks for itself."
So does his game, an aspect of Rider's life that he rarely has had to defend. Tarkanian says Rider, a junior, is a definite NBA prospect. He has made 25 of 71 three-pointers this season, he's quick and adept at driving to the basket, and he has a 41-inch vertical leap.
Rider, who played on the silver medal-winning North team with Indiana's Damon Bailey and North Carolina's Eric Montross in the 1990 Olympic Festival, has also made strides defensively.
"His defense was totally nonexistent when he got here," Tarkanian said. "He couldn't even get into a defensive stance. He was one of the reasons we went to a zone at the beginning of the year.
"But he's worked so hard that he's one of our best defenders now. He's real intense and fits in real well with the way we play. He usually guards the opponent's best wing player."
Rider is proud of his defense--"I've come a long way," he said--and believes his only weakness now is ballhandling. He's OK going to his right but still a bit tentative going to his left.
"I've been 6-5 since my sophomore year of high school and always played center, so I never really had the ball a whole lot," Rider said. "That's hurt me over the years, but the more exposure I get to it, the better I'll get. It's not like I'm in a panic mode when I get the ball. I just need to get better."
With NCAA sanctions keeping UNLV off live television and out of postseason play, Rider won't get much national exposure this year. But he's not worried about that hurting his professional chances.
"We're UNLV and scouts will be here because of the name," Rider said. "We also have (center) Elmore Spencer, who is expected to be a lottery pick, so you know the scouts will be there. Hopefully, that will work to my advantage."
Rider said he was considering turning pro after this season until he had sub-par performances against Louisiana State and Missouri, games that were heavily scouted. Now, he expects to remain in college another year.
"Tark and a lot of people think if I wait another year I could be a top draft pick," Rider said. "I'd love to come out and make a million this year, but I'm not in a rush."