Inglewood High forward Paul Pierce is walking proof of what a difference a year can make for a basketball player.
It was about this time last season, as a sophomore, that the 6-foot-6, 190-pound Pierce expected to be sent down to the junior varsity team after spending the season’s first 12 games on the varsity bench.
“We were going to cut him,” Coach Pat Roy said. “But in our last tournament one kid got sick and another two went out of town, so we had no other choice than to play him. He did real well, and he kept getting better.”
By the end of the season, Pierce was starting for the Sentinels, who won the Bay League title and finished 20-10.
Pierce has since blossomed into one of the state’s top juniors and is already being recruited by colleges such as Kansas, Duke, UCLA, USC and Nevada Las Vegas.
“From a coach’s standpoint, I screwed up,” Roy said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think he’d become the superstar he is. He just started to play with intensity. He was fired up and his morale was high. He started making moves to the basket and doing everything.”
Nobody is sure what initiated Pierce’s transformation, but he attributes some of his success to his half-brother, Steve Hosey.
Hosey, an outfielder for the San Jose Giants, a Class-A team of the San Francisco Giants, helped Pierce with his attitude and intensity.
“After my freshman year in the summer league, I didn’t get much playing time and I was going to check out of school and go somewhere else,” Pierce said. “But my brother told me to stay and work hard and try to make (Inglewood) better.
“Now he’ll come up to me if my head’s down and tell me to just think positive and not to worry. Just to go out and work hard.”
Inglewood senior point guard Sam Turk said Pierce’s change in attitude was apparent, and attributes Pierce’s success to confidence.
“He didn’t have the confidence to play his game,” Turks said. “He was trying to play the coach’s game. But, finally when the coaches got some confidence in him, he was able to start playing the way he can.”
With Pierce leading the way, Inglewood is 4-0 this season after sweeping through the Pacific Shores tournament two weeks ago. Pierce was named the tournament’s most valuable player after scoring 34, 24 and 22 points in the Sentinels’ last three games. After a layoff, Inglewood resumes play Saturday against Huntington Park in the first round of the Pacific Open tournament at Santa Monica College.
“I tip my hat to him,” said Redondo Coach Jim Nielsen, whose Sea Hawks lost to Inglewood, 86-64, in the Pacific Shores championship game. “I think he has good range and understands the game really well. He’s just a superior player and a big-time prospect.”
Some compare Pierce to Rick Price of Serra, a 6-6 senior guard who will attend Duke and was recently named the top high school player in the western United States in a poll of coaches and scouts.
“As of right now he’s being considered and recognized the same way Price is,” said scout Don Mead of Don Mead and Associates. “He’s not as quick as Rick, but he’s bigger. We’ll have to see how much more he grows, but he probably won’t be an inside player in college.”
Pierce’s game is not limited to the inside. Roy said he will regularly put Pierce at shooting guard or small forward, explaining that his versatility is one of his biggest strengths.
“He’s like 60% of our offense and (gets) 60% of our defensive rebounds,” Roy said. “That’s putting a lot of pressure on somebody to do it all. But, he’s kind of like the Magic (Johnson) of our team. The Lakers went to Magic, Inglewood goes to Paul.”
Although he is only a junior, Pierce was named Inglewood’s captain. Roy said it has helped Pierce emerge as a leader.
“He’s the best captain we’ve had,” Roy said. “He goes out and makes sure everybody is stretching and focused. He wants to win and he knows that it will take discipline.”
Turks has also been a factor in Pierce’s emergence. Pierce said when he was a freshman, he admired Turks, who at the time was a sophomore playing on the varsity.
“I saw him when he was a sophomore on the varsity and I knew that was where I wanted to be, and it drove me,” Pierce said. “Sam and I are very close friends off the court. On the court we’re kind of like (John) Stockton and (Karl) Malone, because we play better with each other.”
With all the attention Pierce has gotten, and will get, people close to him say he hasn’t changed.
“He handles it all real well,” Roy said. “He’s real meek and mild-mannered. It seems like the more notoriety he gets, the harder he works.”
If anything, Pierce has gone out of his way to ignore the attention.
“Right now I don’t even think about all of it,” Pierce said. “Everybody on this team is an equal, and I don’t want my teammates to think I’m going to change because of what may happen to me.”