Two roads diverged as a pair of basketball prospects weighed their college choices. One chose the road having perhaps the better claim because it was grassy and wanted wear. The other took the road less traveled by.
After joining forces for the West squad in the McDonald’s All-American game tonight in Louisville, Ky., Jerryd Bayless and James Harden will find themselves on opposite sides of one of college basketball’s most lopsided rivalries.
Bayless chose to follow the path of Mike Bibby, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye from Phoenix to the University of Arizona to, hopefully, the NBA.
Like Mesa Red Mountain’s Kayla Pedersen, a Stanford signee who will play in the McDonald’s All American girls game this afternoon, Bayless is just another in a long line of blue chip prospects to make the obvious college choice. When he arrives in Tucson this fall he’ll become the 15th McDonald’s All-American in program history.
Harden chose to tread a unique path from Los Angeles to Arizona State to, hopefully, the NBA. When he and Duke transfer Eric Boateng suit up this fall, they’ll be only the third and fourth McDonald’s All-Americans to play for ASU.
In addition to their All-America credentials, both Harden and Bayless will bring explosive offensive skills and loads of hype to the college game. But the similarities end there according to Jerry Meyer, the national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.
“They’re quite different,” he said this week from Louisville, Ky. “Bayless’ game is based a lot more on his athleticism and his ability to elevate. Harden has a little more of a crafty game and high basketball IQ. They’re both very good players. They just go about it differently.”
Bayless, the Tribune’s Player of the Year the last two seasons, averaged 33 points per game as a senior at Phoenix St. Mary’s and probably would have broken Bibby’s career scoring record if not for a lengthy recovery from an arm injury his sophomore season.
He’s a deadly one-on-one player and uses his quick first step to create space before stepping back for long jumpers. However, he’ll have to continue to develop his playmaking abilities as he moves from shooting guard to the point at UA.
Hype is nothing new for Bayless, who was identified early by recruiters as a can’t-miss prospect and received tremendous hype even as a freshman. Though Texas made a late push for Bayless’ services, the logical road for a Valley basketball prospect was through UA.
“I think (the hype is) more now going into UofA, because obviously a lot of people didn’t see me play when I was an eighth grader,” said Bayless, who is ranked ninth among the class of 2007 prospects by both Rivals.com and Scout.com. “It’s a much bigger deal now and college fans are a lot crazier than high school fans. A lot of people have seen me play and hopefully I’ll get the same kind of success that I had here.”
The hype surrounding Harden didn’t begin to increase until later in his career.
He averaged 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists as a senior in leading Lakewood (Calif.) Artesia to a second-straight California Division III state championship. He’s extremely accurate from long range and, with unusual size (6-5) and length for his position, causes problems for teams defensively.
Recruiting services took note of his big junior and senior seasons by aggressively pushing him up the rankings and into the top 15 nationally. When ASU hired his high school coach, Scott Pera, as an assistant and awarded a scholarship to Artesia teammate Derek Glasser, Harden’s mind was made up.
“That doesn’t surprise me these days,” Meyers said. “Recruiting today is based so much on the players’ personal relationships with the coaches recruiting them. The tradition of the school and the name of the school don’t mean as much as they used to.”
Harden wasn’t the first (and won’t be the last) top prospect to choose the road rarely taken to a low-profile program, but only time will tell if that choice will have made all the difference.
The list of McDonald’s All-Americans to attend Arizona outweighs the list of such players to attend Arizona State
Craig McMillan, 1984
Sean Elliott, 1985
Chris Mills, 1986
Brian Williams, 1987
Khalid Reeves, 1990
Ben Davis, 1991
Mike Bibby, 1996
Loren Woods, 1996
Richard Jefferson, 1998
Jason Gardner, 1999
Hassan Adams, 2002
Mustafa Shakur, 2003
Jawann McClellan, 2004
Chase Budinger, 2006
Jerryd Bayless, 2007
Byron Scott, 1979
Chris Sandle, 1984
Eric Boateng, 2005
James Harden, 2007