by Justin Cherot
I remember it being my first week at Towson University after getting my Associate’s Degree from Howard Community College
(but only after famously bombing at the University of Maryland). I was 22 without any semblance of back issues, so I decided to trek down to Burdick Hall to get my hoop on. I had been there before once or twice so I knew that I couldn’t get there a second prior to 4 PM, otherwise I would have had to wait due to the gym’s unusual 4-9 hours of operation, a stark contrast from the “act like you’re going to class but play ball the entire day” hours at CP.
So I decided to show up fashionably late at 4:15, which is a dumb idea when the other students want to get their hoop on during a minimal five-hour window. I walked into the gym and saw a full-fledged game going on with at least 15 people waiting on the good court (you know, because I delusionally fancy myself as good). I roll up to a dude with Iverson braids and ask him what the wait was like.
“I got last,” he said, “I’m two games down. You can run because you look like a dark-skinned version of Pepe Sanchez.”
Slightly insulted (not because I’m racist but because Sanchez can’t shoot), I nodded my head. With nothing else to do, I decided to get some stretching in and watch the action on the court.
I remember being intrigued by this one relatively wiry, 6’3″ dude. He was lighting up the other team. Big deal, right? People go off all the time in pick-up games, even happens with myself on occasion (though not as much anymore because of my aforementioned back problems). But I was intrigued by the way he was scoring. He knocked down contested jumpers off the dribble while making weird sound effects whenever he made a move. He banked in 28-foot threes for absolutely no other reason but to challenge himself. He shot one-legged fade-aways like he had just finished watching a Dirk Nowitzki fundamental tape. I mean, nobody was stopping dude from doing whatever he wanted.
I’m not exaggerating when I say I watched him make 15 straight shots in game action before I even got on the court… not like I personally was going to change things because at 5’10” I’m not stopping anybody. In fact, when we got on the court he upped that total to 18. No, we weren’t going to win that game. Not a chance.
Two things stick out in my mind about that game: first, I remember him being isolated against me on one play. I actually thought, “Hey, maybe I can bother him enough to miss.” Either that or he banked in a step-back 26-footer while making sound effects. “Whoa… oh…uh-oh…cash.”
The second thing was the most unbelievable event in the history of mankind. He went behind the back from right to left, leaving the defender staggering backwards slightly. He rose to shoot. The ball had perfect arch. He had perfect mechanics.
But somehow the ball bounced out of the rim.
Which didn’t happen much last night–or throughout his short NBA career so far– to San Antonio Spurs’ guard Gary Neal en route to a ridiculous 4th quarter comeback win against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Maybe nobody else outside of Towson University knew he would be a factor in the NBA, but it took witnessing precisely one pick-up session to tell he was legit… not to mention the 25 a game he averaged to do the impossible and make the Tigers mediocre.
In a postseason where it looks like I’m not going to get any of my predictions right–that is, unless OKC figures out that Manu Ginobili is left-handed–it’s nice to know I was ahead of the curve on this one:
OK, so by now you know I go to Towson University (I’m actually writing this entry in the library before class). I know that gives me the right to be biased about my school’s sports, but what I’m about to say doesn’t include any bias:
The Tiger’s Gary Neal is the best shooting guard in the country.
And he gets absolutely no pub for it.
Go to NBAdraft.net. Look for his name. It’s not on the first page which basically lists the 58 players projected to go in the draft. That’s OK, he goes to a small school. Look at the top prospects in the Class of 2007. Nothing. That’s a tough list to crack I guess, lots of players going to big schools. Let’s check one more place. Let’s look at the best players by position who are eligible for the draft, focusing on shooting guards. Not in the top ten, but let’s check the honorable mention. Um… now we’ve got a problem.
25.9 points per game. Four rebounds. Almost four assists. And not a peep from anyone, especially after finishing third in the nation in scoring last year.
I know I’m going to catch flack for this. Yes, he does go to Towson, a mid-major Division I school in a mid-major conference. But, some things just can’t be ignored. The NBA Draft is all about picking up someone who you think will succeed on the NBA level. Neal is 6-4, and while he may be undersized as a two guard in the league, he’s taller than Ben Gordon, Allen Iverson, and Gilbert Arenas. I’m not saying he’s on the same level, but I don’t think there’s anyone on the college level who can shut him down. He’s a great shooter (though his three point numbers this year are down), and he can score off the dribble. You cannot stop him. I definitely think that if you put him on Maryland, he’d fare better than D.J. Strawberry (who’s listed as a second round choice) because he can score more consistently.
So, without his consent, I’m going to start the “Gary Neal in the NBA” campaign. You heard it here first.