With college basketball season tipping off this week, we’ll be running a number of previously published features that documented a current NBA star during his NCAA come-up. We’ve already posted a Q+A with then Cal sophomore Jason Kidd, a Lamar Odom piece written right before he suited up for URI, and a profile of Dwyane Wade around the time he was tearing it up at Marquette University. Up next, this story about big man LaMarcus Aldridge, penned while LA was ballin’ at the University of Texas. This was originally printed in SLAM 97.—Ed.
by Ben Osborne | @bosborne17
Unwittingly, University of Texas big man LaMarcus Aldridge has become a bit of a science experiment, one that’s about to become reality for most top college programs in the wake of the NBA’s age restriction. Were it posed as a two-part question before the season, it would’ve read like this: Assuming the Longhorn sophomore recovers fully from last year’s hip injury, how well will he—the most NBA-ready college player in America—play, and how will he be utilized by his college team? Potential observers of the experiment could include Ohio State’s Thad Matta, who will have Lotto lock Greg Oden in Columbus next year.
Through the first three months of the season, the experiment had yielded mixed (but mostly positive) results for the 17-3 Longhorns, if not for the 6-10, 240-pound Aldridge, who has solidified his place atop many mock Draft boards. This may be news to some fans, since the Horns’ reign as the No. 2 team in America was shorter than Lil’ Flip, crushed by a hail of JJ Redick
threes back in December. But none of that was the fault of Aldridge, the Dallas product one Eastern Conference exec refers to thusly: “As much a number one as Andrew Bogut. Different type of player, but just as good—if not better.”
Through Texas’ first 20 games this season, Aldridge was averaging team highs of 16.7 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 2.1 bpg. Just as impressive is Aldridge’s preposterous efficiency: LaMarcus was hitting 63 percent of his shots from the floor, good for a spot on the national leaderboard. While he can—and does—get points on midrange jumpers and a nifty jump hook, even more come from athletic dunks that Aldridge gets with ease off the break or his well-polished low-post moves.
As Duke’s Josh McRoberts said after the Devils beat Texas—despite Aldridge’s 21 points on 8 of 13 shooting—“There’s only so much you can do against him. I thought we played great defense against him and he still ended up with 21. That just shows you’re a good player, that a defense can be focused on stopping you and you still score.”
Adds Texas coach Rick Barnes, “LaMarcus does what he does every night out, and he’s consistent. Offensively, it’s just a matter of him wanting the ball, because he can do a lot of great things with it when he gets it.”
There’s the experiment again—how well will he be utilized? In Texas’ other early loss, against Tennessee, LaMarcus took all of five shots—and made four. This is a problem that everyone, from LaMarcus to his teammates to Barnes, should try and fix before the Horns flame out in the Sweet 16 rather than go to the Final Four they’re talented enough to reach. LaMarcus explains his own culpability: “Coach says I should come down every play and ask for the ball. I don’t have to shoot it every time, just give it to me and play off of me…In high school, my coach established that I was supposed to get the ball every play, so they knew I had to touch it.”
Aldridge’s coach at Dallas’ Seagoville High School, the affable and entertaining Robert Allen, recalls his rule energetically. “No doubt! I said everything goes through LaMarcus because he’s unstoppable,” says Allen. “I’d say, If he doesn’t touch the ball, some of y’all are coming out. He shoots at a high percentage, and he gets the other team in foul trouble and lets us get in the bonus quickly.”
If Texas were a low-major team with LaMarcus and no one else, a strong case could be made that the Horns should adopt the same policy. Barnes, of course, is coaching under much different circumstances than Allen was. For one thing, opposing defenses are a lot more serious in college than high school. Aldridge may still be the best player on the floor, but he’s no longer the biggest. And Mike Krzyzewski draws up slightly better defenses than some substitute teacher in suburban Dallas. “Last year I wasn’t seen as an offensive threat, but now I am,” LA says. “They’re really trying to keep the ball out of my hands.”
The other “problem” with forcing Aldridge the ball comes in the form of his teammates, no slouches themselves. When not injured, senior big man Brad Buckman has soft hands and a possible pro career of his own that needs promoting. Junior swingman PJ Tucker is the most demonstrative Longhorn, playing with a fire that deserves praise—and a fair number of shots per game. And sophomore point guard Daniel Gibson, an old friend of Aldridge’s, is an NBA-caliber player in his own right. Barnes has mentioned all three as more likely sources of “leadership” than LaMarcus.
Allen agrees, to a point. “LaMarcus leads more by example,” he says. “We do a lot of conditioning, and if we ran a mile, he finished first. If we ran sprints, he finished first. You know how a lot of coaches split up their big men and guards when they run? I don’t do that, and he still ran the fastest.”
Aldridge was fast, and big, and generally well liked by adults and kids throughout high school. “I’d heard of a 6-9 eighth grader at the middle school and I went to meet him,” Allen recalls of the first time he met LaMarcus. “It didn’t take long for me to figure out that this was the type of player and person that we’d want in our program.”
Aldridge’s prodigious scoring on the court and stellar performance in the classroom earned him the state POY award and Dallas’ Scholar-Athlete of the Year honor as a senior in 2004. It was enough of a résumé that Aldridge could have gone to school anywhere, or not at all, which is what most top athletic big men had done this millennium. Instead, he followed in the footsteps of his good friend and mentor, fellow Dallas native Chris Bosh, and headed to college.
“I was real close to turning pro,” he recalls. “I’d say it came down to the wire.
I was sitting there with Coach Allen, my mother, Coach Barnes. Did I want to go pro right away just to get there, or did I want to become someone who could be a dominant player when I got there?”
Choosing the more patient path, Aldridge started the first 16 games of his freshman year. He was averaging 10 ppg on 66 percent shooting when he tore cartilage in his hip last January, ending his season and any chance that he’d follow Bosh as a one-and-done Lottery pick. But where others may have let the injury shut them down for a while, Aldridge kept his head up, going to class and working out as soon as he was allowed. His smarts and attitude have long made Aldridge unique, and an injury wasn’t going to change him—or his decision to attend college in the first place. “I feel like I made a great decision,” he says. “I’m learning and experiencing new things every day.”
Aldridge came back this season stronger, and better, than ever. He can score in more ways than last year, and he’s become a better defensive player as well—if not yet as good a shot blocker as Barnes says he will become. While many college prognosticators overlooked just how good Aldridge could be this season, the pro scouts anticipated it, and they brought their clipboards out to the championship round of November’s Guardians Classic to document it. Aldridge calmly rose to the occasion for 15, 14 and a game-clinching block against West Virginia before dropping 18 and 12 on Iowa, earning the ’Horns an overshadowed tournament win and establishing just how nice he really is. Just not nice enough for him to consider himself his team’s star. “I just want us to run our offense,” he says. “I think it’s unlimited how good we can get, once we understand the roles and get into them.”
There’s no question in the mind of Aldridge’s high school coach who that guy should be. “I think he’s playing well this season, though I would like him to be more offensive-minded,” says Allen, who coached Bosh when CB was a freshman in high school and still watches his “eerily similar” protégés whenever they’re on the tube. “It’s mostly ’cause he’s so team-oriented. Sometimes I’ll see him get the ball and pass it back without even looking at how he could score. In a way, I think he will be even better in the pro game. Most guys that play like him are there.”
Exactly. And Aldridge knows this, sort of. “I like to watch KG, Tim, my friend Chris Bosh, and see how they do things,” he says. “Some things would be easier there with the different defenses they play, but right now I’m focused on improving my game as much as possible.”
But just when we’re ready to finally mark him down as officially confident, Aldridge goes back in humble mode. “Still, it’s not to the point where I’m like, I should be there.”
Not yet, maybe, but let’s just say that point is coming fast.