While pro hoopers tend to reach the peak of their abilities in the NBA, we take pride in the fact that we begin covering the world’s best players before they’re the world’s best players: when they’re in high school, still unknown to the majority of the basketball world. This week and next we’ll be looking back at the PUNKS features that introduced a variety of current NBAers to our faithful readers. (Peep what we’ve ran in this series to date at the bottom of this post.) Up next: the Baron Davis piece below, originally printed in SLAM 19 (August ’97).—Ed.
by Anthony McCarron
Think how those kids in the 10-year-olds’ league at South Central’s Bethune Park felt when they learned that the shorty killin’ them was just a punk second-grader. Seven years old. That’s when Baron Davis got the flow. He told a small story to league organizers, adding three years to his age because “I had to play, man,” Davis says. “Had to.”
So he’s gone from watching his older cousins on the playground to getting watched himself. The players in the ‘hood, L.A.’s hoop-crazy high school fans and the biggest names in college coaching have all sat and stared in wonder at the point g from Santa Monica Crossroads High who may be the best prep playmaker in the nation.
“Oh, he’s ill, that’s for sure,” says fellow McDonald’s All-American Ron Artest of Manhattan’s LaSalle Academy. “Baron’s slick, smoove.”
It’s not easy for Artest to talk sweet on Davis, either. Davis soared past Artest and the rest of the Happy Meal-types in Colorado Springs in March to be the Biggest Mac in the game’s slam dunk contest. The key? Talkin’ the same mess Seattle’s Gary Payton, another California point g, has made a career out of dishing.
“I kinda jinxed the comp,” Davis says with a mischievous grin. “I won mentally by saying I’d win, playing the psychological role.”
Davis, 18, got in Artest’s ear with “You have no chance.” And before 6-10 Melvin Ely of Harvey, IL, Thornton High took his turn, Davis got in his ear, too: “Miss for me, I’ll pay you.”
The dunk contest was just for fun, but Baron’s buggin’ when the ball goes up on the real, too. He yaps like a backfence gossip whenever the other guy’s got the ball.
“All kinda comments, everything,” the 6-2 Davis says. “I’ll tell a player I’m scared of him. I say a lot of way-out stuff. I try to make opponents mad—that’s my job, it throws ‘em off. They’re concentrating on me instead of the game. They’re trying to shut me up, which is impossible, cause I talk too much.”
When he talks to teammates, they listen. That’s the kind of playmaker Davis is. Crossroads won California’s Division IV championship, thanks to Davis’ defense, perimeter game and penetration. Davis was MVP at the Las Vegas Holiday Prep Classic and at the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, SC.
In the McDonald’s game, he racked up 12 points, 4 assists and 3 steals. This is how valuable West coaches thought Davis was—in a mega-star game like the McDonald’s, where future NBAers are pining for playing time, Davis played a game-high 30 minutes. He also helped provide the game’s get-up-on-your-feet moment when he through a pristine inbounds alley-oop pass to Kansas-bound Kenny Gregory.
“I love exciting plays,” Davis says. “The most exciting part of a game is the last two minutes. And that’s when I like to see three-pointers and dunks. Just give me a few of those.”
“He is the type of guard who will take over a game when his teammates need him, but Baron can play the role of distributing the ball and running the team,” say Crossroads coach Daryl Roper.
Says recruiting guru Tom Konchalski, “I think Baron’s the best senior point guard in the country. He has the best package of athleticism, understanding of the game and level of skill. He’s a lot like Jacque Vaughn—he’s more offensive-minded, but he has the same makeup. He’s a good defender and has a good basketball feel.
“He can dominate the game at both ends. Very few players can.”
Skills like that and stats like this—25 points, 8 assists, 8 boards per contest—mean that a lot of schools want Davis running things next year. Here’s the list: UCLA, Georgia Tech, Kansas and Duke. He orally committed to UCLA early in the year, but backed off when Jim Harrick was fired.
“It’s up to me now to evaluate,” Davis says. “Everyone is basically the same.”
After school? The League is the move. “Any baller—that’s [their] dream,” Davis says. “That’s why I play now, for the opportunity. I’ve always wanted to make it for me, my family and everyone in the neighborhood. The NBA is the ultimate accomplishment.”
Until he gets there, though, Davis still has to earn his respect even at Bethune Park or South Park Elementary School, his “outdoor gyms, every day growing up.”
“The games are still real tough there,” Davis says. “You still gotta work to get yours.”
But facing any challenging game, Davis flashes that confident grin again and gives the answer you expect before it ever leaves his mouth: “My team’ll win.”
Yeah, he’s still yapping.