New Mexico’s Finest


by Eldon Khorshidi | @eldonadam

This past summer, on a sun-beaming, clear-skied August afternoon, I was fortunate enough to spend the better part of a day at the Rudy Davalos Basketball Center in Albuquerque, NM. Craig Neal, the Associate Head Coach at the University of New Mexico, graciously welcomed me to UNM’s state-of-the-art campus and athletic facility.

Over the span of three or so hours, Coach Neal hospitably took me behind the scenes of the newly renovated Lobos program, walking me through everything from the Danny Granger-built locker room to the world-famous Lobo Pit to the team’s training and equipment rooms. It was an honor to chat with Coach Neal, discussing a number of topics, from his storied college and professional playing career to his unbelievably accomplished scouting and coaching career to so much more.

Hailing from basketball-crazed Muncie, IN, Neal was an all-League player for Bobby Cremins and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the mid-1980s. He set the ACC single-season assist record (303) in 1988, which remained for 24 years until Kendall Marshall finally eclipsed the mark last season. Neal then embarked on an eight-year professional career in the NBA and CBA. After retirement, Neal worked a decade in the NBA, most notably as Lenny Wilkins’ lead assistant in Toronto during the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Not to belabor the point, but just to give you an idea: It was Neal who, in 1997, once spent a week at Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, NC, scouting—and essentially discovering—a young man by the name of Tracy McGrady.

For a long list of reasons—a list too extensive to explain here—that mid-August afternoon was one of the most exciting and memorable days I’ve ever had.

Through all of it, though, one image still resonates within me the most: Walking into the Davalos Center and observing a 6-4, 170-pound guard consistently sink NBA-range three-pointers. Catch, rise, release, swish, repeat.

That lanky guard, I soon found out, was Class of 2013 recruit Cullen Neal, Coach Neal’s first-born son who is committed to play at St. Mary’s College (CA) next fall.

After warming up for a few minutes, Coach Neal put Cullen through an NBA-level training workout. It first started with curling around “screens” (in this case, cones) to catch-and-shoot from all spots and distances on the floor, then progressed to two-ball dribbling drills, threading-the-needle passing drills, and cumulative exercises where all the smaller, specialized drills meshed together—such as Cullen dribbling up the court with two balls, then letting one of them go and pulling-up for a jumpshot, then instantaneously receiving another ball to catch-and-shoot, then again receiving another ball to weave his way through the lane and finish strong—first a layup, then a reverse, then a high-arching floater, and then a dunk.

From the onset of the workout, it was immediately clear that Cullen Neal is not only one of the best players in the state of New Mexico, but an elite talent who can compete with any point guard in the country.

Equipped with a solid frame, nice handle and unlimited range, Neal is tenacious point guard who is explosive off the dribble and automatic on the catch-and-shoot. He is a dynamic playmaker who can initiate and facilitate offense, and mentally is advanced years beyond his age.

As a junior, the lanky guard led the Eldorado Eagles to a state championship, averaging 27.7 points, 5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.1 steals per game, and was named Gatorade Player of the Year in New Mexico, distinguishing himself as one of the best players in the nation. In Eldorado’s season-opener earlier this week, Neal scored 22 points to help his team jump out to a strong start in its quest for a championship repeat.

Cullen’s all-around game and leadership should have an immediate impact for the Gaels, who will lose senior guard and Australian Olympian Matthew Dellavedova to graduation at the end of the year. Coach Randy Bennett and his staff will look for Neal to step in right away, and if my few hours at UNM told me anything, it’s that he’s ready—and more importantly, prepared—for the challenge.

SLAMonline recently caught up with Cullen to discuss his development, approach to the game, success in the classroom, eagerness to play for the Gaels and much more.

SLAM: How’s everything going, Cullen? What have you been up to since the summer time?

Cullen Neal: I’m doing well, thanks. Since summer, it’s just been school and basketball, all the time. Before our season started, I was constantly in the weight room trying to get stronger, and also doing individual workouts. And now with the season underway, I’m still working out and doing workouts, but I’m fully concentrated on winning games and leading our team to another successful season.

SLAM: You can play both point guard and shooting guard very well. What position do you see yourself playing in college?

CN: I see myself playing point guard, because at 6-4, I have a height advantage on most point guards, and I’m a pass-first kind of guy. Last year, I played shooting guard at Eldorado because we had a nice senior point guard, but this year I’ll be playing point guard, and I’m really excited about it.

SLAM: Is there a difference in your approach toward playing the positions?

CN: No, I approach them both the same, because on my high school team, we have two interchangeable guards, so whoever gets the ball can bring it up and set up the offense.

SLAM: Last year, you were named Gatorade Player of the Year. How did it feel, and what did it mean, to win that award?

CN: It was a great accomplishment for me. I got to experience a bunch of cool stuff, and it was an honor to receive the trophy and see my name with some of the top players in the country. So it meant a lot, but really, it was a collective award for me. I wouldn’t have won the award if it weren’t for my teammates and coaches who contributed and helped put me in a position to succeed. Hopefully I can win it again this year.

SLAM: How would you describe your game to someone who hasn’t seen you play?

CN: I describe myself as a point guard with a strong scoring ability, great court vision and a high basketball IQ. I can see the floor well, and see plays before they develop. In terms of passing, I can make passes with both hands, which I think is an essential skill of mine. And I can score from all over the court—I can make three-pointers, hit the mid-range jumpshot and also attack the basket.

SLAM: You were recruited by a number of high-major schools, but you ultimately chose St. Mary’s. What do you like about the Gaels?

CN: There are many reasons, but first off, I love the coaching staff. Coach Randy Bennett and me have developed a great relationship. Another reason is I’ll have the opportunity to come in and play right away, which was important to me. And I know location is not a huge thing, but I love where St. Mary’s is at; the Bay Area is beautiful.

SLAM: You committed relatively early in the process. Any specific reason behind that?

CN: Well, I just knew St. Mary’s was right for me. I didn’t want to wait and drag it out, because I knew that the coaches who recruited me first were the ones who really wanted me the most. So I knew that I was going to look at those schools more seriously and put them at the top, because that’s what I wanted—to get it done early and just concentrate on improving as a player.

SLAM: You’re already committed, so this doesn’t really matter much, but just as a competitive kid trying to come up in basketball, high school basketball in New Mexico is generally overlooked by most people. Do you pay attention to the rankings, or put a lot of weight on public recognition and all that stuff?

CN: I mean, somewhat, but in the end it really doesn’t matter. What truly matters is how you play on the court. You can be really good and you can never be seen, and therefore you won’t be ranked that high, but it doesn’t mean you’re not a good basketball player. Of course, the rankings are going to put the best players out there, but still, they don’t define you.

SLAM: How’s the Eldorado team looking this year?

CN: We’re looking good. We return three starters, and like 10 guys total. We won the State Championship last year, which is something I’m still very proud of. This year we’re trying to defend and repeat.

SLAM: What’s your mindset this year, until you arrive on campus next fall?

CN: I’m just trying to be the best player I can be for when I get there; just trying to improve and work hard every single day.

SLAM: What’s the biggest strength in your game?

CN: I would say my basketball IQ, court vision and scoring ability would be my three biggest strengths.

SLAM: What does IQ mean? In terms of knowing how to maximize a pick-and-roll, knowing how to get your teammates open and involved, knowing how to make the correct basketball play…?

CN: Oh, I think it means being a leader and being the smartest person on the floor—seeing plays before they happen, being able to make plays for both your teammates and yourself.

SLAM: What aspect of your game do you think you need to improve on the most?

CN: I think my strength. I’ve been in the weight room a lot over the past few months, like four or fives times a week. I just need to continue with that, because once you get stronger everything else tends to become a little easier.

SLAM: In addition to your athletic responsibilities and performance, you’re an honor student in the classroom. How do you maintain both basketball and schoolwork at such a high level?

CN: Honestly, basketball and school are pretty much my life. I know that if I don’t get it done in the classroom, there’s no way I’ll get it done on the court. The two go hand-in-hand for me. My parents have also instilled a strong work ethic within me.

SLAM: It seems like you have a very close-knit family. How have your parents helped with your development?

CN: I’ve learned so much from my parents that I can’t really fit it into a few sentences. One thing my dad has instilled in me is to always play hard. He always stresses to give it your all in whatever you do—don’t ever go 50 percent, or 70 percent. You have to go 100 percent, because that’s the only way you’re going to get better, no matter what. My mom, too. She always helps me out with my schoolwork, and supports everything we’re trying to accomplish. I have a younger brother, Dalton, who I’m real close with and is on our team as well. We just try to soak up as much guidance and advice from our parents as possible, and I’m thankful for it all.