Prep star to return luster to Point Guard U
PHOENIX - Besides being known as Point Guard U, the Wildcat men's basketball program has become the collegiate destination for the top Arizona high school talent - from Bibby to Jefferson to Frye.
If he lives up to the hype, Jerryd Bayless will be the next name on the list.
"All of them told me U of A might be the best possibility," Bayless said. "All the best players from Arizona go there."
The Phoenix St. Mary's High School junior committed to Arizona in late November after a courtship with the Wildcats that began when he was a mere eighth-grader.
The 6-foot-3, 180-pound guard ranks No. 7 in the recruiting service www.scout.com's class of 2007 rankings. Another recruiting service, www.rivals.com, ranks Bayless No. 11.
Scout.com West Coast recruiting analyst Greg Hicks ranks Bayless as the best shooting guard in the West in his class, qualifying him as the elite type of in-state talent that seems to always make its way to Tucson.
"They don't miss on too many guys," Hicks said. "Generally with the top kids in Arizona, if Arizona wants them, that's usually where they end up."
A star in the making
Watching Bayless on the floor, it is clear to see why scouts rave about the potential of a young man just barely old enough to drive. Bayless combines incredible athletic ability with a smooth jump shot that evokes comparisons to former Wildcats and current NBA stars Gilbert Arenas, Mike Bibby and Richard Jefferson.
Against high school competition, Bayless has the quickness to blow by defenders to get to the basket and the jumping ability to rise up for jump shots whenever he wishes.
"It's flattering, but I'm still not there yet with (any) of them," said Bayless, who has also played club basketball for Arizona Magic Blue. "I need to keep on working and hope that someday I will be there."
His athleticism and competitiveness make Bayless a can't-miss prospect and likely starter from his first game in a Wildcat uniform, Hicks said, but he projects Bayless to start at shooting guard instead of taking Arizona's heralded reins at point guard.
"He's a big-time scorer," said Hicks, who first started watching Bayless as a freshman. "His mindset is more a scorer than a guy setting everything else up at the next level."
In high school, Bayless is prone to taking bad shots, particularly fade-away jumpers, despite being able to consistently get past defenders.
"His approach, if it changes, could end up being to play point guard, but he's more suited to play shooting guard at this time," Hicks said. "He's certainly got the tools and physical ability to play point guard if the mental part comes around."
No man has a better track record at molding an athlete with raw talent into a professional player than Wildcats head coach Lute Olson. Of Olson's 10 former players currently in the NBA, six have starting roles with their respective clubs.
Bayless said Olson is the main reason he ultimately chose Arizona over competing finalist Texas.
"He's a legendary coach, and I want to be coached by him," Bayless said.
Arizona freshman forward Marcus Williams said he agrees that Olson's impact is the biggest reason talented high school players come to Arizona.
"You come here to become better and play with good teams and win ball games (and) get excellent coaching from coach Olson," he said. "You're going to come out with great players all around you."
Arizona coaches cannot comment on recruits before they sign their letter of intent, but Bayless' current coach, St. Mary's head coach David Lopez, tutored a prospect of Bayless' caliber from 1998-2001 when former Wildcat and NBA lottery pick Channing Frye patrolled the paint for the Knights.
Frye won a state championship his senior year and was named Arizona's Gatorade player of the year.
Bayless led St. Mary's to the state championship game last year and has been named to the Arizona Republic's All-Arizona team as a freshman and sophomore and appears to be the favorite to win a Gatorade player of the year award or two before he graduates.
"I don't want to compare them because Channing's a lottery pick," Lopez said. "Jerryd will be there. I see the same outcome. They're just different players with different motivations."
Carrying the load
After being an underclassman on a senior-laden team last year, Bayless' leadership skills will be put to the test on a team that has struggled to start the year having lost 10 of 12 players to graduation off last year's squad.
The Knights (8-5), who rank No. 13 in the 5A-I power point rankings, have received much of their production from Bayless, which was the case in Dec. 28's 69-67 loss to Chandler Hamilton.
Bayless scored or assisted on all but 11 of St. Mary's points, scoring 43 points and dishing out six assists, that included hitting six 3-point shots and getting to the free-throw line at will, hitting 14 of 16 foul shots.
Bayless also scored 41 points in a 94-48 win Jan. 3 against Yuma Kofa and 44 in Jan. 6's 94-78 victory over Tucson Salpointe in games that started a three-game winning streak.
Senior center Tim Johnson, who said he leads with Bayless, said it's completely different playing with Bayless than with other high school players.
"It's hard because you don't understand what he's going to do next," Johnson said.
Neither does the opposition, as for the season Bayless has averaged about 36 points to go along with roughly six assists, five rebounds and four steals, Lopez said.
However, with a year and a half before Bayless arrives on the Arizona campus, Lopez said he needs to improve his defensive positioning and work on moving without the ball, a tough task considering Bayless controls the ball most of the time, as well as his leadership skills.
"We're trying to develop his leadership and vocal part," Lopez said. "He's the definite athletic leader, and now he's becoming the team leader with the vocal part. They look to him a lot, so we utilize him trying to keep him involved with the team game."
Bayless said his leadership role is hard now as he acquaints himself with playing with inexperienced players much less athletically capable than himself.
"It's tough, but you've got to play through it," Bayless said. "You've got to realize who you're playing with, what you can do and what they can do. You've got to put them (in position) to make use of their strengths, so they can do what's best for the team.
"We've got a lot of young people that are still learning," he said. "By the time playoffs comes around, I know we'll be ready to go."
In this role Bayless can be seen encouraging his teammates to pick up their play and scolding them for mental errors during games, as his competitiveness shines through on the court.
"It's just the way I am. It's just the way I came up," Bayless said. "I hate to lose no matter what I'm doing. If I'm at home messing around with my brother seeing who can throw the paper into the garbage can, I don't want to lose that, or if I'm messing around with my little cousins playing a little board game I don't want to lose that either."
As Bayless hopes to eventually join the constant stream of former Wildcats in the NBA, tied for second in number only to Duke, he said he sees himself staying in Tucson as long as it takes to get to the NBA.
While he also hopes to become "one of the best ever" at Arizona, what he really wants is what former Phoenix prep star Mike Bibby, who also possesses a smooth jump shot and loads of athleticism, has: a national championship.
"That's a real big thing for me," Bayless said. "A lot of people get individual recognition, but a lot of them can't say they've won a national championship."