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Serving Notice

With Others Raving About Him, Quiet Armstrong Is No Longer Just One of the Guys at Pepperdine


Twenty percent. One-fifth of the whole. Low-key, high-scoring Pepperdine guard Brandon Armstrong is used to the role. Maybe that's why his game is devoid of the selfishness and arrogance common in go-to gunners.

Growing up in Vallejo, the middle son of Levi and Sanchez Armstrong was the spoke in the family wheel who rarely squeaked. He never felt entitlement, the way a first-born or youngest often does.

He listened to his mother, a vocal firebrand. He listened to his father, a former UCLA defensive back and a voice of reason.

He watched and learned from his older brother, Delvin, now a senior guard at Boise State. He watched over his younger brother, Shamar, now a Division I prospect.

Armstrong blended in the same way at powerful Vallejo High, content in a quintet. College scouts came to games primarily to evaluate center Wesley Wilson and forward C.C. Sabathia.

Wilson is a sophomore at Georgetown and Sabathia a top pitching prospect with the Cleveland Indians. But the quiet fellow with the attentive ears might eventually earn the biggest paycheck.

NBA scouts are all over Armstrong, a junior who sat out his freshman year under Prop. 48 and again is struggling in the classroom.

Scouts like the way he shoots with a defender draped on him. They like his range and his ability to elevate. They like his quickness and tenacity on defense. They like the absence of arrogance.

"He is very skilled, he has all the attributes," one scout said. "Although he is probably a year away, there is no question he is a first-round talent."

Detractors point out that Armstrong is suited for only one position--shooting guard--and that at a lithe 6 feet 4, 180 pounds he is not as physical as many NBA wing players.

But he wins converts every time he releases a shot with a deft flick of his left wrist. Armstrong leads the West Coast Conference with a 21.7 scoring average, and has a 24-point average over the last 12 games.

Not coincidentally, Pepperdine (17-6) is 11-1 during that span. Armstrong's scoring and the Waves' fortunes dramatically increased after Christmas when Coach Jan van Breda Kolff drove home a point during practice.

"Brandon is going to be our leading scorer," he told the team. "We will create situations and find him. Be aware of where he is and give him opportunities."

Armstrong's shots increased from 13 to 18 a game. His percentage skyrocketed as well--he is shooting 50% in WCC games, including 40% from three-point range.

"We are running a lot more stuff for him and getting him the ball when we need a bucket," said forward Kelvin Gibbs, the Waves' second-leading scorer. "Brandon is very unselfish, but he knows he must score for us to win."

The unassuming Armstrong didn't demand prominence, but he is obliging. Everybody expects him to score, so he'll score.

A career-high 41 points against North Carolina Charlotte. Twenty-nine the next night against Ohio. Forty against Loyola Marymount. Thirty-three against St. Mary's. Thirty-two against Gonzaga. Twenty-six against San Diego, including eight down the stretch in a key victory on the road.

"I didn't know I had it in me," he said. "Now I know it can happen on any given night. If I knock down my shots and keep my teammates involved, there is no limit."

When opponents focus on stopping Armstrong, he reverts to being a spoke in the wheel and the Waves roll on. Portland employed a box-and-one defense against him and Armstrong didn't score until the 12th minute. But he didn't force anything and Pepperdine took an early double-digit lead.

"A lot of teams key on me," Armstrong said. "I try to run plays to get my teammates involved. If they make shots and get it going, it takes pressure off me."

An integrated role suits Armstrong's nature. Last season he led Pepperdine with only a 14.4 average, and seven players scored at least 7.5 points a game. However, his improvement has been so dramatic the scoring burden shifted onto his shoulders.

A lucrative NBA contract could be his next score. Several scouts said Armstrong probably would be a second-round pick this year. Another strong season at Pepperdine could elevate him to the middle of the first round.

"Building on what he's done, he could be a lottery pick next year," Van Breda Kolff said.

However, Armstrong might be forced to take the shot too soon. His grades were poor in the fall and he must buckle down in the spring and complete summer-school classes to be eligible next season.

The spring semester ends in April, several weeks before he must decide whether to declare for the NBA draft. He professes to value education and recently moved into an off-campus apartment with Gibbs, a senior and a solid student.

"The NBA was a dream at first, then it was a goal," Armstrong said. "Now it's almost a reality. But my plan is to go back to school and play another year."

Conceivably, Armstrong can play two more seasons at Pepperdine. Under Prop. 48 he can earn back his freshman year by graduating in the spring of 2002.

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