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Eric Sondheimer

Bruins Await a Future King

August 20, 2003|Eric Sondheimer

It has been 17 years since an Indiana eighth-grader named Damon Bailey became the object of worship and attention after author John Feinstein detailed Bob Knight's starry-eyed talent evaluation in the best-selling book, "A Season on the Brink."

Knight, then Indiana's basketball coach, insisted Bailey was better than any guard on his Hoosier team, including Steve Alford. Bailey went on to become the leading scorer in Indiana high school basketball history -- and later a starter for the Hoosiers.

Taylor King of Santa Ana Mater Dei is an incoming freshman who already has topped Bailey in one eye-popping way: Earlier this month, the 15-year-old committed to UCLA, before playing in a varsity game or attending his first day of high school.

Bailey waited until December of his junior season to commit to Knight and Indiana. King might be the youngest player to accept a basketball scholarship to a major Division I school.

"[UCLA] made a huge commitment to me and now I'm making a huge commitment to them," he said.

King's early commitment reinforces the changing philosophy taking place in college recruiting. Thanks to the Internet and the growing popularity of travel teams, coaches are becoming aware of players at much younger ages and feeling emboldened to pull the scholarship trigger.

Arizona last year got a commitment from a freshman, point guard Nick Wise of Katy, Texas. DeMarcus Nelson, a senior shooting guard from Vallejo, Calif., accepted a scholarship to Duke during his sophomore year.

King, who's 6 feet 6 1/2 inches, made such an overwhelming impression during summer tournaments, camps and games that he prompted UCLA's new coaching staff to take the rare step of offering a scholarship to a player who can't enroll until the fall of 2007.

"Coach [Ben] Howland liked how I was left-handed and how I could go inside or outside," King said. "And he also said what I need to work on, my foot speed and getting stronger."

Howland isn't taking much of a risk considering the talent King has displayed. He possesses instincts for the game far beyond his years. He passes the ball with the precision and unselfishness of a point guard. He has three-point shooting range. He rebounds like a power forward and doesn't shy away from playing defense.

After King made six three-point shots in a summer game against La Canada, Spartan Coach Tom Hofman called him the best freshman shooter he's ever seen.

"For that age, he's pretty incredible," Hofman said.

King made an unofficial recruiting trip to UCLA with his parents, then accepted the offer from Howland, who won't be able to comment on King until he signs a letter of intent in the fall of 2006.

Other schools will be allowed to recruit King until he signs -- an oral commitment isn't binding -- but he insisted, "I have no intention of going to another school."

Bob Gibbons, a North Carolina-based national recruiting expert, said he expects most schools to back off on recruiting King unless UCLA struggles under Howland or King's family leaks word that he might entertain other offers.

King said he wanted to end the recruiting process early after weighing the experience of his older sisters, each of whom had to devote much time and effort to answering phone calls and writing letters when they were recruited for volleyball and softball, respectively.

His decision has provoked a variety of opinions.

"My friends and my family's friends think it's awesome," he said, "but other people in the basketball world might think it's outrageous [that] a young kid who's 15 years old and hasn't played a high school basketball game has committed to UCLA."

An assistant coach from another Pacific 10 Conference team said his school would have gladly made a similar scholarship offer to King.

With his quick decision, King is giving Howland a vote of confidence that the Bruins' basketball program will regain its high national ranking, and Howland has bestowed on King a compliment similar to what Knight gave to Bailey.

It means for the next four high school seasons, King will be a marked player. Living in Southern California, he doesn't figure to be mobbed by fans at malls as Bailey encountered in Indiana, but lots of people in and out of the basketball community will want to see him play and make their own evaluation.

"Every move is going to be monitored and watched," Gibbons said. "What he has done is raise the expectation level to an incredible height."

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at

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