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Artesia's Sidney is strong and skilled in first year of high school play, but challenges await in sophomore's long lead-up to NBA eligibility

March 02, 2007|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

Renardo Sidney didn't even play high school basketball in Mississippi last season. But he was considered the best freshman in the country anyway, all because of his exposure in summer basketball.

A year later, he's a 6-foot-10 sophomore at Lakewood Artesia -- transplanted to California along with his family -- playing for the Southern Section Division I-AA title Saturday against Santa Ana Mater Dei, and maybe a state title after that.

"He's trying to win a championship," his father, Renardo Sidney Sr., said.

There are classic types of teenage basketball phenoms: The future 7-footers who still have two left feet, and the super-skilled early-bloomers who sometimes get left behind when the late-bloomers sprout.

Sidney, 17, is neither. He is already big and strong and athletic enough to drive for a dunk with a Long Beach Jordan player draped all over him; sophisticated and skilled enough to create his own shots or find open teammates with passes. And he is already bold enough to grab a loose ball, push it up the court and hit teammate James Harden with a no-look pass for a dunk.

Sonny Vaccaro, the former shoe-company impresario who as a Reebok executive sponsored some of the summer teams Sidney has played on -- sparking controversy because Sidney's father once received money for acting as a coach -- has watched the player since he was 13.

"He's got a chance to be can't-miss," Vaccaro said. "He has fire. He has talent. He has what LeBron James had. But don't compare him to LeBron. You can always find guards."

Even Bob Gibbons, a North Carolina-based recruiting analyst less given to hyperbole than some, called Sidney "probably the most physically advanced sophomore I've seen in the past 25 years.

"I think he's more advanced than Shaquille O'Neal was at the same age," Gibbons said. "Shaquille O'Neal was a big, strong physical specimen, but not nearly as advanced, even the summer before his senior year. Now, will Renardo grow to 7-1? I don't know. But in terms of basketball acumen, I think he's really on target to be better than Shaquille O'Neal was in high school."

It seems crazy, comparing a high school sophomore to NBA All-Stars, even if the comparisons are to James and O'Neal when they were high school players.

Yet even as they build the expectations themselves, Gibbons and Vaccaro know the hazards those very comparisons entail. They see the challenges that could waylay Sidney during the long wait through two more high school seasons and a likely season in college before he is even eligible for the NBA draft.

"I just hope he doesn't get affected by all the expectations and people filling his head with, 'You're a pro and you've got it made,' " Gibbons said. "I have seen that affect players I thought had a great opportunity. His father has done a pretty good job protecting him so far."

Vaccaro, still in touch with the family although he is no longer with Reebok, sees the temptations that surround the Sidneys after they moved to California seeking what the elder Sidney called "more exposure."

College coaches -- UCLA's Ben Howland and USC's Tim Floyd among them -- go to watch Sidney play more easily than they could have in rural Mississippi.

But some people wonder how hard it might be for Sidney to preserve his NCAA eligibility with so many peripheral people from around Southern California offering to help him or his family, some in earnest, some in hopes of a payoff when he turns pro.

"It's sad, but it's not different in a lot of ways ... than Reggie Bush," Vaccaro said, referring to allegations that Bush and his family accepted cash and gifts offered by prospective agents while still at USC.

"The only thing with Junior is, it could happen for a lot longer than with Reggie."

Sidney's father is a visible presence at his son's games, often wearing neat Adidas warm-up suits and keeping his shades on in the gym, even at night.

He might look more like a celebrity than most of the locals, but he said it has been something of an adjustment for his family after he moved with his wife, Patricia, Renardo Jr. and their daughter, Tiarra, from Mississippi to California, settling in a home he said is about five minutes from the Artesia campus.

"Being from Mississippi, we didn't have all this 91, 405 business," he said, referring to the freeways.

Living here presents opportunities the Sidneys couldn't have imagined at home. After Artesia's first-round playoff game the Friday before the NBA All-Star game, Renardo Sr. was waiting to go with his son to Las Vegas that night, though the elder Sidney said they did not attend the game or take much part in the weekend festivities but "mostly rested in the room."

Yet even though the elder Sidney said the move to California was for more exposure, it is a concept he is sometimes conflicted about.

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