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San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin comes out of nowhere

Not exactly, but the high desert isn't exactly a basketball hot spot. Franklin, a junior guard, has led the Aztecs into the NCAA tournament.

March 21, 2013|By Diane Pucin
  • Jamaal Franklin is averaging 16.8 points and nine rebounds for the San Diego State Aztecs, who will face Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament on Friday.
Jamaal Franklin is averaging 16.8 points and nine rebounds for the San Diego… (Jeff Bottari / Getty Images )

Jamaal Franklin is used to it, being questioned about whether he ever killed snakes with a basketball or saw coyotes out his back door.

San Diego State's star guard, one of the best players on the West Coast, just smiles and shakes his head.

"If it's possible to be an unknown star," Aztecs Coach Steve Fisher said, "that was Jamaal."

The reason: Franklin was raised and played his high school basketball in Phelan, Calif., a small, rural town near the base of the Wrightwood ski area.

"Not everybody out here wanted to drive two, two and a half hours to see Franklin play," Fisher said.

But San Diego State put in the work, and the miles. "That meant a lot," Franklin said.

Now Franklin plays for arguably Southern California's best college basketball team. The Aztecs (22-10) defeated USC and UCLA this season.

Franklin was raised by his mother, Felicia Price. He said he hasn't seen his biological father since he was 8, right about the time Franklin and his mother moved away from Los Angeles to get away from violence that was happening too close to home.

Franklin didn't always find isolated, high-desert living to his liking. He was often in trouble, occasionally suspended, but always ultimately saved — mainly by sports.

At Serrano High, he also played football, and several major colleges recruited the 6-foot-5 player as a wide receiver and safety,

"But basketball is my love," Franklin said at the Mountain West Conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas last week.

When Franklin was a freshman at San Diego State, Fisher urged him to redshirt. The Aztecs had a highly rated team that included four seniors and NBA-bound Kawhi Leonard, but Franklin would have none of it.

"I'm a player," he said. "I play."

Franklin didn't play much until guard Chase Tapley was injured and Leonard was sick. Franklin played 17 minutes against Utah and finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds. If that wasn't good enough to prove himself, Franklin told his mother, maybe he should transfer.

Mom's advice: Stay put. So Franklin came back.

And San Diego State is happy he did. As a sophomore, Franklin became only the second Aztec to earn MWC player of the year. He was also only the second sophomore to win the award — and the first since 2005. Franklin averaged 17.4 points and 7.9 rebounds, and scored in double figures the last 21 games.

This season, Franklin is averaging 16.8 points and 9.0 rebounds heading into San Diego State's NCAA tournament opener Friday night against Oklahoma in Philadelphia. The Aztecs are making their third straight NCAA appearance, and there is speculation it might be Franklin's last as a pro career beckons.

However, mom has spoken again. "She wants me to finish school," Franklin said.

Of course, any final decision will wait until after the season, and Franklin isn't ready for this one to end.

"They're not much bigger than us," he said of Oklahoma. "They shoot mid-range shots really well. Their guards look to penetrate every time and they're fast and quick.

"They're athletic. We're definitely going to have to get a body on them, box out and try to outrebound them."

Spoken like a coach.

"I think he's listened," Fisher said.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

Twitter: @mepucin

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