| ||By Andy Katz|
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- So, this is what happens when the No. 1 high school player in the nation actually goes to college:
He likes it.
And he actually might want to stay -- at least for another year.
"Basically I'm open minded," Alabama's 6-foot-7 freshman forward Gerald Wallace said Monday during ESPN.com's preseason tour. "I've been a little selfish at times thinking I would be just here and boom gone (to the NBA). But as practice goes on and I see the progress we're making and see the recruits coach (Mark) Gottfried is bringing in (like 'Bama committed Jackson, Miss., point guard Maurice Williams), we could make a run this year, fall off and pick it up real easy next year.
"It still depends on how the situation goes and how I play but I've got options."
Three weeks into practice, Wallace is finding life at Alabama isn't all that bad. In fact, he's learning how to defend, be more physical and score with fundamental skills rather than always using athleticism to his advantage.
Not once has the coaching staff had to get on him about working hard. Not once have his teammates been put off by the hype that followed the expected NBA lottery pick. Not once has he been anything but the same humble player who came out of Class 3A Childersburg High where he once scored 55 points against a team Gottfried said didn't have a player over six feet.
"He's handled this surprisingly well," said Alabama fifth-year senior center Jeremy Hays, who has the most authority to speak on humility. Hays is the most grounded player on the team after getting married and sticking to his plans to attend seminary school in two years.
"He really surprised a lot of us when he came here," Hays added. "There were some of us who were skeptical. But he's been a humble player. I've seen a lot of guys come in here with hype and never reach their potential. But Gerald should."
The reason: his work ethic.
Wallace doesn't waste time in practice. He's not laying down on the side when he gets a chance. He's involved in every drill, if not on the court, then encouraging others from the side. He's soft-spoken but he doesn't hold back. He doesn't force plays, nor does he take what isn't available to him.
If he has the shot, he's got the green light to take it. If he sees an opening, he can drive to the basket. If he needs to get low in a defensive stance, he's down with his knees bent and his legs spread.
And when he gets beat to the basket, he doesn't pound the ball into the floor, curse and start to challenge his teammate. He gets right back in line to take his turn.
"You don't want to miss anything in practice with him," said Alabama assistant Johnny Jones, who was an assistant at LSU when a certain center named Shaq was with the Tigers.
"I look forward to watching him in practice because he does so many unique things," Jones continued. "During practice (Monday) I told coach Gottfried that he's been so unselfish that he really looks like he just wants to play a role, even though coach wants him to step up and be a leader. One thing we've never had to do with him is tell him to go hard in practice."
|Gerald Wallace could have flown into the NBA out of high school.|
Wallace had it easy in high school, almost too easy. But that has already changed in practice, let alone before the slender 210-pound forward gets into the rugged SEC.
"There are times in practice when his sheer athletic ability can't get him by," Gottfried said. "The game still comes down to skill. He's got to work hard to improve those skills. But one thing about Gerald is he's involved in every play, whether it's a block shot, rebound or diving on the floor. He's in the action and not afraid to get in there."
Gottfried hasn't changed his attitude with Wallace. He doesn't favor him, at least not in practice. He's not catering to his whim, even if he were the type to make them known. Instead, Wallace has absorbed Gottfried's coaching, sponging up the constructive criticisms about his fundamental deficiencies. Gottfried doesn't have to mention anything when he simply flushes a jam off an offensive rebound or drives past a defender for a baseline dunk.
"I've always been honest with Gerald about his game," Gottfried said. "The first question I always get is how coachable is he? Very."
The second one is usually, did Gottfried worry he would choose the NBA over Alabama. The answer is a little, but not after he talked to Wallace's mother, Alice.
He said she made it clear to Gottfried that she wasn't about to move from her home to follow Wallace around in the NBA. She still probably won't, even if he leaves after his freshman or sophomore seasons.
"She believed he needed to be in college," Gottfried said. "When people say is he ready for the NBA, they don't evaluate it from a maturity standpoint. She looked at the other 22 hours of the day without basketball. It's a whole different lifestyle and there should be a natural progression from high school to college to professional life."
But Wallace isn't going to be out of the spotlight just because he chose to go to Tuscaloosa. A week into practice, Wallace collapsed when he hit his head into an opposing player. He went down and said he felt like he was numb. He took a few days off. But the incident was first reported as if he were paralyzed.
"Even the slightest injury makes headlines," Wallace said defensively. "Whenever there is a transition from rec league to high school to college, there are going to be injuries. It's more physical and I underestimated it a bit. Everything is a lot stronger and faster. I understand that if I'm sitting in a gym by myself that I'm being watched. It hurts that I don't have privacy at times."
Wallace would have been under an even more intense spotlight had he declared for the NBA draft. But his decision would have been solely for the money. Wallace was academically eligible out of Childersburg, unlike high school draft picks Darius Miles and DeShawn Stevenson.
If Wallace leaves after his freshman season, it will be because he has an all-SEC season. If he stays, it will be because he realizes that he can do more for Alabama and ultimately himself by potentially competing for a SEC title or Final Four run.
"I'm just here to have fun," Wallace said. "If I average 30 points or one point, it doesn't matter. It shouldn't be about me. We've got 15 guys on the team. We're all expected to do our roles. It's not all me."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
really surprised a lot of us when he came here.
There were some of us who were skeptical. But
he's been a humble player. I've seen a lot of guys
come in here with hype and never reach their
potential. But Gerald should. ”
||— Jeremy Hays,
Alabama senior center
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