Early Riser | Nation's top-ranked freshman feels pressure
Craig Murray, Garfield grad and AAU team director on Tony Wroten: "He'll kind of rewrite the books a little bit. You just hope that people give him the chance to develop and be that kid. Let him be a ninth-grader."
Seattle Times staff reporter
1 - Ranking among nation's freshmen, by Hoop scoop online.com
4 - Inches the 6-foot-5 left-hander expects to grow
4.3 - Assists per game entering week
6 - Times he has scored at least 25
8.9 - Rebounds per game entering week
10 - Age recruiting writers first spotted him at an AAU tournament
12 - Age when he first dunked
14 - His age (he turns 15 in April)
20.3 - Points per game entering week, which led KingCo 4A
Scores & stats
"I'm ready," Tony Wroten insists.
The coach searches for a hint of doubt, some hesitation. It isn't there.
"Are you sure you are going to be able to handle this?"
"Of course," the 14-year-old phenom shoots back.
"Tony," the coach replies, "the game is two times faster."
"So?" the kid says. "I'm ready."
That was that. With that exchange last summer, Wroten's freshman season at Garfield High School began. Never before has a Seattle ninth-grader faced such a spotlight, and few before him have played so well, so early while making the spectacular look so effortless.
The 6-foot-5 left-hander with an athlete's bloodline owns a body and a game that look anything but adolescent. Yet a monthlong peek into his season reveals that behind the curtain, a struggle hides backstage. Wherever he plays, he wrestles not only to adapt to a more advanced game, but also to live up to the enormous reputation that precedes him — the top freshman in the country.
As it turns out, the first 14 years might have been the easy part.
Blogs and message boards analyze every dribble. He's the main subject of an Internet documentary. Dozens of college recruiters show up at Garfield practices, even if it's only to see conditioning drills.
"I honestly can't think of any player that jumped into a situation like this, with all the attention, probably within the last 15 years," said the coach, Garfield's Dan Finkley.
Putting on a show
"Finkley!" the voice on the other line screams, drowning out the dribbling in the background. "This kid is killing!"
After each game Tony plays in the AAU national tournament in Florida last summer, Finkley's phone rings again with a call from Daryll Hennings, Tony's coach on the Seattle Rotary AAU team. Each call is more emphatic than the last.
"Finkley! You've got to see this! The kid is kill-ing!"
Hennings calls it the best show he has seen at the national tournament in a dozen years. Tony found no one too tall to dunk over, no one too quick to drive past, no one nimble enough to get a hand on his no-look passes.
"He ate up everyone they put in front of us," Hennings said.
In the stands, Clark Francis took notes.
If you want to be the top-ranked ninth-grader in the country, here's step one: Get Francis' attention. He publishes hooopscooponline.com, a popular Web site for tracking basketball players before they've even played a high-school game.
Before the AAU national tournament, Francis had already seen Tony at least 10 times, at tournaments and camps for some of the country's most talented prepubescent players. But Francis loves nationals because he has the opportunity to compare players.
He couldn't find anyone to compare with Tony.
"He was clearly the best player," Francis said. "He could do whatever he wanted."
All the hype that surrounds Tony technically began with Francis, who last summer elevated Tony to first among players in the Class of 2011.
Yet it started much earlier. Like 14 years earlier. The day Tony was born to two former high-school stars.
A rising star is born
"Thanks, Mom," Tony says, between long breaths. He grabs a sports drink from her hands.
"I love you," he says, and he takes a big gulp.
He lays a peck on her cheek, and his dad laughs. Tony Wroten Sr. — Big Tony, the family calls him — is built like a barge. His laugh is as big as he is.
"It's always like that, isn't it?" Big Tony jokes. "After all the work Dad puts in, it's always, 'I love you, Mom.' "
Tony shrugs, hands the bottle back to Mom, picks up a ball and goes back to shooting. Every Sunday morning, Tony and his dad go to Renton's Hazen High School gym for a long workout that includes at least 500 shots.
Big Tony realized his son, the middle child between two sisters, was special even 10 years ago. Tony stutter-stepped back then, even had a crossover dribble — "the flash," his mom, Shirley, calls it. Tony dunked on child-size hoops, backing up landfills with the plastic rims he tore through.
No matter what sport he played, Tony sparkled.
"If he hadn't been a great athlete," Big Tony said, "I would have been surprised."
So here's step two to becoming the country's top-ranked freshman: Find genes like these.
Shirley comes from one of Seattle's most accomplished basketball families. Her sister, Joyce Walker, is a two-time All-American and a former Harlem Globetrotter. Tony's cousins include Jimmie Haywood, former Franklin High and Oregon State player; and Nate Robinson, former Washington guard now with the New York Knicks.
In basketball, Shirley was "Joyce Walker's little sister." So she sought to make her own name in track and still shares two state-meet relay records. She went on to race at the UW and Arizona State.
Big Tony made his name as a tight end at the UW, and his bowl game jerseys are framed on his son's bedroom walls. But Dad had game, too. Big Tony played basketball for Hazen, as a bruising 6-4 power forward with a mean 10-footer. He's one of only 20 boys who has been named to at least two Seattle Times all-area basketball teams.
Big Tony and Shirley, who both work with kids for a living, are a system of checks and balances. Shirley brings the nurture, the sympathy, the cheerleading. Big Tony brings the coaching, the discipline, and at times, the tough love.
When Tony was younger, he and his dad practiced for hours a day, sometimes as early as 4 a.m.
"My dad put the basketball in my hand," Tony says. "He always said if I work hard, I'll achieve great things."
Step three: Have a father who doesn't like to take days off from practice.
After Tony's toughest AAU games, father and son would go out and shoot hundreds of jump shots while Shirley stood under the basket and rebounded.
"He wasn't overbearing," Hennings, Tony's AAU coach, said of Big Tony. "He was just about putting pressure on Tony to be as good as he can be."
Big Tony also insisted that his son play at least a grade up in the Rotary AAU program. Hennings and Finkley, who started the Rotary program with Hennings and was Wroten's first coach, agreed.
From the first time Tony stepped into the Rotary Boys & Girls Club in the Central Area as a first-grader, Hennings and Finkley could see the difference between him and other kids his age. They wanted to run around and have fun. Tony had a purpose.
"He could just play," Hennings said. "That's the best way to say it: Tony could play."
Playing for the crowd
"Let the game come to you," Finkley says in early December, before Tony's second start of the season. It's against Franklin in the city's fiercest rivalry. "You don't have to force things."
Tony nods. His favorite rapper, Styles P, plays in his headphones, on an iPod playlist he compiled for this game. It's just another game, he tells himself.
He knows better.
The Franklin gym feels like it's about to boil over as Tony walks in. There isn't an empty seat, and Tony feels the stares from the crowd. His mouth is dry. He can hardly breathe. His hands tremble. Sweat runs down his face during warm-ups. He is exhausted by tipoff.
Tony finished with a game-high 29 points. All adrenaline, he said. He brought the packed gym to its feet with dunks and made NBA-range three-pointers. But in a 15-point Garfield loss, Tony also had seven turnovers, including three charging fouls.
When he thinks about all the fans watching, Tony can force things. Tony calls these moments "playing to the crowd."
He's really playing for them.
He fears that someone — anyone — might leave the gym believing he's not as good as they say. Now that he has become the top-ranked freshman in the country, he wants to live up to the title for each fan, each night.
"He feels he's letting them down if he doesn't put on a show," Hennings said. "I try to let him realize his game's beautiful if he lets it come to him."
Shirley hears the whispers in the crowd. They question his shooting, or his defense, or say he's selfish. They question the hype.
"The part that has been nerve-racking to me is people's expectations," she said. "That's been frustrating to me. It's like, 'Are you guys watching the same kid?' "
No area freshman carries a role like Tony's this season. Garfield's top scorer, Aaron Dotson, transferred in the offseason, leaving the Bulldogs with few experienced players. From the day Tony said, "I'm ready," he has been the Bulldogs' point guard.
"For a kid to even come in and play as a freshman, and then to have that go-to guy label on him, and to be able to be that guy, is very rare," said Craig Murray, a 1986 Garfield graduate and the director at Total Package, an AAU team in Bremerton.
Tony's scoring has dropped the past month, a sign that Finkley has persuaded him to pass more. The Bulldogs have learned to keep their hands up at all times, just in case Tony whips a no-look pass their way.
Entering Tuesday night's game at Eastlake, Tony led the KingCo 4A Conference in scoring with 20.3 points per game, though he also leads the conference in shots. He's versatile enough to be in the conference's top 10 in rebounding, assists, blocked shots and steals.
Tony is still growing. Doctors have told the Wrotens he could reach 6 feet 9.
"He'll kind of rewrite the books a little bit," Murray said. Then he paused.
"You just hope that people give him the chance to develop and be that kid. Let him be a ninth-grader."
Serious recruiting business
"Mom, I got another one," Tony says, handing the envelope to his mother. "Can you fill this one out?"
Shirley looks at the front of the envelope, to see who's writing to her son this time. Maybe Arizona, maybe the UW, maybe as far away as Tennessee. They all say the same thing: We're interested in Tony, so could you please fill out this questionnaire?
Shirley quit coaching track years ago when being the mother of a rising basketball talent became a second job. She didn't know she'd also become a secretary, filling out the questionnaires from dozens of colleges.
The envelopes overflow from a box in Tony's parents' bedroom. Recruiting, they've discovered, is much different from their high-school days.
"I remember when I was in high school, I had fun in my ninth-, 10th-, 11th-grade year. Then senior year it got serious," Shirley said. "For him, it's serious right now. It's very stressful. It's very competitive."
No Christmas break
"Dad," Tony asks, "can you open the gym today?"
Wrapping paper litters the floor around Big Tony, who has an almost- empty trash bag in his hands. In a Wroten family tradition, the kids take turns opening their gifts, and they're supposed to hand the trash to Tony. It never seems to work that way.
Amid the wrapping paper on the Wrotens' TV room floor are Xbox games, a pile of clothes, and even a new Sidekick cellphone. But this 14-year-old wants nothing to do with his new toys.
This holiday is over as soon as Tony's sister, Teonna, drops the last piece of wrapping paper. This morning, the only thing Tony wants is an hour in the gym and another 500 jump shots.
Big Tony just shakes his head and smiles.
"No, son," he says. "We can take Christmas off."
Tom Wyrwich: 206-515-5653 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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