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Originally published Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Joe Wolfinger's pro dream reachable, says UW coach Lorenzo Romar

The subject was center Joe Wolfinger. The topic was his future. "He has a legitimate chance to play in the NBA," said UW coach Lorenzo Romar...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The subject was center Joe Wolfinger. The topic was his future.

"He has a legitimate chance to play in the NBA," said UW coach Lorenzo Romar on Tuesday.

It's something Romar has said before, but something that reads a lot better after the events of last weekend, when the 7-foot sophomore put on a dazzling shooting display to lead the Huskies to a win at California and a near-miss at Stanford.

Prior to last weekend, Wolfinger had been mostly mired on Washington's bench, not playing at all in three of the previous six games, and recording eight DNPs for the season.

"It's been stressful," Wolfinger said. "But I just kept seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. You just have to not give up on your dreams."

Suddenly, they seem a lot closer after Wolfinger hit 6 of 6 shots, including four three-pointers, to score a career-high 17 points to key the win at Cal two days after he had scored 12 points at Stanford.

"It was great," Wolfinger said. "I just wish it didn't take this long to get to this point."

Romar, however, says that under the circumstances, it all makes sense.

While basketball ran in the family — an older brother, Jack, is 6-11 and played a year at St. John's and now plays professionally in Mexico — Wolfinger was something of a late-bloomer at Aloha High in Beaverton, Ore.

His height, however, inspired some collegiate interest, notably from DePaul, which invited him for a recruiting visit his senior year. At the airport ready to get on the plane, Wolfinger heard a page, grabbed a courtesy phone, and was told not to bother. "They said 'your trip's canceled - — go to a prep school,' " he recalls.

Wolfinger admits academics might have sent him there, anyway, but he took the advice and spent a year at Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Mass. There, his three-point shooting — which he had kept mostly under wraps in high school — began to surface. Wolfinger said he was always pretty capable outside shooter after being taught the proper form at an early age and encouraged to practice by his brother, who noted that the family tends to be skinny and he might want to get good on the perimeter.

So while at Mount Hermon "I just started to shoot more threes."

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That got colleges interested anew, including DePaul, though this time Wolfinger told them not to bother. He visited Florida State and Cincinnati before choosing the Huskies.

He decided to redshirt his first year (2005-06) to get bigger and add strength — he weighs 250 pounds today and says he'd like to add about five more. He then was forced to sit out last season when he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot — diagnosed as a break in the navicular bone. It was apparently the result of overwork, indicative of a work ethic Romar says is one of the best on the team.

There were a few setbacks along the way, and surgery was scheduled a couple of times.

"In the back of my head it was like 'I might not ever play again,' " Wolfinger said.

Eventually, the injury began to heal on its own, which all involved say was a fortunate turn. Recovery would have been longer, and inserting a pin might have complicated things later.

Because he sat out two straight years, Wolfinger will be eligible to appeal for a sixth year once he completes his senior season. He said he may do so, though Romar figures he'll probably have professional options by then.

"That was a really good thing [to avoid surgery]," he said.

Still, the recovery meant he was limited in practice when the season began, first to an hour a day. He now can practice without restrictions, but Romar says going two years without playing in a game, then being unable to practice full-out until recently inevitably meant it would take a while for Wolfinger to hit his stride.

"He just hasn't played a lot," Romar said of Wolfinger, who now can practice without restrictions.

Wolfinger got some minutes early in the year — and even a start against Pittsburgh — but then was relegated to the bench for most of January and February. Romar said defensive problems, due largely to being slow afoot, were the culprit.

The defensive issues figure to mean Wolfinger will remain somewhat of a spot player, the team looking for immobile big men to pit him against.

"We'll have to look at what matchups are like," Romar said. "But he's put himself in a position to where whenever you can get him an opportunity, you put him in."

And with each one, those NBA aspirations become a little more real.

"He's got some work to do," Romar said. "But when it's all said and done, he has an opportunity to play at that level because shooting like that at that size is so unique."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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