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Originally published October 11, 2011 at 9:27 PM | Page modified October 11, 2011 at 10:09 PM

Jerry Brewer

For Tony Wroten Jr., UW provides a new place to start and a new chance to grow

Tony Wroten Jr., an old pro at age 18, walked into the college spotlight Tuesday afternoon, and a funny thing happened. Nothing. The media didn't immediately...

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes This kid is going to be good. I can't wait for the season to start. Read more
quotes Just think before you tweet, kiddo. Read more
quotes I have to agree with SttlMom, I hope that Tony performs as well in the classroom as he ... Read more

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Tony Wroten Jr., an old pro at age 18, walked into the college spotlight Tuesday afternoon, and a funny thing happened.

Nothing.

The media didn't immediately swarm him. His admirers didn't fall at his feet. His critics didn't spontaneously combust.

Wroten eased into a chair, and for once, the basketball prodigy was just one of 15 guys on a team. For once, you could look at him in the proper context, with other talented, headline-collecting Washington Huskies surrounding him. For once, you weren't left to scrutinize Wroten's every move.

In this environment, it was appropriate to clear the air about the heralded yet condemned freshman. Because of his remarkable talent, Wroten has been in the public eye for five years already. It's nice to be famous by age 13, but too much attention too soon is dangerous. Despite all that Wroten did as a prep basketball star, he was labeled too harshly. His high-school career can be summed up in two words.

Overexposed, underappreciated.

He was so good you couldn't take your eyes off him. And then you watched him so much that you wound up nitpicking the things you didn't like.

Of all the perilous premature judgments you can make, the most foolish is to criticize a kid for being a kid. But that's what happened with Wroten.

There's this notion that Wroten comes to Washington with a lot of baggage. There's this notion that he's too cocky, too coddled and too controversial to trust. There's this notion that he'll make your head ache more than he'll make your jaw drop.

In truth, it's too early to make definitive statements about Wroten. He's a maturing person, just as he's a maturing basketball player. And now he's playing for a coach with a proven track record of helping young athletes develop in both of those areas.

I've spent months listening to people wonder whether Wroten will be a problem at Washington. Oh, he'll be a problem — for opposing defenders. You should only be worried that Wroten might give teammates concussions if they aren't ready for one of his clever passes.

Washington men's basketball coach Lorenzo Romar, the most underrated storyteller in sports, saved a good one to explain why people should back off Wroten. He remembers kidding former NBA superstar Isiah Thomas, now the Florida International head coach, while they were on the summer recruiting circuit. During a break in the action, Romar turned to Thomas and several other coaches and recalled a story he heard about Thomas.

As a high schooler, Thomas played a summer-league game against a team featuring Doc Rivers (now the Boston Celtics coach). Thomas stole the ball and handed it back to Rivers. Then, he stole the ball again from Rivers, drove to the basket and dunked the ball.

"Isiah, did you or did you not do that?" Romar asked.

"Yes, I did it," Thomas replied.

Thomas smiled for a second and added, "You know, if the media was like it is now back then, people would've said I had a bad attitude for doing that. But back then, we were just playing, and it was that competitiveness in you, and you were having fun."

Romar returned to the present and emphasized his point: "I think sometimes players get a rap because they're out there, and they're really competitive, and they're really enjoying themselves out there on the floor, and people read them wrong."

It's only the preseason, but now that Romar is Wroten's coach, he knows that the brash Tony Wroten from Garfield High School was just a persona.

The Wroten that Romar knows? "Tony Wroten has done everything with a capital 'E' that we've asked him to do with — I'm not going to say very little — I'm going to say zero resistance. So, we've been very pleased with what he's done for us in terms of his approach and eagerness to be a team guy and do whatever we ask."

As a star at Garfield, Wroten endured everything from temporary ineligibility as investigators questioned if his family truly lived in the school district to persistent criticism of his on-court demeanor. Now, though, he's in college. New ballgame. New opportunity to evolve and impress.

"If you go off how I play in the game, I'm very emotional," Wroten said. "I'm always pumped. So I could get people thinking I'm a bad person. But those same people who call me a bad person, once they meet me, they're like, 'Man, that Tony Wroten, he's a whole different person.' "

He really is.

Wroten has an edge to him, but that's just the confidence required to be an elite player. Put him in a room full of former high-school standouts, and his ego isn't an issue.

He's here to win. And he will with the Huskies. And in the process, those old negative perceptions will fade.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

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