By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Still, he knew he could play. He's always known that, ever since he walked into Seagoville High School as a 6-foot-9 freshman point guard. Four years later, he has the quiet confidence of a five-year NBA veteran.
"There's always some nervousness," Aldridge says. "But I feel like if I play my game, no one should be able to be on my level. I should be able to just do what I want to do. So I can't ever go out there thinking somebody else is better than me."
But even if he knew he had the skills, no one else did. Not nationally, anyway. He wasn't like the rest of the high school studs whose progress has been monitored since they were freshmen. Some even before that: Sebastian Telfair, a point guard from Brooklyn who may enter the NBA draft rather than attend Louisville, was first touted as a top prospect in 1999 in a lengthy profile in The Dallas Morning News. He was in seventh grade. Aldridge's press clippings are a few inches thinner, and the scouting reports aren't as well-developed because they haven't seen him enough in the summer camps and leagues run by the sneaker companies.
As one NBA scout puts it: "I think he's probably been the least talked about of the high school kids."
Yes, he'd more than held his own against Chris Bosh when Bosh was a senior star at Lincoln and Aldridge was an upstart sophomore, averaging 23 points and 13 boards in two losses. His play in those games quickly made him a coveted college recruit. But he'd yet to emerge on NBA scouts' radar because, back then, Bosh wasn't considered a pro prospect either. If Bosh was thought to be too skinny for the pro game, then Aldridge was just a younger version of him. He'd make a nice college player, a tall kid who could benefit from a few years in the weight room.
No shame in that. The high-school-to-NBA phenomenon has become the norm in only the past few years, and even now, there are more misses than hits: In the 2003 draft, five high school seniors were selected, and only one, LeBron James, seemed to make the right choice to bypass college. The others--Travis Outlaw, James Lang, Ndudi Ebi and Kendrick Perkins--are long-term projects, at best, players probably better served honoring their college commitments.
Skipping college is a risk that doesn't often pay off. Think about it: For every Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant, there is a Leon Smith. The Dallas Mavericks took Smith, a high school star in Chicago, with the last pick of the first round in the 1999 draft. After arguing with the team, which wanted him to play overseas for a few years to develop his game, Smith left a home game early and took more than 200 aspirin in an attempt to kill himself. Eventually, he returned home to Chicago and got into a scrape with the law involving guns and his ex-girlfriend. The Mavericks negotiated a buyout of his contract, and he never played a game for the team. This is how quickly things can go south if you go pro before you're ready.
But last year, Aldridge didn't have to worry about ending up like Smith, and not just because he's a much more mature kid, emotionally if not physically. To end up like Smith, he'd have to start like him: in the NBA draft. That wasn't a consideration. Yet.
Then Bosh was taken by Toronto with the No. 4 pick in the draft, after spending one spectacular season at Georgia Tech. All of a sudden, those old Lincoln-Seagoville game tapes became much more relevant, especially when Bosh proved his slight frame could withstand an NBA beating. Not long after, Aldridge was one of a handful of high school players invited to Michael Jordan's Flight School in Santa Barbara last summer, a prestigious opportunity to play with college players and Jordan himself. For a baller, it's like being granted an audience with the pope. Summer camps like Jordan's are the key to making the transition from college recruit to pro prospect.
Aldridge's mother, Georgia, already knew she was living with a potential pro athlete: "Oh, my God," she says, "I could tell the difference from when he first started in the ninth grade. By the time he was in the 11th grade, he was real good. He just blossomed." If the invite to Flight School seemed to confirm this, his play at the camp all but guaranteed it.
"We had, like, I think, three or four selected high school players from [around] the country, and then all these top college guys, like Sheldon Williams from Duke, Sean May from [North Carolina], all the big-time players were there," Aldridge remembers. "And I played with them, and I was averaging a good 15 or 16 [points] with them. I felt like, you know, if I could do it now, when I haven't finished my senior season or my weight training, I feel like if I get on my training hard, I can do it."