Amid the Shabazz Muhammad mania during the 2011-12 season, a lanky and awkward freshman big man also began to make his name in Las Vegas. Stephen Zimmerman stood 6-10 as a ninth-grader and possessed commendable skill for a young player who obviously needed time to grow into his body.
I'd actually watched Zimmerman during the 2011 summer, as even prior to high school he commanded close scrutiny from scouts. After Muhammad graduated and Zimmerman hit the grassroots trail in 2012, three schools began to pursue him most avidly: Arizona, Kansas and UCLA. A west of the Mississippi vibe surfaced early.
Most underclass big men receive significant slack from scouts and college coaches, who understand that their production levels may not align with their potential until later in their careers. That said, everyone eagerly observed Zimmerman in the 2013 spring and summer to mark his progress.
He demonstrated impressive skill at the Adidas Exclusive Run last spring and maintained a high level of play through the summer evaluation period. He actually became our No. 1 prospect nationally for a short time, and even after reshuffling he remains in the top five.
By early last fall, his obvious talent and consistency earned offers from Arizona, UCLA, Kansas, Michigan, Louisville, North Carolina, UNLV, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Kentucky and many others. The widespread interest caused him to take a step back from his recruitment and focus on this season, before moving more purposefully following his junior campaign.
Interestingly, Zimmerman didn't jump out to a dynamic start in 2013-14. He fared relatively poorly in a head to head tilt versus fellow elite Ivan Rabb, and at another event he also performed below expectations.
Over the past few weeks, however, he has reversed his cold spell. At last week's Cancer Research Classic, he scored 21 points on 7-13 shooting and appeared to dispel the notion that his athleticism has declined from last summer.
And without question, athleticism ranks as a key component to Zimmerman's game. He's never going to be a true low post brute, and his style tilts heavily toward skill and finesse over power. He's at his best catching and facing the basket, either putting the ball on the floor for crowd-pleasing slams or lofting in a soft medium-range jump shot.
The southpaw moves the court gracefully both in a straight line and laterally. He doesn't possess the quickness to defend wings, mind you, but for a big guy his mobility stands above that of most peers. At issue this season has been his first step and explosiveness, as at some early season events he appeared slower off the floor. But lately he has played with more bounce in his step, and hopefully that aspect of his game will remain a constant going forward.
His overall ball skills as a handler and passer further complement his scoring tools, and his game fits the professional trend toward more versatile big men.
Defensively, Zimmerman's long arms enable him to block shots regularly from the help side, though it's worth mentioning that he lacks ideal lower body strength for post defense. Adding sufficient weight without compromising his quickness and leap will be critical.
To fully harness his talent, he needs to develop a workable hook to at least be a part-time back to the basket scorer. Particularly in college, he'll be defended by shorter opponents. He also can become more physical as a rebounder.
No one can know what the months and years ahead hold for Zimmerman's game, but without question he'll continue to be a primary attraction and top-shelf talent in the junior class.