TAVARES – There was a time and not so long ago that Braxton Blackwell (6-7, 200, Nashville, TN Christ Presbyterian) envisioned himself as an NFL quarterback. He saw himself perhaps as the next Cam Newton, a big, strong quarterback who could run and throw the ball with laser-like precision. It sounded so good until he discovered what life is really like in the pocket.
"It only took getting hit down low around my knees once," Blackwell said Saturday afternoon after helping the Atlanta Celtics beat Southern California-based Dream Vision in the adidas Gauntlet Orlando event held at The Big House in Tavares. "I just knew right then that this [football] wasn't for me anymore. One big hit on the knee or the leg and your career can be over just like that."
Fortunately, football dreams morphed quickly into dreams of playing basketball at the highest level. Football's loss has been basketball's gain, in part because of the skills he developed while playing quarterback. On the basketball court, Blackwell is best described as a point forward because he's such a facilitator when he has the ball in his hands. He has the ability to see the entire court and instinctively make the right pass.
That's a skill he says he owes to football.
"When you're a quarterback you have to see the whole field, both the defense and your teammates," he said, adding that his passing ability on the basketball court is "a carryover from football."
Scout.com ranks Blackwell as the #26 prospect overall and the #7 small forward prospect in the nation for 2016. In this recruiting class there are betters shooters, scorers, ball handlers and rebounders but very few combine all those skills into one compact package. Blackwell is basketball's version of the jack-of-all-trades.
Already there are comparisons to Kyle Anderson, a 6-9, 230-pound triple-double looking for a place to happen who has taken his game from UCLA after two seasons to the June NBA Draft, where he is expected to go in the first round.
"Kyle Anderson ... that's a good comparison," says Atlanta Celtics coach Karl McCray. "Kyle is probably a more creative passer, but they have similar skills. Kyle's bigger but Braxton is only 16 and still growing."
Blackwell doesn't shy away from the comparisons to Anderson, who played high school ball at St. Anthony in Jersey City before going left coast to UCLA for two years.
"I like that comparison actually," Blackwell said. "Kyle is a great player, kind of like Magic Johnson because he can do it all and get his teammates going. Kyle just does whatever his team needs him to do to win and that's how I see myself."
It is also how McCray sees Blackwell. Technically speaking, Blackwell is the small forward for a typically loaded and very tall Celtics team, but he's the guy that does so many of the little things that contribute to winning.
If he needs to score, he can put points on the board as he did Monday morning when he put up 19 to help the Celtics grind out a 56-48 win over New Orleans Elite. But he also rebounds, passes the ball extremely well and plays hard, tough defense.
"Versatile" is how McCray describes him. "A good teammate" is how Blackwell describes himself although he understands that he can help his team more if he plays with a bit more aggressiveness on the offensive end.
"I have to do a better job of lowering my shoulder, going to the basket and taking on contact," Blackwell said. "I can get more points for my team and when you draw fouls, you're actually helping your team defensively by taking some of their [opponents] aggressiveness away."
Blackwell's attitude is whatever it takes to help the team win. What McCray sees is a player who understands that there is much more to the game than just scoring points.
"Whatever we need, we know he can get it done for us," McCray said. "He has the ability to pass, rebound, defend, handle the ball, set screens ... he doesn't have to score to be valuable to us. His basketball IQ is so high that I think of him like having a coach on the floor."
The hard part for McCray is knowing exactly what to do with him. In a typical game, Blackwell will play small forward, shooting guard, the high post and run the baseline and he will defend everybody but the other team's point guard.
Probably the best term for someone with so much to contribute is simply basketball player. Blackwell might not be the best at any one position or any one skill, but he might be the player with the best understanding of the game who knows how to translate that into winning.
"Some guys, you just put them out there and they'll figure out what they need to do to help the team win," McCray said. "That's what he brings to us."
A player with Blackwell's versatility will be a valuable asset for any roster, one of the reasons there is no shortage of cards, letters, emails and phone calls from interested coaches from all the well known programs. Although he won't name any favorites at this time – "It's still early and I'm still trying to be fair," he said – Blackwell did have something to say about five of the schools that are most definitely in the recruiting mix.
Florida: "They win a lot and that's pretty cool. They make the Elite Eight or the Final Four every single year. They had a really good season this year. I'm trying to get down there on June 7 for their skill camp so I can get a closer look at the campus and know the coaches a little bit better.
Indiana: "They have great tradition and they play in the Big Ten. The fans are absolutely crazy."
Tennessee: "It's the home state school. Everywhere you go in Tennessee, you see orange. It's a nice campus and their facilities are really nice. I love their campus."
Memphis: "I've been there once on an unofficial. Coach (Josh) Pastner is pretty cool. He's a really young guy and can relate to people."
Virginia: "It's a great campus with great academics and Coach (Tony) Bennett has built a very strong program. They play in the ACC."
Blackwell has a 3.2 GPA on an accelerated academic program. He plans to take the SAT this summer "for fun" and then again next year "to get a serious score."
As for when he will make his college decision, expect that sometime next spring.
"I want to do it before AAU season next year," he said. "I want to have a relaxed final season in AAU ball and a relaxed senior year in high school."