HOOPS: A.J. Stewart Has Clear Leader

If he went with his heart and made a decision today, there is no question where A.J. Stewart would commit to play basketball in 2007. He trusts his heart, but he wants to be 100 percent sure, however, and that's why it may be another month or two before this 6-8 high flying dunk machine from Jacksonville's Arlington Country Day makes his final choice.

(See A.J. Stewart profile)

"I really love the Florida Gators," said Stewart, who averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds per game for ACD's state champs this past season. "I love Coach (Billy) Donovan and all the coaches, love the campus, love the team … just about everything and part of me wants to commit there right now, but I want to be sure that I make the right choice so I'm looking at other places."

Wake Forest, Kansas State, Miami and Florida State are in his top five because along with the Gators, they've been recruiting him the longest and the hardest. Recently, though, his performance at camps and on the AAU circuit (he plays for the Tallahassee Wildcats along with Florida commitment Adam Allen) has elevated his recruiting profile and a lot of schools are jumping on his bandwagon. Every day it seems there is a new school interested. Most recently, Ohio State and St. John's have thrown their names into the hat and they are both trying to make up lost ground.

He says that it will take a lot of hard work for any other team to crack his favorite's list, but he will try to give every school a fair shake up to a point.

"I'm not going to let this drag out a long time," he said, "but I do want to listen. If people try to recruit me and they have something to say, I want to hear it out before I rule anyone out. This won't go on forever, though."

The Gators have the upper hand with him because they have recruited him longer and harder than anyone else. He's likes the way Billy Donovan coaches and he also likes the straightforward way he deals with his players.

Florida is the defending national champion and with five starters returning this year and an outstanding recruiting class coming in, the Gators have a chance to repeat as NCAA champs. Stewart knows that Florida's deck is stacked with outstanding players but that doesn't bother him.

"When I was a freshman and sophomore I didn't start," he said. "I had to earn my playing time by working harder and showing I could handle it. If I went to Florida and didn't start, that wouldn't be a big deal as long as I got a chance to earn my minutes off the bench. I've done that before and I'm comfortable doing that."

Florida has one other advantage and in the end, it could prove to be the deciding factor.

"It's just 30 minutes away from where we live for my mama to come see me play if I go to Florida so I would have to say that's pretty important for me," he said.

His mother, Dinah Stewart, is the principle at Eugene Butler Middle School in Jacksonville. Because she's an educator, her emphasis is education and that is another plus for Florida.

"The academics at Florida are really good," he said. "She doesn't want me to go anywhere that they're not going to push me hard academically, to make sure I study, do all my work and finish up with a degree. She likes the way Coach Donovan's players go to class and get their degrees. That's important to her."

The importance of earning a college degree was also stressed over the weekend when Stewart was in Richmond for the NBA Development Camp. From a basketball standpoint, this was a gathering of the nation's elite high school talent and the competition was fierce but Stewart came away from the weekend with more than just a better idea of where his game stands.

"They spent a long time talking to us about getting our college diplomas," said Stewart. "They showed us the stats and it showed that most of us aren't going to make it to the NBA. It's everybody's dream for sure, but not everybody's going to get that chance so you have to have something to fall back on. Basketball can't be everything or you might wind up with nothing."

While in Richmond he was put in a variety of situations on defense where he got to show that he's very capable of guarding forwards or guards on the perimeter and sturdy enough even though he's just 200 pounds to defend in the paint. From an offensive standpoint, he didn't get the ball in scoring position all that much but he felt confident that he showed enough of his game to impress everybody.

"They really stressed fundamentals and defense," he said. "I felt good about both those areas. I kinda wish I could have showed them more of what I can do when I have the ball, but that's okay, I think I did all right on defense and rebounding to make up for it.

"I held my man to low scoring in every game so I did pretty good on defense. Nobody really got the best of me there. I was guarding guards and forwards. Jumping-wise, there were people there that can really fly so I couldn't just use my athletic ability and try to out-jump everyone every time the ball went up. I had to show them I know how to box out and fight for position."

If there's one area that he knows he must improve after the NBA camp, it's his jump shot. He says his jumper is "okay" but he knows he has to develop more consistency because he can't just take everybody off the dribble all the time.

"I'm very confident taking the ball to the rack but I have to work more on my jump shot so I'm a lot more consistent," he said. "I've got to make people respect my jump shot and if they do that, I'll be better when I try to go inside."

He is close friends with former ACD teammate David Huertas, who recently transferred from the University of Florida, Derwin Kitchen, a UF signee that ended up at St. John's after being denied admission to UF, and Jimmie Sutton, who transferred out of Florida after redshirting last season. He said that none of the three have anything bad to say about the Gators and they have encouraged him to look hard at his possibilities with UF. "It just wasn't the right fit for David and Jimmie," he said. "They love Florida but it wasn't the right place for them to be. They've been real good about telling me the good things that Florida has to offer."

He sees good things to offer at the other four schools that are listed in his favorites, too.

WAKE FOREST: "They're big on education and graduating their players and their players aren't exactly scrubs. They have competed big time in the ACC and they've played all the best competition."

KANSAS STATE: "Jason Bennett (7-2 center that was Stewart's teammate at ACD last year) is there and he's my boy. He's been on the phone telling me about it and he says it's a long way from home but it's a cool place that I'd like. Coach (Bob) Huggins is a real cool coach, too. Since I was a freshman he's been in the gym watching me."

MIAMI: "Eddie Rios and Dwayne Collins have committed there and they are two of my closest buddies. Danny Clemente and Brian Asbury are already there, too, so it would be a good atmosphere with friends and stuff. Miami's a private school and they've got smaller classes so you can really get a lot out of your education."

FLORIDA STATE: "Josue Soto (ACD teammate last year) is going there and Brian Hoff (ACD teammate in 2005) was there this year so I already have a network of friends that I can count on. They play in the ACC so they know tough competition and Coach (Leonard) Hamilton is one of the nicest coaches you can meet but he'll bust your butt if you're not after someone playing defense."

Even though he admits the Gators are a clear leader, he says that when he pulls the trigger and makes the final decision, he will be as fair as he possibly can.

"This is a big decision, the biggest one of my life, so I got to make sure it's the right decision for me," he said. "Everybody has tried to show me the positives about their school so what I have to do is match that up with what's right for me. I'm going to make a decision before my season starts and I'll go ahead and sign my scholarship during the early signing period. I don't want any distractions once my season starts. I want this [recruiting] over with but I want to know when I make my choice that I thought everything through."

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