Jerryd Bayless continues march to greatness

This is going to seem weird, but the best thing to happen to Jerryd Bayless might have been a dislocated left wrist so severe that the back of his hand was resting on his forearm as he picked himself up off the floor.

This is going to seem weird, but the best thing to happen to Jerryd Bayless might have been a dislocated left wrist so severe that the back of his hand was resting on his forearm as he picked himself up off the floor.

That gruesome injury happened during a game this past December while Bayless was attempting to block a shot, and it caused the St. Mary’s sophomore point guard to miss 16 games this winter. Even when Bayless defied doctors’ predictions and returned in February to help the Knights make a run to the Class 5A state finals, he was severely hampered and only capable of driving to his right.

So, what could possibly be the upside in all of that?

“It allowed him to become a kid again and to be relaxed,” says St. Mary’s head coach Dave Lopez, 58. “He didn’t have all that pressure to perform as a kid who’d just turned 16. It put him in a different arena is what it did.”

What it did was put Bayless, who is rated the No. 6 hoop recruit in the Class of 2007 by SchoolSports.com, on the bench in street clothes. And maybe, just maybe, it took the edge off the rapid-fire barrage of questions about what college he’s going to sign with.

For the record — and to get the issue out of the way — he currently rates Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, Duke and Louisville as his top college choices, though he’s in no hurry to make a decision.

Even now, several months removed from a sophomore campaign in which he missed half of his team’s games yet still averaged 21 points and 5.5 assists per contest, complete strangers walk up to Bayless at the Village Racquet and Health Club where he works out and ask him where he’s headed to college. Which, for those counting at home, won’t happen for another 27 months.

The bright side, in case you missed it, is that the injury — scary and horrific as it was — slowed down the 6-foot-3, 180-pound playmaker’s runaway basketball evolution. Not to mention, it revealed his remarkable depth of character.

“I admired him a lot for the way he handled it,” says Lopez, who will enter his 13th year at the Knights’ helm next season. “We all thought he wasn’t coming back last season, and yet he showed up for every practice. It didn’t matter whether it was six, seven or eight in the morning on a weekend, he’d be there. He’d participate and make fun of the guys and encourage them.

“But the biggest thing to me was that he got a chance to know what it feels like to not play a lot,” Lopez adds. “To see the guys who practice just as hard as anyone but don’t play. I told him to remember that feeling, and he listened. I think he has a different appreciation of the game as a whole.”

Bayless agrees that the injury may be a blessing in the long run, noting that it allowed him to work on other aspects of his game.

“It actually ended up helping me,” says the right-handed Bayless, who will turn 17 on Aug. 20. “For one thing, I shot [with my uninjured hand] at practice every day for two months. That actually helped make my stroke a lot smoother.”

He also benefited from a unique basketball education as a DNP due to injury.

“During all 16 games he was out, he sat right by the coaching staff on the bench,” says Lopez, who spent 18 seasons as the head coach at Apollo before coming to St. Mary’s. “We constantly pointed out situations on the floor, and he was real receptive to those lessons. We’d say, ‘When you come back, this is what we’d want you to do in that situation.’ He turned it into a positive.”

Indeed, Bayless was handed a unique opportunity to learn the game at a critical time in his development instead of playing the game and learning what he could on the fly. Then again, considering he’s just 16 and has only played a season and a half of varsity ball, how good can this kid really be yet?

The answer is, extraordinarily good — and that didn’t take long to prove. Bayless tore up the 2003 Fullcourt Press Freshman/Sophomore Camp in California two summers ago and then produced encore performances last summer at the Nike All-America Camp and the Reebok Big Time Tournament against elite national competition.

“I think the way I played last summer really put me on the map,” says Bayless, whose 20-year-old brother, Justin, is a former St. Mary’s forward. “I knew I was good, but it was the first time I played against kids from across the country. And after that, I’ve had no fear. Not to be cocky, but last summer gave me a sense that when it comes down to it, nobody can really guard me.”

Bayless has been a household name around Phoenix since middle school and began building his scholastic reputation without delay. In his high school debut, he scored 27 points. Two games later, he poured in 37.

“I think his composure is probably his biggest asset,” says Lopez, who coached a St. Mary’s squad led by Arizona senior center Channing Frye to the 2001 Class 5A state title. “He came in as a freshman and started in a real competitive situation. We’re a school of 800 and we play schools with student-body populations of 3,000 or 4,000, but he goes out and scores 30-plus right away.”

Composure counts for plenty, no doubt. But given the unforgiving spotlight that shines so brightly on teenage recruits like Bayless, it’s his perspective that will serve him best in the future.

It’s his firm grasp on reality that will carry him past those awkward questions from strangers at the gym and the dizzying expectations of this summer and the crushing stress of being an elite recruit.

“Right now, I’m just trying to be a high school basketball player,” says Bayless, who scored a game-high 25 points in St. Mary’s 69-53 loss to Mesa Mountain View in the state finals this season. “I just go out and play my game. Nothing spectacular. I just do what I do. It’s worked so far, so I’ll keep doing it. I’m not worried about my stats, I’m worried about winning games. When it comes down to it, you get the attention and you become the player you want to be with wins.”


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