Today, college basketball programs across the country are extolling their various "breakthrough" recruiting classes, with scads of Top 100 national players. While Stanford fans would trade firstborn children or essential appendages for more McDonald's All-Americans and a class rife with headline-grabbing national recruits, the truth is that many of these top rated classes signed today have combined GPAs lower than the average rebounding numbers of their constituents. Mike Montgomery has taken his basketball program to the Final Four without a bench full of high school All-Americans before and will do so again, and one important reason is his ability to find promising players with a combination of skills, athleticism and desire that can make a Stanford Basketball team better than the sum of its parts.
Many signs, including my personal observations of his play, point to the signing today of 6'8" power forward Taj Finger as a continuation of the talent level and promise upon which Stanford has built its national reputation in recent years.
There's one catch, though. Finger is a young 17 years old, and you might need to be just a hair more patient with his physical development than some other players.
"I think this is a kid whose best days are ahead of him," says Dave Telep of TheInsidersHoops. "I think he's made great strides with his game from the end of his junior year to now. The biggest thing for him is to continue gaining confidence. He needs a college weight program but his lack of size is countered by the skill he brings to the table."
Finger weighs 190 pounds sopping wet today, and he is realistic about his current physical development.
"Right now I might be a little behind other guys physically," he describes. "I don't lift in the weight room as much now as I will be able to do in college. I know I will be ready then to lift weights more and drink a lot of protein shakes, once my body is ready to mature."
But an important growth has already begun in Finger's basketball evolution, coming on the floor this past summer during the AAU circuit. The New York native had played his previous off-season traveling basketball with a Westchester club that frankly was a few notches behind the elite national level in both athleticism and competition. Taking a giant leap forward, Finger played with the famed NY/NJ "Playaz" squad under Jimmy Salmon this year. He saddled up with the likes of J.R. Smith (#13 nationally ranked 2004 player), David McClure (#47) and Alex Galindo (#83), and what he did surprised both himself and college coaches.
"My confidence grew so much," the Stanford signee proclaims. "I was playing with better players against better competition, and making plays at that level."
The Stanford coaches watched Finger more than any other player at the adidas Big Time in Las Vegas this past July, and they were mesmerized by the transformation before them.
"You watch him over time," begins Cardinal assistant coach Eric Reveno, "and see how good a feel he has for the game. It's not to say that the game is easy for him, but he just has a very good feel. We watched him in Vegas as he matched up against a high level of competition, and he was always getting things done. Taj was always making plays that helped his team win."
Though Finger does not have an overly explosive game or an eye-catching vertical leap, he is undoubtedly an underrated athlete. I have seen him several times take "quicker" defenders off the dribble from the top of the key or on the baseline for surprisingly quick moves to the hole. Those plays surprised his future Stanford teammates when he came out to The Farm for his official visit in September and played some pickup ball with them in Maples Pavilion. He scored in the low post and delivered a nice little hook shot that gave double-takes all around the gym. That included fellow 2004 senior Peter Prowitt, the 6'10" center who also signed with Stanford today and took an official visit the same weekend.
"I really really like Taj," Prowitt beams. "He's a very cool guy. I admit I was skeptical when I heard he was a power forward and then saw how slim he was. I thought he was a wing guard. But he can really ball. Taj more than held his own with the Stanford players. There's no question he played better out there than me. I think he has a chance to be a very special player."
When asked to give his own self-description, Finger has this to say about his game and contributing characteristics he is bringing to Stanford:
"I'm a player who hustles and will give every effort all the time," the Fox Lane HS senior starts. "I'm always going to box out and play hard defense. I think I can mix some of my post moves with my jump hook, a short jumper and take bigger defenders off the dribble."
That jumper is something Finger has not had to employ much to date in his basketball career, and through my limited observations is not something he yet is comfortable taking out to 15 feet. With his skills and his body, that is one of the challenges he needs to meet to be a more versatile scorer at the Pac-10 level. But the Stanford coaches are plenty giddy over the talent they landed in Finger, who was somewhat of a sleeper until the late summer.
"His height, ballhandling skills, passing and feel for the game - it's a pretty special combination," Reveno charges. "He's a player who will be in the right space at the right time and make plays for you."
The chance to make plays for Stanford Basketball starting next fall is an exciting prospect that just now is truly hitting home for Finger, with his Letter of Intent signed.
"It's kind of an amazing thing," he says of the signing. "It makes this all more real that it was before. I had this idea that I had committed to Stanford before, but it wasn't exactly real before. No, I didn't have any cold feet, though. The distance doesn't seem that bad with how much support I have around me for Stanford. My parents and friends are pretty excited that I'm going to Stanford."
Finger made his verbal commitment to Mike Montgomery and the Stanford program back on September 30, not long after returning from his official visit. He had also taken official trips to Northwestern and Richmond, but the Card were a clear winner on all fronts for the New Yorker.
"The most important thing is that I'm going to get the best education in the country," he proudly boasts. "But you can't deny that the basketball is fantastic. I want to push myself as a basketball player and see how far I can take myself. They play the kind of basketball I like at Stanford - even when they play pick-up games there are smart things players do. The Stanford coaches are all great, too, and I believe them when they tell me that they think I can make an impact there."
With the signing celebratory events now behind him, Taj Finger is gearing up for his final season of basketball at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, NY. The skilled forward put up 17 points per game last year, but he and his coach are aiming higher in this senior edition.
"We're working on my overall game," Finger describes. "My hook shot, taking defenders off the dribble and taking my game outside. The biggest thing is to make other players around me better."
Fox Lane just held their tryouts for the varsity squad and are scheduled to play their first regular season game on December 5.
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