Mamaroneck, NY - 12/18/2003
So I put on my Stanford coach's costume - Stanford polo, khakis, clipboard with a form printed for charting shots - and headed over to Mamaroneck, NY to watch Taj Finger and Fox Lane High School (Bedford, NY) take on Blessed Sacrament High School (New Rochelle, NY). The 5 p.m. start time made for a brutal combination of rush hour and holiday traffic and a late arrival by yours truly. Following the sounds of whistles and squeaking sneakers I quickly found the gym. Unfortunately this particular gym had a JV game underway. Three flights of stairs up, several long hallways and three flights of stairs down and I finally found the correct gym just in time for the start of the 2nd quarter.
Some quick background: Bedford is a little town of 1,800 people, but Fox Lane serves as the high school for a district of 32,000 and has 1,100 students. This is wealthy white suburbia, not exactly a basketball hotbed, and their team reflects that. Blessed Sacrament plays in the lowest division of the NY Catholic High Schools Athletic Association and was 0-17 last year. So this was a far cry from Oak Hill vs St. Anthony's.
Taj is instantly recognizable, not only because he's a very thin 6'8" with a long neck, but also because his teammates max out at about six-foot even. His height at the shoulder might make him a "short 6-8", but he has VERY long arms. As in Scottie Pippen, almost Charles Barkley arms. Those arms not only let him play tall, they contribute to his excellent ball handling skills. He keeps his dribble remarkably low for such a lanky player.
Fox Lane leads 16-4 after the 1st quarter; I look over the scorer's shoulder and see that Taj has eight of those points. Unfortunately, his one-man show doesn't bode well for my scouting efforts as Blessed Sacrament uses a box-and-one on him the remainder of the game. For the three quarters I witnessed, the game had all the makings of a stereotypical city vs. suburbs match-up. Fox Lane with their four baby-faced white kid lineup, Sacrament with a very quick, young, all-black team. With a quickness edge at every position but center and a solidly built, 6'5" or so talented youngster all over Taj, our Future Farmer got limited touches on offense. He dominated the game on defense, blocking and altering shot after shot. Sacrament's offense showed all the signs of disorganized youth, as four players were typically looking at the dribbler and very little happened away from the ball. "Pass don't dribble!" was constantly being yelled by their coach to little effect. The vast majority of their points came in transition. But their two stars are both sophomores, and I'll be curious to see how they develop.
Back to Mr. Finger, in the 2nd quarter he was 1-for-3 on field goal attempts. The misses were a 13-footer on the baseline and an 18-footer at the buzzer from the top of the key. His one bucket was a beauty, though. Starting on the right baseline he was instantly doubled. A quick dribble and long-legged spin move to his right, and he banks in the 10-footer. It was the kind of decisive, efficient move that we all hope Justin Davis shows more of. He also knocked in a 15-footer from the baseline that was disallowed because a foul was called on his dribble and missed a tip attempt. Those aforementioned ballhandling skills were showcased when he brought the ball upcourt in transition versus pressure on one possession. He was 1-for-2 from the foul line, had four rebounds and three blocks. The half ended with his team ahead 25-13, Taj with 11 points.
The 3rd quarter was a frustrating one for Fox Lane and anyone scouting Taj. With Blessed Sacrament's defense collapsing all over him, Taj managed only one shot and that was swatted cleanly by Greg Avila (the athletic sophomore big man I mentioned earlier). His team didn't score a point until three minutes remained; his line for the quarter was 0-for-1 shooting, one defensive rebound and one steal. That's it. Sophomore Aramis McFarland was destroying Fox Lane off the dribble and the score was now 33-30. We have a ballgame.
The 4th quarter showed why Taj is the proud recipient of a Stanford scholie. He spent the 3rd quarter unselfishly passing out of double and triple teams only to watch his teammates miss shots and turn the ball over. I have a feeling his coach said 'enough is enough, go score.' A 15-foot fadeaway jumper from the left baseline. A 12-foot banker from the left lane. And a beautiful spinning drive through three guys that started from 15 feet on the left baseline and ended as a reverse lay-up. He also ran a give-and-go alley-oop with a guard where he passed off near the arc and curled all the way around the defense. Pass was way off, though he made a nice effort just to get his hand on it. 4th quarter total: 3-for-4 from the foul line, 3-for-3 from the floor, two rebounds and two more blocks. Bottom line was a 19-2 quarter for his team, 52-32 final score.
Obviously a low scoring, somewhat ugly game that isn't conducive to racking up statistics. The box-and-one limited his opportunities, but Taj ended with 20 points for the game and had seven boards and five blocks just in the three quarters I saw. More importantly he showed excellent skills that belie his gangly appearance. His shot has a nice rotation and his form is almost there. He needs a slightly higher release, but that will come easily with strength and coaching. Using the backboard seems to be a lost skill, but Taj loves the short to mid-range bank shot. He showed a nice handle, and his long arms and low dribble let him maneuver through traffic. He was only called for one foul as he made a concerted effort to maintain verticality on his blocked shots. Granted he was facing shorter opponents, but he did shut down a tough big guy who could leap (Avila, who had a nice dunk on a break and blocked two of Taj's shots). He didn't get frustrated facing swarms of quick defenders and he took over the game when he decided to.
In trying to come up with a comparable player, Rick Rickert came to mind. Taj is quicker and two inches shorter but has a similar look and style. Actually, Josh Childress as a frosh isn't too far off either. Same body, same arms, same baseline game. Less hops and hair. That's the best I can come up with at the moment. 24 minutes of game time and about 11 shot attempts isn't much to go on. I couldn't even judge from warm-ups, as he spent halftime sitting on the bench. I have a little "tweener" concern, as he needs far more weight and muscle to play the '4' at Stanford and I can't tell if his perimeter game is ready for the '3'. I'd expect a redshirt unless he has an amazing 12 months of body development.
But bottom line, he's a player. Could be one of those who has a matchup problem on defense, but will cause matchup problems on the offensive end. Too long for most 3's to handle, too quick for most 4's.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!