Wrotens Steering Clear of the Hype

SEATTLE - If there are two things a person comes away with after watching heralded freshman Tony Wroten play, it's that a) he really is as good as you've heard, and b) as good as he is, he's nowhere near a finished product.

Wroten's name has hovered around the national AAU circuits since he was a sixth grader playing for Rotary Select in Seattle. A beneficiary of the 'Youtube Generation', Wroten's eye-popping video footage from his middle school years surfaced across file sharing services, catapulting him onto recruiting radars across the country. But that was then, and this is now. The consensus top player of the 2011 class officially arrived as a freshman at Seattle's renowned Garfield High School, the same school that produced last year's NBA rookie of the year Brandon Roy, and Wroten immediately made his presence felt with the Bulldogs. Leading his young team to a state tournament appearance after averaging 20.8 points a game, the freshman's fierce scoring touch would ultimately place him among the top 10 4A scorers and cement his place among the state's elite prep athletes.

Wroten's game is spectacular. After five minutes of watching him play, you have to remind yourself that you are watching a child. He showcased an aerial display that might be more at home at a Cirque de Soleil show than a basketball court. Standing 6-foot-4, the solidly built young man carries with him more than a hint of confidence, mixed with an air of wide-eyed, youthful exuberance. Yes, he knows he's special, but he's not going to talk about it.

"I try not to get too caught up in the ‘how good are you' stuff," Wroten explained one evening after Rotary practice – a night that saw him on the floor doing push ups for defensive miscues. "I just want to work real hard and the rest will take care of itself. To be the best, you've got to work hard at it, so that's what I'm trying to do.

"I work out every day, I work out during school at lunchtime, after school," he added. "I wake up at four in the morning and work out before school. I want to be the best so I have to work at it. The longest time I go without a basketball is the four hours Sunday when I go to church. Otherwise I'm always carrying a ball. You'll never see me without one."

Though soaring like Superman is one his favorite pastimes, Wroten's game is more than just dunks and flashy passes. Wroten is a point guard, and his feel for the game is phenomenal. While Tony's height gives him an advantage surveying the court from up top, his vision is what separates him from his opponents. Give him too much space and he'll make you pay. Despite just turning 15, Wroten already has decent three point range though it lacks arc, and he's definitely not afraid to shoot it. Crowd him and he'll blow by with a knee-buckling crossover. Allow him to set up in the post and his drop-step often ends in a rim-rattling, two-handed dunk.

Phenomenal skills? Yes. Complete player? Not even close, but as one college head coach reminded me recently after watching him play, ‘How many ninth-graders do you know that are complete players?'

As good as Wroten is, he can be better. Much better.

"I need to really work on my defense, and not reaching - a lot of stuff really," he shared. "I'm not perfect. I've actually got a lot of things I need to work on. I'm working on my jumpshot, my long range shooting."

Truth be told, Wroten's defense has improved, but he still has a long way to go. He reaches – a lot, and at times it seems he'd rather let his opponent dribble past him and go for the block rather than try to stay in front of his man. Trouble is, at the prep level, it actually works, which doesn't help.

"That's really something we try to look at every day," explained his father, Tony Wroten, Sr. "We talk about it, look at film, watch other players that have complete games, not just the flashy passes or the dunks. We try to teach him the whole game. He's so talented that sometimes that stuff tends to take a back seat, but it's something I'm always on him about. And he's getting better at it. Take defense for example. He's better understanding defensive positioning, low-post positioning and those types of things. It's an ongoing process, but it's a process we're winning."

If Tony Sr. sounds like he knows what he's talking about, it's because he does. He and his wife Shirley come from a history of success in Seattle-area sports. Senior was a former tight end for the University of Washington. His bowl game jerseys adorn Tony's walls. Shirley comes from one of Seattle's most prominent basketball families. Once a UW track star who still holds two records, Shirley is the younger sister of ex-Harlem Globetrotter and two-time All-American Joyce Walker. Tony's cousins include Jimmie Haywood and New York Knick Nate Robinson, who also played collegiately at Washington.

"My wife and I are both athletes but I really think that Tony's going to take it to the next level," explained Big Tony, as he is known. "If you were hanging around our house though, you'd never know it. We kind of anticipated this so it's not anything we worry about – there's no pressure. We just want him to work on getting better every day."

The younger Wroten knows there are people out there pulling for him to fail. After watching the careers of former Prep phenoms OJ Mayo and LeBron James unfold in the national spotlight, Wroten knows there are people who will scrutinize his every move.

"My whole life I've had a lot of pressure on me so I'm kind of used to it now," he said. "Some people want to see you do bad, and others might give you extra leeway, so I just try to play my game and let that stuff work itself out on its own."

"A lot of those troubled players have different paths," added his father. "We're taking the path of someone that just wants to improve every day. We preach that every day and his mother and I are always there for him. He understands that to get where he wants to be, he needs to keep getting better because if you're not always improving, you're getting beat by someone who is.

"The family aspect is that we work hard when it's time for basketball. Ad when it's family time, it's not about basketball. It's about being a family. Basketball isn't 24-7."

It goes without saying that Wroten is a hot commodity amongst college coaches. With the NBA collective bargaining agreement up for renegotiation in 2011, the odds are good that Tony will be spending two years in college. So an already difficult decision looms just a little larger on the horizon.

The Wrotens are taking an eyes-wide-open approach to recruiting, meaning nobody really stands out.

"My top-five changes less than I change my shoes, but some teams change every week," Wroten said with a chuckle. "Maryland and Seton Hall are two that have been in my top five the longest. My Mom wants me to go to the best school for me. Obviously they all would love for me to stay here. Anytime I give my family a top-five Dad always make sure I have UW in there. He jokes around with me a lot, but in the end he wants me to do what's best for me.

"I'm pretty much hearing from everyone right now. I've even heard from some Ivy league schools which is kind of funny."

Big Tony is a bit more serious about recruiting.

"The way we're setting it up is that I want coaches going directly to me," he said. "I think that's the best for him. You can't go to college after your freshman year of high school and right now I don't want him to have to worry about all of that. As long as he keeps working like he is, he's going to be good enough to go where he wants to go. He doesn't need a bunch of coaches talking to him right now. It's going to go through me so I can squash that and he can keep his focus where it needs to be."

"It's a good thing to get attention," remarked Junior. "But at the same time I have to block it out and try to be a regular kid."

Despite all of the expectations and recruiting attention, Wroten is still playing basketball for love of the game.

"If you don't see pure enjoyment in the way he plays, I don't know what you're looking at," observed his father. "He loves making the spectacular pass, the dunk, obviously. He loves the game of basketball. I've never had to make him play."

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