The Price is Right
You'd never know Amityville High (N.Y.) senior A.J. Price is one of the top point guards in the country by the way he carries himself on and off the court. Anyone expecting a brash kid with the swagger of Allen Iverson and the trash talking of Gary Payton doesn't know A.J. Price.
"I try to stay away from talking trash," says Price, 17, who is rated the nation's No. 23 overall recruit in the Class of 2004 by SchoolSports.com. "If you talk trash, people are going to come at you even more. If you're a good player, people are going to come at you. Giving people more motivation is really dumb."
Don't mistake Price's demeanor for someone who doesn't have confidence in his game or isn't hungry to win. He certainly has the ammo to talk smack. The kid just chooses to express it on the court, letting his deadly jump shot and his ridiculous handle do the talking.
Take, for example, last season, when the Warriors needed someone to step up after the graduation of superstar center Jason Fraser, a McDonald's All-American who took his talented game to Villanova after a dominating senior season in 2001-02.
The 6-foot-2, 175-pound Price responded to the challenge, leading Amityville to a 24-2 record, its fourth straight Class B state public schools title and its second Class B state Federation title in three years. He became the third consecutive Amityville player to earn Newsday's Richard Sandler Award (Fraser and current St. Francis College guard Tristan Smith were the others) as the top player in Suffolk County and was named the Class B State Player of the Year after averaging 25 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals per game as a junior. Price's 609 total points broke Fraser's single-season school record for scoring, while his 63 3-pointers eclipsed Tim Lomot's school mark of 55.
Yet, outside the East Coast, not many people considered Price one of the top point guards in the country before this summer. But make no mistake: He gets the job done.
And it's not just the stats or the broken records that set Price apart.
"What makes A.J. so much different (than Fraser and Smith) is his ability to shoot the ball in pressure situations," says Amityville head coach Jack Agostino. "It's a God-given talent. Since his sophomore year, he's made big plays at the end of close games both on the offensive and defensive end. It's just inner confidence. It's nothing you can coach or teach a kid. He just has it."
Fact is, Price was born to play basketball. His father, Tony, led the University of Pennsylvania to the 1979 Final Four before losing to Magic Johnson's Michigan State team in the semifinals. And his mother, Inga, was a point guard for Morgan State (Md.) from 1976-80.
The way Inga tells it, her son's basketball talent became evident almost as soon as he could walk. Price would dribble around the kitchen when he was 2 years old and play on a mini basketball hoop, and his family was amazed at how he made layups by jumping off the correct foot. They'd invite friends over when he was 3 or 4 to watch him drain jumpers like there was nothing to it.
Agostino first saw Price's incredible potential when Price attended one of his basketball camps in middle school. Two of Agostino's players, Oliver Hinckson and Kurt Huggins, kept telling him about Price, and Agostino witnessed first hand at his camp what they were talking about.
"He had such a calm demeanor playing against the older guys," says Agostino, who began this season (his 17th as the Warriors' head coach) with a career record of 296-61. "And that inner confidence that you don't tell people how good you are, you show it."
Price didn't have the spotlight right away at Amityville, playing Scottie Pippen to Fraser's Michael Jordan during the 2001-02 season, when Fraser regularly fielded questions about what college he would attend or whether he would head straight to the NBA. But Price made a name for himself by dropping 24 points in Amityville's win over LeBron James' St. Vincent-St. Mary High (Ohio) squad at the Slam Dunk to the Beach in Delaware in December of 2001. While people were going to watch Fraser, they were noticing his smaller teammate who could knock down jumpers like Allan Houston.
Playing alongside a player of Fraser's stature not only helped Price on the basketball court, it also helped him deal with the recruiting barrage he faced after a strong performance at this past summer's Nike All-America Camp in Indianapolis and on the AAU circuit with his Riverside Church team.
"[Fraser] told me to keep a level head and to stay humble when it came to recruiting," says Price. "It gets very hectic. If you don't have anyone to talk to you, it can get stressful. But since I had Jason, it helped ease the pressure."
Which is why Price was so calm and collected this fall when making his decision to attend UConn over St. John's. A big part of that decision was his desire to play for a program with a winning tradition. Coming from a high school team that has won four straight Class B public schools championships, Price knew UConn's status as a perennial national title contender was the perfect fit for him.
And according to both Price's mother and coach Agostino, another factor that helped the Huskies was UConn coach Jim Calhoun's history of producing NBA-caliber guards like Ray Allen and Richard Hamilton.
"When I got around the (UConn) coaches, I felt that everything was top of the line, from the way they ran their practices to the way they carried themselves," says Price. "Seeing that, it made me feel comfortable."
But before he steps onto the floor at UConn's Gampel Pavilion next season, Price is focused on adding to Amityville's trophy case along with senior guard P.J. Smith and junior forward Mark Johnson. Just don't be fooled by his calm exterior. Inside, Price possesses a killer instinct that drives him to carry on the winning tradition at Amityville.
"We call him the ‘Quiet Assassin,'" says his mother. "There's nothing flashy about his game. But if you know the game of basketball, you want to see him play. He plays the game the way it should be played. You just don't realize it until the end of the game when you look at the stat sheet and ask, ‘Who is this No. 12? He's killing us.'"
To Amityville's opponents, consider yourself warned.