The Ice Man
Get it straight: Bryce Taylor ain't soft. Not by a long shot. Forget what you've heard about some jump-shooting California boy with moisturizer-nurtured hands. Some rock-chucking cherry picker you love when you need a 3, but you gotta carry when you go to war.
Whatever you've heard about Harvard-Westlake School senior shooting guard Bryce Taylor that wasn't gushing praise is dead wrong.
"Sometimes people perceive me as soft," says the mild-mannered 6-foot-5, 200-pounder, with a touch of indignation in his tone. "They think because I come from a big family (four siblings) that I'm too nice. Well, that's how I carry myself. But you get labeled as a shooter who's too soft to take it inside and that frustrates me. It's only a matter of time before people see that I can do a lot more things on the court than shoot the basketball."
Got that right. Taylor, who is rated the nation's No. 66 overall hoop recruit by SchoolSports.com and is headed to the University of Oregon next year on a full ride, averaged 29 points, eight rebounds and three assists per game as a junior. And he didn't do it by tiptoeing around the arc looking for the 3-ball. You see, Taylor has a little Perth Amboy in him. That's Perth Amboy, New Jersey. A gritty little coastal city where you've always had to keep your head about you. Especially when Taylor's pops, Brian, was ballin' there in the 1960s.
Brian Taylor, a former Princeton University point guard (recruited by then-Tiger Bill Bradley), was the Rookie of the Year for the ABA's New York Nets in 1973 and also had NBA stints with franchises in Kansas City, Denver and San Diego. Being from Perth Amboy served him well during his 10-year pro career, and he's taught every push, tug, tactic and deke he knows to his eldest son.
"The physical nature of the game out East — that's one of the things I've been able to learn from him," says Bryce, who will turn 18 on Sept. 27. "We'd play one-on-one and he'd tell me I was soft. We'd go out in the driveway and he'd throw a couple elbows and say, ‘That's how we do it out in Jersey.' I've been able to incorporate that into my game, but still pave my own way and carve my own niche here on the West Coast. Use the things I learn from people, but separate myself by doing them my way."
Much to the satisfaction of Wolverines head coach Greg Hilliard.
"Fairly or unfairly, he's been labeled as a shooter," says Hilliard, 54, now in his 19th season at Harvard-Westlake. "They'll find out at the next level that if his shooting doesn't work out game to game, he finds a way with his intelligence and skills to be an impact player.
If he's not hitting, he'll go out and get 15 rebounds or double-digit assists. I could play him at all five positions and he'd be our best player there. I could put him on the bench and he'd probably be a better coach than me."
Hilliard, who has led the Wolverines to six Southern Section championships and a trio of Division III state crowns (the last in 1997), certainly hasn't looked like a lesser coach this year. Harvard-Westlake is loaded.
Senior Evan Harris, a 6-foot-9 returning All-State selection, and 6-foot-8 sophomore Alex Stepheson are towering complements to Taylor. And at the start of the season, all five Wolverines starters stood 6-foot-4 or taller.
Of course, toughness and smarts aside, Taylor is, at his core, a pure shooter. Not exactly something to be ashamed of. But how in the heck does it happen? How does a guy develop a stroke so sweet?
"It's about the way you practice," insists Taylor, eager to reveal the deeper insight behind what seems like an obvious point. "You have to put yourself in different situations. Then you develop that ability to shoot in those situations. With one or two guys on you. Leaning. Falling away. Off one dribble. Off two dribbles. Off contact. Off the catch, no dribble. You put the hours in, you work on it all and when it comes to the games, it's more familiar."
Familiar is one thing. But the way Taylor shoots, it's as though the basket owes him money or something.
"He's increased his scoring ability every year by adding something new and amazing every offseason," says Hilliard, who guided the Wolverines to a 29-7 record and the Division III state finals last March. "He started out as a guy who could fill it from the 3-point line and now he's shooting it, in rhythm, from five to 10 feet behind that. From where I can't throw it like a baseball and reach the rim. Then, when defenders realize they have to go guard him out there, he takes the ball to the basket and dunks it with a 39-inch vertical. All that makes him kind of tough to guard."
Taylor is a sponge for absorbing basketball mojo. Not just from his dad, either. Earlier this season when he watched Lincoln High (N.Y.) point guard and SchoolSports.com No. 1-rated recruit Sebastian Telfair drop 25 first-half points on the Wolverines, Taylor adjusted his game and helped slow Telfair down in the second half. Taylor scored 22 of his 31 points after the break as Harvard-Westlake rallied from a 20-point deficit before falling, 85-82, in overtime. Telfair finished with 37.
And Hilliard says that's not where the story ends.
"I fully expect him to add something from Sebastian's game to his own before the season is over," says Hilliard. "He's a student of the game. All that watching and learning with his dad and while traveling to camps and playing AAU — that process of borrowing from other players is second nature for him. He watched and marveled at Sebastian Telfair, and now he'll emulate him to the extent that he can and wishes to. That's pretty amazing in and of itself."
However jaw-dropping Taylor's knack for incorporating other styles into his own, there's a very ordinary reason behind it all. He wants to win. And he accepts the fact that his role — even his label — as a shooter is part of winning.
"It's always team first, but the team is looking to me to do anything I can to help us win the game," says Taylor. "If that means shooting it 25 times a game, so be it. If you're scoring and winning, there's nothing anyone can say. That's what it comes down to."
Like we said, Bryce Taylor ain't soft.