This article appears in the Jan/Feb 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Steve King has never doubted his son's basketball ability. Of course, he's never had a reason to. It didn't take a genius to recognize that his son, Taylor, was a hoop prodigy from the get-go.
Now a sophomore small forward at Mater Dei, Taylor King was dribbling with both hands by the time he was 2 years old. He could drain from deep before he could do simple addition. And when he was in fifth grade, he led his AAU team to the national championship.
"He was very, very coordinated, especially for a big kid," says Steve, a former junior college basketball player. "Ever since his AAU team won the national championship, we knew he had the potential to be very, very good. We always said that if he got to be 6-8 or 6-9, he'd have a legitimate shot (at the NBA)."
But with "hype" now more than ever a dirty word to high school basketball coaches, it took more than rhetoric to convince Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight about King.
In 22 years at the helm of the Monarchs, McKnight has sent more than 80 players to Division I college programs and a handful to the NBA. But he has seen at least twice as many flame out after enrolling at Mater Dei with much acclaim.
McKnight coaches in an era in which parents talk up their 8-year-old sons not as the next Michael Jordan, but the next LeBron James. An era in which recruiting analysts predict which high school freshmen will skip college to be lottery picks in distant NBA drafts. It's gotten so crazy that one recruiting Web site rates the top 40 players from the Class of 2012. For the record, that's fifth-graders.
So you can understand why chatter about a gifted middle school lefty didn't quite pique McKnight's interest two years ago. Instead, he brushed aside any expectations and took a wait-and-see approach.
Even when King sent shockwaves through the national prep basketball landscape by committing to UCLA before ever playing a varsity game, McKnight wasn't convinced of anything.
"I didn't see him play until the summer before his freshman year," says McKnight. "I had heard about this phenom left-handed player who can go inside and outside. But you hear that a lot. People say kids are 6-7, but then they walk in the gym and they're really 6-2, 6-3. We've had quite a few good kids come through here, so I always wait and see."
Once McKnight finally saw King in person, however, it only took a quick glimpse to turn the grizzled coach into a believer. And it wasn't just because, like McKnight, King is a passionate Parrot Head who annually sees Jimmy Buffett in concert. Although that certainly helped.
What impressed McKnight most was King's penchant for scoring coupled with his size. Although he was barely 15 at the time, King's left-handed jumper was deadly from beyond NBA 3-point range. And with his 6-6 frame, King had no problem getting his shot off on the perimeter.
"He had good size, a nice shot and fluidness with how he shot the ball," says McKnight, who had led the Monarchs to five state championships, 17 section championships and an overall record of 663-62 entering this season. "Obviously, when a 6-6 freshman walks in your gym, that's pretty good."
Impressing his coach turned out to be the easy part for King, who became only the third freshman to ever start for McKnight but stumbled through the first few weeks of his rookie season.
"It was tough on him as a freshman because everybody had such high expectations and he felt he had to do something every night," McKnight says.
In addition to the expectations, King says he had a hard time adjusting to the fast pace of varsity ball and the level of competition. But he rebounded from a shaky start to average 14 points and a team-high seven rebounds per game as the Monarchs finished 24-5.
A year later, the hype hasn't ceased. Now a 6-foot-7, 210-pound sophomore with a 7-foot wingspan, King is rated the No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2007 by SchoolSports.com and still has colleges chasing him down with hopes that he might recant his commitment to UCLA.
He wears size 17 shoes and is projected to grow another inch or two before all is said and done. If he continues to fill out his somewhat spindly frame, it's not out of the question for Steve's prophecy to unfurl and Taylor to become an NBA draft pick.
"I think before he's done, he can be the next left-handed Larry Bird," McKnight says. "He can shoot it, play inside or outside and has good instinct. I mean, he's a very talented player. I think the best is yet to come."
After playing second fiddle to current Oregon State freshman Marcel Jones last year, King is now Mater Dei's go-to guy. He wasted no time in asserting himself by dropping 33 points and grabbing 11 boards in Mater Dei's season-opening blowout win over Loara on Nov. 29.
Whereas last year King was typecast as a pure shooter, he spent the offseason lifting weights and working on his lateral quickness to add a tight inside game to his repertoire.
"If my shot's there, it's there, but I'm looking to take the ball to the basket more and get to the free-throw line more," says King, who talks on the phone at least once a week with North College Hill (Ohio) phenom and good friend O.J. Mayo, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2007. "I want to go inside and outside, use more of my attributes. Rebound, get my teammates involved."
Of course, the sweet shot — which was developed through years of obsessive workouts that entailed 1,200-1,500 jumpers — is what got King to where he is now, and it's still his bread and butter. It's what he used this past summer to hold his own in pickup games with NBA stars like Kevin Garnett, Baron Davis, Chauncey Billups and Paul Pierce. And it's what he plans to go to when the game's on the line this season.
As pleased as McKnight is to see his star continue to develop his all-around game, the coach sees the biggest improvement coming from King's approach.
"It's not a situation anymore where he has to prove himself to anybody," McKnight says. "Now he's just in the flow of the game and feels more comfortable. He's a very smart basketball player in addition to being talented."
Now, instead of having to worry about what comes next or living up to the expectations of being a hoop prodigy, King can finally just enjoy the here and now.
"You want to look ahead and see all these things that you want to come, your goals," King says. "It's not bad to have goals, but you just want to take it slow. I still have three more years of high school."