I Got Next
This article appears in the October 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
LeBron James had already been dubbed King when his AAU team ran into the Atlanta Celtics in the finals of a Houston-area tournament during the summer of 2002.
At the time, Javaris Crittenton was a 14-year-old backup guard playing on the Celtics' 17-and-under team. As he sat on the bench early in the game, he sensed his teammates were playing scared — playing to avoid embarrassment at the hands of the NBA's preordained savior.
But that was never Crittenton's style. Though he was only a rising freshman, he saw nothing but opportunity when he got his chance to match up with King James.
LeBron beat Crittenton a few times, but the youngster also picked the legend's pocket more than once. The game's defining play came when Crittenton used a behind-the-back move to leave LeBron flat-footed at the arc. Current Boston Celtics center Kendrick Perkins was waiting in the lane as Crittenton charged ahead, but an up-and-under layup left the two future NBA first-round picks watching the ball rattle home as Crittenton jogged back on defense.
"I've probably told that story more than any story in my life," says Crittenton, now a Georgia Tech-bound senior point guard at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy (SACA) who's rated the nation's No. 16 hoop recruit in the Class of 2006 by SchoolSports.com. "I'll be telling it 'til I'm an old man."
As LeBron was practicing his handshake and getting fitted for his draft-night attire the following school year, Crittenton was busy establishing himself as one of the nation's top freshmen.
A few months after leaving LeBron in his wake, Crittenton entered Southwest Atlanta Christian. The Atlanta Public Schools system was all he'd known, so adjusting to SACA's strict daily regimen was a constant struggle. He thought about leaving every day of his freshman year and came close on numerous occasions. But basketball always steered him back. More accurately, Courtney Brooks always did.
Brooks was in his fourth year as basketball coach at the small school of 300 students when Crittenton was a freshman. Countless discussions brought the two closer together than the average player and coach. Brooks treated Crittenton like a son. They spent so much time together, Brooks' own children began referring to Crittenton as their big brother.
"I could tell the things he was dealing with spiritually and mentally were really weighing on him," says Brooks, who's now in his seventh year at SACA. "I also knew that if he could get to a place where he was comfortable, the sky was the limit. He had the potential to graduate as the best guard to come through this school."
Basketball was the easy part for Crittenton as a freshman. He averaged 11 points, five assists and six rebounds per game while teaming with eventual No. 1 NBA draft pick Dwight Howard to torch the competition in Class A and lead SACA to the state championship game, where the Warriors fell to Whitefield Academy.
But the same off-the-court issues nagged Crittenton as his sophomore year began. Early on, he informed Brooks — more emphatically than ever — of his intention to return to public school. Rather than trying to change his mind, Brooks asked Crittenton to spend some time thinking about why he was making that decision. For Crittenton's sake, Brooks just wanted him to settle on a path so he could move on with his life.
"I asked myself, ‘Why are you rebelling against something like this?'" Crittenton says. "I thought I wanted to be in public school. But I just judged. I hadn't given private school a chance. When I really thought about it, I realized God was sparing me. There was a reason I was where I was. God sent me there."
Finally settled in and happy at SACA, Crittenton and Howard, then a senior, had a state championship to win that season.
The regular season was little more than a showcase for Howard to improve his draft stock, but once the postseason rolled around, the Warriors were unstoppable. Crittenton averaged 17 points per game in the playoffs while Howard poured in 23 points and added 10 blocks a game as SACA avenged its loss from the previous year by taking out Whitefield for the Class A state title.
Just a few months later, Crittenton watched Howard and fellow AAU teammate Josh Smith go from prep peers to millionaires as first-round picks in the 2004 NBA Draft. And Randolph Morris, another Atlanta Celtics teammate, signed with Kentucky as one of the nation's most sought-after recruits.
As close as he was with those guys, Crittenton had been waiting for this moment. It was time to prove himself.
Entering his junior year, few believed Crittenton was capable of leading the Warriors back to the state title game. The Life After Dwight Era would be too overwhelming for a player who averaged only 14 points and eight assists per game as a sophomore, the haters said.
But Crittenton proved the doubters wrong by guiding SACA to a 21-7 regular season mark before taking his game to an even higher level during the postseason, averaging 25 points per game in the playoffs to lead the Warriors to the state finals once again.
In the title game, Crittenton willed SACA back from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to get within seven in the final minutes, but Randolph-Clay hung on to take the championship.
"The way people wrote us off, wrote me off, I live for stuff like that," says Crittenton, who averaged 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds overall as a junior. "I like being the underdog. I was the top sophomore in the state the year before, just comin' down and throwin' it off the glass to Dwight. People didn't realize what I could really do."
Paul Hewitt and the Georgia Tech coaching staff were convinced. Crittenton committed to play for the Yellow Jackets following his junior year and now has visions of Carmelo Anthony and Marvin Williams winning NCAA titles as freshmen running through his head.
Even though he's now the top-ranked recruit in Atlanta and an ACC power like Georgia Tech is convinced the 6-foot-5, 190-pounder can play point guard at the next level, Crittenton still felt he had much to accomplish in his final AAU season this past summer. First and foremost was proving he was in fact one of the nation's best point guards in the Class of 2006.
That effort culminated in July at the adidas Superstar Camp when he was named MVP of the Wallace Prather Memorial All-Star Classic after scoring 31 points.
The honor was even more satisfying to Crittenton because it was the first year the game was named after Prather, the legendary coach of the Atlanta Celtics who had died just a few weeks earlier. Crittenton started playing for Prather when he was 9 years old.
"I was really amped up for that game before I even knew we were playing in his honor," Crittenton says. "That just added so much to it. I went out on a good note. I proved everything I wanted to prove."
As if schooling LeBron wasn't enough.