ST. CHARLES, Mo. — As he worked the University of Kentucky basketball camp the last full week of June, former St. Charles High School boys' basketball coach Gary Wacker met plenty of youngsters who'd love to suit up in Kentucky blue and white someday.
Funny thing is, when prized Kentucky recruit Josh Harrellson was the same age as these dreamers, the simplest basketball tasks were foreign concepts and a Division I scholarship couldn't have been further from his mind.
Wacker remembers seeing a big kid (Harrellson says he was 6-foot-2 or 6-3; his coaches say he was 6-4 or 6-5) in his freshman physical education class at St. Charles back in the fall of 2003. Wacker noticed that Harrellson wasn't playing football, so he persuaded him to give hoops a try. Harrellson hadn't played a day of organized basketball in his life. ”I would have to say that his skill level was not very good,“ Wacker says. ”Coach Owens had him on his team, and the idea of a left-hand layup was not even conceivable in his mind.“
Ben Owens, now the varsity girls' coach at St. Charles and then the freshman boys' coach, was the first to work with Harrellson. It must have been a long first few days at practice.
”He couldn't even do a left-handed layup, he couldn't dribble,“ Owens remembers. ”I didn't even let him practice for about three days. I just had him shoot left-handed layups (on the side). He did so many of those, he said I told him to do a right-handed layup and he couldn't remember how to do that.“
Harrellson says that most people thought he was going to get cut from the freshman team and he was ”pretty much the worst player on the team.“
But Owens also remembers Harrellson's good feet and soft hands, natural gifts that are difficult to teach. Apparently, Harrellson was a quick study, because before the winter was through he was playing for the sophomore squad.
Fast forward to late June 2008, and Harrellson is soaking up the atmosphere at the University of Kentucky. He's enrolled in nine hours of summer classes — Marketing 445, Communications 252 and History 108 — in order to lighten the load in the classroom this winter, when he is expected to carry a significant load on the hardwood. Between school and training, his days are full, but he's not complaining. Before long he'll suit up for a Kentucky program that has won seven NCAA championships.
”We play every day and we work out together every day and run together every morning,“ Harrellson says. ”I think with the workouts we're going to be doing and with the kind of team we have I think we have a chance to reach the Sweet 16 and Final Four (this year), somewhere late in the (NCAA) Tournament. Just the kind of work we're doing this summer and preparation is just tremendous and everybody is doing it together and nobody's slacking off.“
A late bloomer
After growing an inch during his freshman year of junior college, Harrellson checks in these days at 6-10, 262 pounds. He's a presence whether he's in a gym or a supermarket — that kind of size doesn't go unnoticed.
But in an age when Web sites rank the current crop of sixth-grade basketball talent, Harrellson got a late start in the recruiting game. He averaged 18.1 points, 11 rebounds and 3.4 blocks as a senior at St. Charles (and was first team All-State for the second straight year), but he was only lightly recruited.
”A lot of these kids slip through the cracks because they're not heard of early,“ Owens says. ”A lot of these kids are heard of in junior high and he's just now being heard of. A lot of (universities), especially our state schools, really made a mistake.“
Harrellson signed out of high school with Western Illinois, a Division I school, but one that plays in the Summit League, a far cry from the national exposure Kentucky receives in the Southeastern Conference.
Quickly he realized he'd made a mistake.
”I thought I could play at the top level, at a program like Kentucky, these programs like I talked to now,“ he says. ”I thought I could play there and I didn't want to go to (Western Illinois) and be miserable and not follow my dream. And the coach (Derek Thomas), there were rumors that he was going to be fired. These were the factors in changing my mind.“
Western Illinois refused to let Harrellson out of his commitment, so he took the junior-college route, staying close to home at Southwestern Illinois College.
Harrellson attracted plenty of attention during his single year at Southwestern, where he averaged 14.8 points and eight rebounds in leading the Blue Storm to a National Junior College Athletic Association regional championship game. He was first-team all-conference and all-region. Word of the interest he was receiving from schools in major Division I conferences leaked out, but Harrellson was still bound to the commitment he'd given to Western Illinois. He needed a release from the school, or else he'd have to attend another year in junior college before he was eligible at a four-year university.
Thomas was fired as Western Illinois' coach in March. Harrellson received his release in April.
After that, Division I schools were free to talk to him, and he had the pick of a promising litter. He says he received offers from Kentucky, St. Louis, Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa and Iowa State.
”West Virginia started calling my coach really late and UCLA was on me too,“ Harrellson says.
Eventually he narrowed his choices to St. Louis and Kentucky, and he signed with the Wildcats on April 30.
”I guess it came down to the relationship I had with coaches,“ Harrellson says. ”With Coach (Billy) Gillispie, I've only known him for three months, (but) I felt like I had a great relationship with him and I couldn't pass up the tradition that Kentucky has.“
A chance to start
Since he retired from St. Charles High School, Wacker has the time to visit some of his favorite classic basketball haunts. Last season, he took in a game in Rupp Arena.
”To see 25,000 people in a gym all wearing Kentucky blue is pretty exciting,“ Wacker said. ”And we didn't see that good of a game.“
The Wildcats finished 18-13 overall last season and 12-4 in the SEC under first-year head coach Gillispie. Harrellson said he has the opportunity to start at center this season. At 6-8, sophomore-to-be Patrick Patterson, the team's leading returning scorer (16.4 points per game) is a natural fit at power forward.
Kentucky assistant Jeremy Cox said Harrellson is skilled enough to play power forward and strong enough to play center.
”We envision him coming in and being a significant contributor immediately,“ Cox says. ”We have other players in our program but we recruited him to contribute immediately.“
Cox says that Harrellson's size, skill level and character were all pluses that caught Kentucky's attention. The fact that he comes from a junior college with three years of eligibility remaining is ”intriguing.“
”He's got natural instincts and a skill set for someone of that size and for someone who has only been playing that short of a time, five years,“ Cox says. ”I think he is going to continue to improve and progress and become a high-level, outstanding Division I player.
”He's a great kid. We're really thrilled to have him.“
Now that Harrellson has achieved his goal of playing big-time college basketball, he has another dream to shoot for. One day, he'd like to play professionally ”overseas if not in the NBA.“
”The potential is there,“ Cox says. ”And his work ethic and his commitment will determine which level he will play at, but I envision him playing after his time here.“
In five years, Harrellson went from being a basketball neophyte to one of the most sought-after basketball recruits in the country. Who knows what three more years at a basketball factory like Kentucky can do for him?
UK has produced 91 NBA Draft picks. Five have come since 2000, including 2008 second-round pick Joe Crawford.
”I think in the back of his mind he always saw that this could be a great opportunity for him and that's what we kept preaching for him is that it (basketball) could be a life-changing thing for him,“ Wacker says. ”It's not the end, but a means to the end. He's at a great university with a great basketball tradition.“