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Re. Sidney/Stephenson "Package Deal" for UCLA

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Last week there was a lot of commotion in a number of Bruin message boards stemming from "package deal" story posted on Bruin Report Online, involving the #2-ranked player in the class of 2009, post player Renardo Sidney, and the #3-ranked player in the nation, 6-5 small forward Lance Stephenson.

Underbruin flagged the story in our diary section here providing some extra tidbits re. Lance Stephenson. Jeff Eisenberg from the Press Enterprise blogged about all the commotion around these two recruits as well:

With all the Internet speculation that New York city phenom Lance Stephenson and Los Angeles Fairfax center Renardo Sidney might be contemplating attending the same college, I called Stephenson's high school coach and asked him to address the topic.
Dwayne Morton, coach at famed Lincoln High in Brooklyn, confirmed that Stephenson and Sidney are good friends from the AAU circuit but cautioned that a package deal with the two of them is still a long shot.
"It has to be the right situation for Lance," Morton said. "He's not just going to go somewhere because of Renardo."
Luring both Stephenson and Sidney would be an incredible coup for any school as both are considered among the best players nationally in the class of 2009. Sidney attended a handful of UCLA games this season and told me in January he wants to remain in California for college, but the Bruins weren't thought to be contenders for Stephenson until the 6-foot-5 junior unexpectedly visited the UCLA campus this past weekend while he was in town to play on Sidney's club team in a tournament.
I have been tracking Sidney for a while through both the stories in the MSM and the subscription based recruiting networks. Lot of UCLA fans expressed their "concern" (to put it mildly) about Coach Howland and his staff being interested in recruiting these two kids. So I decided to dig into their stories a little more. And after reading up I still have not been able to reach a definitive opinion on whether I should be excited about seeing these two in a UCLA uniform or be adamantly against it. Let me walk you through what I have read and flagged so far via the Google. After the run down I would love to hear everyone's level headed thoughts (not rants) and also other data points re. these two kids we might be interested in reading.

As for rankings go these two are goldmine. Sidney and Stephenson respectively are the number 2 and 3 ranked recruits in the entire country per Scout.com. Sidney is the number 1 center in the country while Stephenson is the number 1 SF.

Sidney who Luke Winn of SI.com called out as "the Future King" in an article dated August 30, 2007, is an athletic freak. Here is what Luke had to say about Sidney in the aforementioned article (which also sets off some red flags):
Intrigue surrounds Sidney because he's a big man with stunning, guard-like skills; he's susceptible to lapses in effort but also more versatile than the NBA player to whom some recruitniks have him compared, Chris Webber. Of Sidney's potential, Vaccaro says, "Should he be the No. 1 pick [in 2010]? Physically it would be without question. The key is what happens, mentally and with everything else over the next two to three years."

When he's forced to pick a college in 2009, Sidney says it'll likely be between Oden's Buckeyes ("I like how they play," he says), Texas, Florida, USC, UCLA, Kentucky, UAB and Alabama. Mark Gottfried of the Tide has the distinction of being the coach who sent Sidney his first recruiting letter ... when he was in seventh grade. Columnists and coaches alike often bemoan the excessive attention heaped on teen phenoms, deeming it both premature and potentially damaging, but the Sidney camp is well aware of the value of this exposure. There were two reasons that Renardo Sr. moved his family from Jackson, Miss., to Lakewood, Calif., in '06: Better basketball, and "the same thing O.J. [Mayo] said [about USC] -- more marketing." "Mississippi is a small pond," says Renardo Sr. "I love it as my home, but you have to go to a bigger market to get [Renardo's] name out."

Sitting in the Sheraton late on the evening of Aug. 22, after a flight from L.A., the Sidneys displayed signs of their California conversion: Dad wore sunglasses in a dark restaurant, as well as two jewel-encrusted prep state title rings that had recently been won by Renardo and his older brother, who's now at Santa Monica College. Son wore a Bluetooth clip on his right ear, occasionally tapped away at his Sidekick, and spoke happily about "all the pretty girls" he sees in L.A.

Yet their roots had not entirely departed them; Mississippi remained in their accents, they professed a love for fishing and when they placed dinner orders, they both requested to customize the menu's pasta dish by adding shrimp. The term journeyman, in basketball, is generally reserved for wandering pros, but Sidney's path makes him a new-age hoops traveler: In his brief prep career he's been at a different school each fall and a different AAU team each summer.

Following his debut at ABCD in '05, Sidney enrolled as a freshman at The Piney Woods School in Piney Woods, Miss., but the state ruled him ineligible to play basketball because his family's home, in Jackson, was more than 20 miles from the school's campus. A story in the Washington Post in the summer of '06, after the Sidneys had moved to L.A. and joined the loaded Southern California All-Stars AAU team, speculated that Renardo might be the first American star to skip high-school ball altogether and merely play during the summers.

It was a headline-worthy scenario, but did not turn out to be the case: Sidney joined the team at Lakewood's Artesia High as a sophomore and helped lead it to a Division III state title. The summer of '07 also brought about a change in AAU squads. Renardo began playing for the LA Dream Team, which happens to be coached by Renardo Sr., and spent much of an 0-4 run in the Reebok Summer Championships trying to expand his repertoire by shooting threes -- with limited success -- rather than playing in the paint. Renardo Sr. says the departure from the S.C. All-Stars was simply because, "I wanted him to have his own team. I wanted him to call his own shots, and learn how to make everyone around him better. I'm trying to get him ready for D-I."
The Washington Post story Luke referenced in his article was written by Eric Prisbell, which provided shall say rather colorful details on what some of the California high schools were doing to "recruit" Sidney out or Mississippi:
More than 10 high schools have expressed interest in Sidney, his father said. Sidney ruled out some because, he said, players on their teams told him they don't always have to do their own work to get grades.

But the Sidney family listened to one recruitment pitch, even though it began surreptitiously. Two men showed up in Mississippi, telling Sidney they were reporters with a new magazine in California and that he was the subject of their cover story.

His mother immediately called Vaccaro; the elder Sidney met the men for lunch. Vaccaro said he believes the two men were trying to persuade Sidney to transfer to Compton's Dominguez High, which is sponsored by Nike.

"It was scary," the elder Sidney said. "That was definitely a Hollywood act. They told me two names, but I don't know if that is their real name. They could have been posing for an agent. . . . So you just never know."

Sidney said he and his family later visited California and the men gave them tickets on the floor for a Los Angeles Lakers-Minnesota Timberwolves game.

"They took us to the Lakers game; we went out to eat every day," Sidney said. "We hung out, late nights and stuff. We had fun. They showed us a good time. They wanted me to come out here just to visit Dominguez and see if I would like it or whether I'd go to it. We stopped messing with them. I never thought about [Dominguez]. It was in the ghetto."

Their recruitment pitch included a phone call that the men said was from Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant. When Sidney got on the phone, the man purported to be Bryant and told him he should stay humble and work hard. To this day, Sidney doesn't know who he spoke to. Bryant could not be reached to comment.
Well Sidney didn't end up in Dominguez. As Luke mentioned he ended up in Artesia (which I believe was the same high school attended by the O'Bannons and Kapono - someone please correct me if I am off here) for 06-07 season.  Sidney led Artesia to state Divison III championship, but then he transferred to LA's Fairfax High School. This is where it gets interesting. Here is an article by Eric Sondheimer in the LA Times from this past November, which gave some clues on why Sidney decided to transfer to Fairfax:
Sidney is considered the No. 1 center prospect in the nation for the class of 2009, but the challenge for Kitani is to get him to play hard and play consistently.

Perhaps that's why in Sidney's first appearance in a Fairfax basketball class the second week of October, after taking a month off because of a knee problem, he faced an immediate challenge from Kitani, who made it clear what he expected.

"I was breathing hard and getting frustrated," Sidney said of the practice.

That didn't prevent Kitani from getting his point across, stressing fundamentals. "Coach Kitani is a hard coach," Sidney said.
From what I have heard re. Coach Kitani he is indeed a very demanding coach to play for, who emphasizes playing hard and team discipline. Already Kitani has sent Shipp and Stanbeck to our program. So its pretty safe to assume Coach Howland and his staff have strong connections to Kitani's program and can count on getting frank feedback on his players.  I didn't follow Sidney's season at Fairfax but the team ended up losing to City Finals this year to Taft, which was led by UNC bound Larry Drew.  I think it will be telling if he comes back to play at Fairfax next season.

If Sidney decides to come back to Fairfax for his senior season it wll be a good sign in my book in that he was all right with playing for a coach who has a reputation for demanding Howlandeque discipline and commitment at the prep level.

Who knows ... perhaps Kitani was the perfect coach Sidney was looking for in terms of getting him to play hard and at least make an effort on the defensive front. Because reading stories such as the one written by Stephen Danley from the New York Times (dated August 16, 2007 - before he got to Fairfax), he sounded like a kid who was bored and wasting away his talent in the overhyped AAU environment:
Was Sidney simply a young man still learning how to push himself to play hard, or was he building bad habits as a result of the summer basketball culture?

Sometimes a player's greatest strength can be his undoing. When I attended ABCD camp as a player in 2001, Lenny Cooke was the recipient of the hype machine's attention. But his penchant for scoring ratcheted up the pressure. As camp went on, he dominated possession of the ball, taking most of his team's shots as the offense stagnated. Cooke had to score so many points to keep up with his reputation that it was actually hurting his game.

The next year, Sebastian Telfair fell into the same trap. His ability to make spectacular plays in the lane led to unrealistic expectations. In 2001, the great plays had come to him. His halfcourt alley-oop to Travis Outlaw is still the most incredible play I have seen in person. But the hype in 2002, when he was entering his junior season, was too much. He began forcing shots. In an effort to be spectacular, he made hard passes when easy ones were available. In short, Telfair's reputation had overcome his ability.

Is it possible that the same thing is already happening to Sidney? That his unique abilities, those that make him the equivalent of a guard on the floor, are holding him back? It is hard not to look at him backpedaling to halfcourt and wonder if the hype will be too much.

Speaking with him, one can sense his frustration. He talked about how he got "no boards" and did not block any shots. He insisted that he wanted to lose weight and to get back to playing the way he did in the eighth grade.

Imagine that, striving to be 13 again.
So what to make of Sidney?

Well when I read the stories from the Post and SI.com the two names immediately popped up in my heard were: Jaron Rush and Myron Piggie.

You can click on the link to read that Andy Katz story from the nightmarish Lavin years. UCLA suspended JaRon Rush in his sophomore season (99-00) when allegations surfaced that Rush might have taken money from agent (through his involvement with his former AAU coach Myron Piggie) putting his status as an amateur athlete before coming to UCLA. Thankfully IIRC after UCLA did the prudent thing by immediately suspending Rush. Rush ended up being suspended for 24 games and was eventually reinstated by the NCAA. UCLA didn't have to suffer any sanctions because IIRC it took all the right steps to handle the issue. In any event, after his sophomore season, Rush decided to prematurely turn pro and we never heard back from him since then.

Is the Rush and Sidney situation similar? Well who knows? From the stories I read above there are certainly red flags. If he is interested in UCLA he would have to absolutely convince Coach Howland and his staff (and the UCLA compliance department) that he is an amateur and nothing from his background will come back to haunt the university. Obviously there are the grade issues. If they don't work out, the whole recruiting process would be a non starter. But I imagine if Howland is seriously considering Sidney, he is also making sure there is a strong vetting process in place that will look into every single aspect of Sidney's background. There is one major difference between Rush and Sidney situation. Unlike Rush if Sidney were to come to UCLA he will get adult supervision under Coach Howland (Rush was left stranded under the immature idiot - Steve Lavin).

Not to mention if Sidney wants to play for Coach Howland, he will have to play within Coach Howland's system. This is a Coach who had no problem benching a kid like Love because he couldn't play defense. I would think Sidney would understand he is not going to get his mins by lollygagging around on the court, which bears the name on John and Nell Wooden.

BTW according to Scout.com database he doesn't have any offers yet. However, he has already taken trips to Texas and to Arizona State. And from what I have heard it could be a matter of time before he gets an offer from Texas (Barnes might be waiting to see what happens with him and UCLA).

Anyway, let's get to the other kid making up the blockbuster package. Again a number of folks in the message boards sounded off their alarm bells hearing Stephenson's name. So I looked around and flagged this article about Stepehenson serving a 5 day suspension for "horsing around. From the New York Daily News:
Defending PSAL champion Lincoln hosted Jefferson on Thursday evening in Coney Island, but the Railsplitters' standout swingman Lance Stephenson wasn't on the court. Instead, the highly recruited junior was in plain clothes, sitting in the stands, under temporary banishment.

After Stephenson got into an altercation with teammate Devon McMillan at the school on Wednesday - during which a piece of glass was shattered and cut both students - Lincoln principal Ari Hoogenboom slapped the Railsplitters' star guard with a five-day school suspension.

The suspension means that Stephenson will miss at least one more league game, when the Railsplitters visit South Shore on Tuesday.

Lincoln didn't miss Stephenson much on the court on Thursday, as it routed a talented Jefferson squad, 76-52, to improve to 8-0. (Justin Greene led Lincoln with 24 points). Still, Stephenson knows he screwed up.

"I'm really disappointed in myself," Stephenson said after the game. "I'm not happy this happened, but it was a good lesson that it happened. Now I know not to do it again. College coaches think I'm a hothead now. I'm really disappointed about that."

Stephenson said he and McMillan were "pushing" each other and "horseplaying" around in what he described as an "extra room" at the school, when the glass shattered.

"It splattered everywhere," said Stephenson of the glass. "It cut my eye and his fingers. If the glass never broke, I would still be playing basketball."
And according to some accounts the kid is a bit of a partier.

But before you all get too worried check out this report from Slam Online in its "Adidas Nations" recap on a camp held near Seton Hall University featuring 15 of the top players each from the 2009 and 2010 classes, respectively:
Kalish [Daren Kalish, Adidas Sports Marketing Manager of College/Grassroots Basketball, BN Ed.] also squashed misgivings anyone might've had about adding an Alpha-Dog like a Lance Stephenson to a camp that is about promoting teamwork, selflessness, and not singling out one star over the others. Stephenson wasn't able to participate this weekend due to his Lincoln High competing in the New York State playoffs but he had more than one staunch supporter who was willing to speak on his behalf.

"It's funny because he's adapted to this easily," said St. Patrick's star and UNC-bound Dexter Strickland. "We room together and play in the same backcourt together but we've never had any friction like people thought we'd have, since we're both good scorers."
There you go. So much for the perception of this kid being a selfish player.

I have looked around. Except for the suspension story I have not been able to locate any other negative stories on Stepehenson. I have not also been able to find any other stories re. arrest, suspension, drug bust or academic troubles re. either Stepehenson or Sidney. If there are out there and I missed them, please link them or cite them (with key excerpts) in our commend threads (don't post "rumors" or "reports" from scouts without specific attribution).

So where does that live us re. Sidney and Stephenson? As I mentioned above I still haven't made up my mind. I can see the obvious concerns and red flags. At the same time I have total confidence in Coach Howland, who I believe will not take any action that will jeopardize the integrity of our basketball program.

And I obviously don't subscribe to absurd theory of not taking one and done kids. I understand that the system needs to be changed (and someone can take up the cause of mandatory 2 year rule for the NCAA). However, while the current system in place, Coach Howland has to play with the cards he has and do what he think is necessary to put together a team that will be a good mix of super star blue chippers and other talented athletes who might be in program for 3-4 years.

If these two young men are willing to commit themselves to play within the defensive based team foundation Coach Howland has established at UCLA, are qualified academically, and are cleared after a rigorous vetting process by the UCLA compliance officials, then I am not sure I have a lot of objections to them coming to UCLA. If Coach Wooden got a kid like Bill Walton (who from what I read wasn't exactly a cookie cutter Wooden player before he came into Westwood and had his share of shall we say colorful run-ins with the Coach) to buy into his system, Coach Howland could the do the same with kids like Sidney or Stephenson. No?

Still that said ... I understand why people have concerns. But I want folks who are concerned to express why they are worried here on BN based on reported facts re. these two kids rather than info they have gleaned from other boards.

I will just end with this note. Given Coach Howland's track record in the kind of kids he has brought into our program and the way they have conducted themselves on and off the court in my book he has earned my trust.

GO BRUINS.