Brandon Roy is an example.
But there’s also Jamal Crawford, Isaiah Thomas, Jason Terry … the list goes on. The Pacific Northwest hoops scene isn’t necessarily known for size.
“This is a guard state,” said Roy, the former three-time NBA All-Star. “It really is.”
Except for this year.
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This high school basketball season has been the year of the tall people. The best teams are trekking to the Tacoma Dome on Wednesday for what they hope is a stay until Saturday to play for a state championship. The theme among the top contenders is size.
And no one is bigger than Richland’s 7-foot-3 (and a half) Riley Sorn.
He shattered the 4A tournament record for blocks when Richland reached the state semifinals last season, averaging 6.7 per game to move past former Ferris post DeAngelo Casto in the record books.
Sorn, who turns 18 in August, earned the 4A state player of the year this season from the state’s coaches association. But it’s so easy to look at his towering frame and assume basketball must come as easy as grabbing the pot from the top of the cupboard.
It’s not that easy.
“I’m in disbelief a little bit just thinking back – I never thought I’d be here today,” Sorn said.
He’s always been the tall guy. But he’s come a long way since the kid who played with his hands in his pockets (so his parents got him shorts without pockets). And he was so uncoordinated as an eighth grader that his father had to beg a local AAU coach just to get Sorn on the team’s practice squad. He was 7 feet as a freshman – playing on the freshman team.
“It was so tough for me, really tough,” said Sorn, who has been talking most with the University of Washington and Saint Mary’s for college ball. “I was just so uncoordinated because I had grown so fast. My mind would say, ‘Do something’ and my body wouldn’t want to do it. It was really tough to get everything to work right and together.”
And what made it more challenging was this new era of basketball. Post players aren’t the traditional back-to-the-basket guys of 15 years ago.
Richland coach Earl Streufert calls Sorn a throwback. Seattle Prep coach Mike Kelly says the same about his 6-foot-11, 265-pound center, Nic Lynch, who is committed to Lehigh.
Kelly has coached plenty of posts, including 7-foot-1 Spencer Hawes, who has played nine NBA seasons. But big guys playing down low are rare in today’s game.
“So many college coaches, and you see it in the NBA, where they’re looking to inverse – get stretch bigs, stretch fours,” Kelly said. “I think Nic will develop and turn into that as he moves into college, because he’s got nice form, and there’s no reason why he can’t extend his play.
“But for us, it makes a whole lot of sense to keep him as close to the basket as possible. Why would you take a 6-11 kid and play him away from the basket?”
Because tall comes in a variety of positions.
Take Federal Way’s Jaden McDaniels. The athletic 6-foot-9 junior is considered one of the top 2019 recruits in the nation and has offers already from Arizona, San Diego State and UW among others.
But he’s in few facets a traditional post. He’s actually closer to a guard. Same with UConn-bound Emmitt Matthews Jr. of Wilson. And he’s 6-7.
And there’s plenty of other tall talent around the state. Gonzaga Prep’s 6-foot-7 Gonzaga University commit Anton Watson, a junior, plays closer to the basket than those two, but he’s athletic enough to take his game outside.
And Garfield’s 6-9 J’Raan Brooks, a senior who has been committed to USC and then St. John’s, said he’s always been a post growing up, but he’ll move to small forward in college.
“I feel like I’m a hybrid,” Brooks said. “If I have an open jumper or 3, I’m shooting it. Guard the two (shooting guard), whatever they need me to do. So I worked a lot on my lateral movement and ball handling a lot in the offseason because I know I’m a little undersized to play strictly four or five in college. You just have to be able to do more.”
But Garfield has so many guards that they’ve needed Brooks to be the rebounding, inside presence.
“You can see size is coming back to the Northwest,” said Roy, the Garfield graduate who took over as his alma mater’s coach this year. “The way the NBA is, it’s a lot of skill. It’s not just about being big, it’s about being big and skilled. Like Wilson’s guy (Matthews). He’s 6-7 but he’s a perimeter guy and that’s what so many are looking for.”
But those players have the athleticism to go with their frames. That’s rare, too.
So what does all this mean for dominant inside players like Sorn and Lynch?
Sorn spends parts of his practices working on ball handling and his 3-point shot – which apparently is Richland’s secret weapon. But he knows there’s less pressure on 7-footers to step away from the basket. There’s just so few 7-footers who have harnessed their coordination like Sorn.
“It’s just so much easier for kids today to shoot 3s,” said Streufert, whose son, Nathan, is an undersized 6-8 center at Seattle Pacific. “The finer points of being a good post player are lost on most guys. We’re a little old school in that way – we just let him play back to the basket.”
Kelly said there are fewer players willing to be a traditional post.
LeBron James called out NBA officials this week for protecting shooters and not drivers, saying “Chicks did the long ball, and that’s what it’s about.”
Meanwhile, Lynch walks into the Seattle Prep locker room at halftime with scratch marks and bruises across his back, chest and rib cage from taking his lumps around the basket.
“The reality is it’s hard work,” Kelly said. “And it’s sexier to be that guy flinging up the long ball. The long ball rules. I’ve been blessed with some kids who have been wired the way Spencer and Nic are. They are willing to bring a lunch pail to the gym every day and that’s the first thing it takes to play in the paint is to embrace the physicality of the game.”
He also pointed to a post like Gonzaga graduate Przemek Karnowski. A big body in the paint can still be just as valuable as the one who can hit a 3-pointer.
Sorn said he’s been heavily considering Saint Mary’s (and redshirting wherever he goes) because of how the Gaels have excelled with Jock Landale, their 6-11, 255-pound center.
Steufert’s Richland teams are up-tempo. They shoot 3s, rely on guards and he’s never had a player like Sorn.
So he said he sought advice from college coaches, including the staff at Gonzaga during an offseason team camp to learn how to best utilize a tower like Sorn and develop him.
“He’s made my assistant (Bruce Robertson) and I a lot better coaches, to be honest with you,” Steufert said. “We spent a lot of time with Gonzaga’s coaches and how you develop them and being patient and letting them go at their own pace. Everyone wants to teach seven post moves. Every AAU coach wants you to do open, rip, one dribble, power layup. I mean, honestly, I think the biggest lesson we learned with him is patience and repetition, getting good at one thing and then we’ll get good at the next thing.”
So they spent a lot of time perfecting one move at a time.
Which isn’t quite as fun as imitating Stephen Curry and shooting 3s.
“The college game is so enamored with bigs who can stretch and play away from the basket,” Kelly said. “But trends cycle. The reality is if you can score from a spot on the basketball court, you’re going to be playing. It’s like in baseball – if you can hit, you’re playing.
“I think what is happening for some kids and some families because of all the pressure, they are spending high school trying to be something they think they need to be in college. I’ve just watched a lot of talented kids not learn to do something relay well in high school and then they have a hard time finding their spot at the collegiate level.
“The reality is you want to find something you do well that gets you on the basketball floor. And if what you do well is be big, catch it on the low block and score – you’re going to play.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677