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Growing pains part of the game for V.J. King

By Zac

V.J. King’s already-long arms and long legs are getting longer, almost by the week, but everything around him has slowed to a more manageable pace. His favorite time of the year is here, too, and this weekend he plays his first high school basketball game as a high school student.

That sentence isn’t as confusing as it sounds. There are layers to this story — reasons so many people care what this 15-year-old is thinking and doing — and to V.J.’s budding basketball career, too. Summer included a move several states away from his comfort zone and almost everything he’d previously known, and the fall included a remarkable amount of work on his chosen craft, a weekend with some of the nation’s other top young basketball players in another part of the country and a visit to Ohio State that has perfect strangers offering their opinions on where V.J. should go to college.

Three full months into high school, V.J.’s biggest gripe isn’t with outside interest or anything he’ll be doing past this coming Saturday. In fact, he’s been pretty much smiling since August — with two noticeable exceptions.

The gym at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School was closed on Thanksgiving morning, even to budding stars. And his report card for the first academic quarter included a ‘B.’ Just one amongst a bunch of A’s, but enough to make him angry.

As much as any 15-year-old can be expected to, anyway, this one seems to understand the stakes.

This is the third part in a series of stories the King Family agreed to participate in last winter. For those who explore or lend any credence to such things — and they’re out there — V.J. has ranked among the top basketball players nationally in the class of 2016 since he was a seventh grader. He played high school basketball in Charlotte for former NBA player Mugsy Bogues as a seventh and eighth grader, and the family fully and officially moved back to its roots in Northeast Ohio this summer.

PART ONE: Young star will play high school ball in Akron

PART TWO: Sound priorities, lofty goals

In late September, V.J. took an unofficial visit to Ohio State. The next day, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta offered him a scholarship.

Two weekends later, he attended the USA Basketball Men’s Developmental National Team minicamp in Colorado Springs. That camp was the first true national exposure for V.J. and 40 or so players like him. From that camp, a roster for next summer’s U-16 Team USA will be set, a team that will play in the FIBA Americas Championship in South America.

V.J. didn’t take many trips to the mall or go to many parties in the first few months as a high schooler. He did get to watch a top-secret, high-level workout in the St. V-M gym in September with a couple guys named LeBron James and Kevin Durant going shot for shot, sprint for sprint, as they prepared for their respective NBA training camps.

After watching Durant make 25 3-pointers in a row, V.J. challenged himself to do the same in his next few workouts. Those workouts, often two a day, have helped V.J. add polish to his game and prepare for a high school career that officially starts this weekend in Chicago. He said his goals are simple and lofty; to win state championships, to play college basketball at a high level, and to ultimately play at the highest level.

V.J. said he’s worked at improving his defense, at getting stronger and getting acclimated to Ohio high school basketball. He said he felt little pressure and had “a little room for error” playing as a middle-schooler in North Carolina.

Now, he’s still a kid playing a big kid’s game. St. V-M plays a top-notch schedule that includes powerhouse high school programs from all corners of Ohio and several different states. Even in the games that aren’t against top-notch competition will be spotlight games for the teams on the other side, and since most high school teams don’t have a 6’7 shooting guard to match V.J., there’s a good chance he’ll be guarded by older, shorter and stronger opponents with directives to use that strength to their advantage.

Asked what a good, semi-legal forearm to the chest from an 18-year old will do for V.J., his father, Vince, said “it will make him understand he’s no longer a novelty, and that this isn’t AAU ball or ‘everybody come out and watch V.J. King.’

“If he can’t handle it, he should get his little tail to the sideline.”

Where V.J. goes, Vince follows — even waiting outside the curtained-off doors during St. V-M’s closed practices. Father and son push each other in their early-morning and late-night workouts, and V.J. has chosen to wear No. 13 this season, the number his father wore as a star at the NCAA Div. II level at Indiana (Pa.) University and during his time playing overseas in the 1990s.

Of their visit to Ohio State in the early fall, V.J said it was a “big school, nice campus, (Matta is) a really good coach. It seemed like a great place.” He said he tries to think about college basketball and his own career only when he’s watching games on TV.

“Coach Matta was crystal clear that he wants V.J. to be a Buckeye,” Vince King said. “But he was also very clear that he’ll be watching, and any signs of stagnation, laziness or slipping, he’ll look for someone else.”

Shortly after Ohio State offered V.J. a scholarship, Wisconsin did, too. Among the other programs that stopped by St. V-M during fall’s open gym period or have been sending letters include North Carolina, Michigan State, Pitt, George Mason, College of Charleston and several Ivy League schools.

Both Vince and V.J. King say the college attention is “humbling.” V.J. said he’s worried solely about his grades, his game and trying to win a state championship next March, and that any college talk or scheduling of future visits will be up to his parents. Said Vince: “He has plenty of time for all that. He’s a freshman. Our job as parents is simply to understand where he is, where he’s not and way down the road help him land in the best place.”

In August, V.J. thought his favorite class in his first year of high school would be Geometry; turns out, that’s the one that kept him from bringing home a 4.0 in the first quarter, “but I still like it — most of the time.” In the second semester he’s looking forward to taking a class called “Plan For Success” that introduces students to different career options and paths.

Or, as V.J. puts it, “a little bit of life after basketball.”

Clearly, he’s thinking big.

He measured at a shade over 6-foot-6, without shoes, in Colorado Springs. He’ll be listed at 6-foot-7 on the St. V-M roster this season, and by the turn of the new year that’s probably going to come up a little short of accurate.

“I think I’ve grown a half-inch since break,” V.J. said this week, and the break to which he was referring was Thanksgiving break.

He’s really growing by the week.

“He’s had the sore knees and sore joints to show for it,” Vince King said. “It’s frustrated him, too, because it’s limited him a little bit with movement, burst, explosion. He feels like he’s running in the sand sometimes, but it’s something he has to deal with. Continuing to grow is not a bad thing, and he knows it’s all about the long term.”

Being one of the tallest players on the floor is still new to V.J., who’s done most of his growing over the last 20-24 months and certainly didn’t own any type of physical advantage when he played a reserve role for United Faith Christian Academy over the last two seasons. He’ll play shooting guard for St. V-M this season, handling the ball when necessary.

At a four-team scrimmage early this month featuring three other traditionally strong Northeast Ohio high school programs, V.J.’s talent was obvious. So, too, was the fact that he’s a freshman. Not all of his jump shots fell. Not all of his passes found their intended targets. As many as seven players who will be his St. V-M teammates this winter are still playing football, so December’s schedule will be a preseason of sorts.

V.J. is going to make highlights with his passes and pull-up jumpers, and his dad is going to turn red in the face asking his son to block shots and be more aggressive on the glass. Eventually, he’ll find a comfort zone and a confidence. He’s put in the work, and his confidence is growing as fast as his body.

Right now, he has no idea how good he is.

WATCH: V.J. King on YouTube

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