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V.J. King’s journey: High ceilings, cold tubs and worms

By Zac

Fourth in a series…

AKRON, Ohio – The week of the first semester’s final exams ended just in time for the St. Vincent-St. Mary basketball team to play back-to-back games against highly-touted opponents, on Saturday night in Akron and on Sunday afternoon in Dayton.

V.J. King wanted to use Friday night to get to the barber shop. He ended up spending more than 90 minutes in the gym.

As usual.

A gifted young basketball player by any measure — those who follow this stuff say he’s one of the nation’s best in the class of 2016 — King’s single greatest attribute, at least nearing the end of his freshman season, might be his work ethic.

He’s seemingly always in the gym, before and after formal practices — remember, he pouted when it was locked on Thanksgiving Day — and often twice a day on the weekends or when St. V-M has had long stretches of days between games. He maintains that he’s a normal kid who lives a normal life despite whatever pressures or spotlight have been brought on by his basketball ability. To V.J., the reason he neither has a bunch of outside hobbies nor time for them is because he wants to be in the gym, even more than he already is.

Nineteen games and 13 weeks into his first high school basketball season in Ohio, and there’s just been one day his father, Vince, remembers not sticking around after practice for V.J. to get some extra work. That was the day before V.J.’s big biology project was due, and V.J. was anxious to get to get to the local one-hour photo to get his worm photos and get to finishing whatever it was he needed to finish.

“He was obsessed with those worms,” Vince King said.

When we met last summer, V.J. said he actually enjoyed doing the dishes at home. The great ones are often a little different, and there’s plenty about V.J. King that indicates he may, one day, be great.

That’s part of the reason why the King Family agreed last year to this series, chronicling V.J.’s high school basketball career and college recruitment. And while college coaches from around the country keep stopping by his games and he sat behind Ohio State’s bench for the Buckeyes’ win over Michigan in January, V.J. continues to say any recruitment or college talk is for his parents.

He’s busy with his worms — and his goal of helping St. V-M win the state championship. Three regular season games remain, and the sectional tournament begins in a little less than two weeks.

“And we can win it all, we really can,” V.J. said. “It’s about locking in and finishing strong.”

St. V-M enters this weekend at 10-9, a wholly unimpressive record against a whopper of a schedule. Really, against some pretty tough circumstances, too. V.J. scored 18 points in the season-opener in Chicago, played at the same time the St. V-M football team — with three current starters on the basketball team — was playing its state title game back in Northeast Ohio. Not only was the first half of the basketball season about introductions and learning, but it included games against high-profile opponents from different states and against just about every Ohio powerhouse.

High school basketball in 2013 at St. Vincent-St. Mary isn’t like high school basketball in most other places. It hasn’t been the same since LeBron James left, and there are no signs it will change any time soon. The Irish put their fancy Nike/LeBron gear in their fancy Nike/LeBron backpacks, load up the bus and play teams from all over, often in showcase-type events.

V.J. has encountered his share of grown men this season. He’s had a few ‘wow’ moments, some tough moments and moments that have both shown his tremendous potential and emphasized his need to both get stronger and more aggressive attacking the basket in the future.

He’s averaging 17 points and 5 rebounds per game, shooting 44 percent from the field and averaging a block and a steal per game. He’s a two-guard in an ever-growing body, a heady player who sees things before they happen. Probably because he’s growing so fast, there are times his feet, hands and eyes don’t land in the same place at the same time, and that has cost him a few baskets and maybe some highlight-reel dunks.

Spending a few minutes a few times a week in the cold tub has helped his joints. Playing different roles, new opponents and getting used to new teammates has been good, too.

“More of the strength and explosion will be there next year,” Vince King said. “And I think V.J. knows there’s a little bit of clumsiness or whatever it might be there right now, too, but he wants it all right now. I beg him to be patient. He’s so hard on himself, and as long as he manages that I think that’s a good thing.

“He needs to be hungry. When he gets pushed, he needs to push back. It’s hard to lead as a freshman, but I think he has an understanding of what it’s going to take for him to get where he needs to go. I know he loves school, and I think he’s starting to get a little more confident on the floor than he was early on.”

This kind of potential meeting this kind of work ethic pushes his ceiling very, very high.

“He’s come a long way in a relatively short period of time,” St. V-M coach Dru Joyce said. “He was new to the city, to the school, to his teammates. And as good as he is, he’s still a freshman. He’s worked on getting better defensively. He’s deferred to the older guys as we’ve tried to mesh them all and get going. He has a long way to go, but he wants it.

“There’s no doubt to me that, some day, V.J. is going to be a pro. He’s going to get paid to play this game. How much, for how long and to what level? It’s early to say, but he needs to keep working at it. And he will.”

V.J. hit a growth spurt just before the season, clearing 6 feet and 7 inches. He wore a size 14 shoe last summer, started this season in a 15 and now is in a 16. He’s more comfortable with coaches, teammates and surroundings. He makes 22-footers off the dribble like he’s already ready for that three-letter league, and he’s had a handful of games during which he’s displayed close to his full array of talents.

He’s had rougher nights, too, when the shots didn’t drop, when he let one missed free throw lead to another, when something didn’t click and he — gasp! — played like a freshman. In an early-season loss to arch-rival Akron Hoban, V.J. scored just 3 points.

“Nah, I don’t dwell on the bad games,” V.J. said. “Yes, I get mad about them. But I know I’m a freshman, and I know I have a lot of basketball ahead if I keep working at it. I’ve played some good ones. We, as a team, have played some good ones. We need to string some together here with the tournament coming up.

“My dad says there’s no pouting at home. If I have a bad game or a bad day, I can be as mad as I want on the ride home. But when I get home, it’s time to put it in the past and move on.”

Said Joyce: “When LeBron and my son (Dru Joyce III) and that group first came through here, they didn’t play the type of schedule we play now. There are no breaks. This has been hard on V.J., hard on everybody. I don’t want to make any comparisons because they’re not fair, but even at 9 or 10 years old my son and LeBron always made that extra pass, always wanted that extra gym time. V.J. wants that stuff, too. He’s on a good track.”

Iowa sent two coaches to a game early in the season and offered V.J. a scholarship after, following what Ohio State and Wisconsin did in the fall. USC sent an assistant recently, and UConn coach Kevin Ollie has told the family he’ll be making a trip to Akron soon.

“I’m biased, obviously, but I think the kid is special,” Vince King said. “I know he’s special. And his ability to dismiss all the madness around him is very special.

“He thinks it’s really cool that he got to sit front row for OSU-Michigan with 18,000 people there, and he thinks it’s really cool that he got to sit with Thad Matta after the game. But the next day, you would have never known we even went to Columbus. He was back in school, back in the gym doing the extra work, coming home to his worms or whatever.”

For you Buckeye fans, V.J. wore a red sweater and said he had a “blast” at that Michigan game, which was played 16 or so hours after Matta and Ohio State assistant Jeff Boals came to Marion-Franklin High School in Columbus to watch V.J. play. He napped on the ride home to Akron, then hit the books.

“The next day,” Vince King said, “he was a million miles away. Happily.”

V.J.’s mom, Lo, sometimes keeps stats as the games go and always can be heard screaming words of encouragement. His sister, Jalen, is in eighth grade and is thinking about attending St. V-M next year. When aspiring St. V-M students come to shadow current students for a day, they can request a student to guide the tour.

A bunch of them keep asking for V.J.

V.J. laughs about it all. He promises he just wants to keep getting better, keep trying to win. A week or so ago, he told his dad he felt like he was starting to get an edge to his game. Earlier this week, he made an aggressive cut to the basket, went up and dunked through a foul during at Walsh Jesuit. He missed the ensuing free throw.

It was another classic sign, one of many through this season, that there’s something unique there; it’s just not all the way there yet. Really, that might be a good thing.

Two possessions after that dunk, V.J. beat the third-quarter buzzer with a 3-pointer. In the fourth, he hit two more as St. V-M pulled away.

V.J. King is getting there, maybe faster than he thinks. It’s lining up to be a really fun ride.

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