Friday, June 10, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Stephen Zimmerman AAU highlights
Dream Vision 16U highlights
Hiding in the background on a loaded Bishop Gorman basketball squad that features four seniors bound for high-major Division-I programs should be easy for an incoming freshman.
For obvious reasons, it won't be for Stephen Zimmerman.
While Shabazz Muhammad, Ben Carter, Rosco Allen and Demetris Morant already grab plenty of attention both as high school players and top-tier college recruits, the oozing potential of Gorman's next hot prospect has become just as popular of a talking point of late in local basketball circles.
At 14 years old, Zimmerman already stands at 6-foot-10 and wears a size 19 shoe. He's coordinated, he's skilled and he's already become nearly impossible to overlook.
"You wouldn't know that he just finished the eighth grade," Gorman coach Grant Rice said. "I think what separates Stephen right now is just his agility. For his height and his age, you're rarely going to find someone who moves as well as he does or is as athletic as he is.
"The potential is unlimited with him."
The past few weeks were a symbol of him just beginning to tap into it.
Two weeks before completing the eighth grade, Zimmerman and his parents sat down with newly hired UNLV head coach Dave Rice. They talked for a while, and Stephen left campus with his first scholarship offer. That was followed by a stronger-than-expected showing last weekend at the prestigious Pangos All-American camp in Los Angeles, which is an invite-only event featuring 150 of the country's top prep prospects.
The table is now sufficiently set for what could be a wild next four years.
"It seems like it will be pretty fun," Zimmerman said. "It's probably going to be challenging. I've been talking to Shabazz about it, and it seems pretty crazy, but I'm looking forward to it."
Muhammad and the rest of the veteran core of one of the nation's finest high school squads began welcoming him in a couple of months ago, when, after he was accepted to Gorman, Zimmerman started scrimmaging and working out with the Gaels after their season ended just shy of a third consecutive state championship.
The first day he showed up, despite looking nothing like your average 14-year-old, Zimmerman was dealing with a heightened heart rate.
"I was nervous about all of the physicality and stuff," said Zimmerman, who weighs just 201 pounds. "Playing against Shabazz, I didn't want to get dunked on, but I did."
He swatted one of Muhammad's shots early on in the initial scrimmage for a nice confidence booster, but everyone else on the floor knew that the first hard-to-swallow lesson was coming.
"Once you block one of his shots, he's going at you full force. It won't happen again," the 6-foot-7 Carter recalled. "Stephen happened to be unlucky and under the rim. I mess with Stephen all the time because we've all dunked on him by now."
Oddly, though, getting slammed on a few times turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Zimmerman, who after the experience gradually became more and more comfortable on the floor with seemingly the worst of it out of the way.
"Before these workouts, I was soft," he said. "This is definitely helping me not get pushed around."
Since that point, whether it's running over at Gorman, playing at camps or in AAU tournaments, Zimmerman looks like he belongs. Most of his summer is being spent playing for the San Diego-based Dream Vision's 16-and-under squad on the AAU circuit along with Shabazz Muhammad's younger brother, Gorman junior-to-be Rashad Muhammad. But the Pangos camp could prove to be a major turning point for Zimmerman, who still has a handful of tournaments left this summer before likely joining Rice's varsity roster as a ninth-grader this upcoming season.
He was one of two members of the class of 2015 invited to the prestigious event, where players are split up into teams and go head-to-head in a three-day exhibition.
On Zimmerman's team was 7-foot Texas native Isaiah Austin, who is widely recognized, along with Muhammad, as one of the nation's top three prospects in the 2012 crop. When the two were on the floor together, Austin predominately drew the tough match-ups inside, but Zimmerman got his opportunities at times to bang around with some of the nation's elite prep big men here and there, such as Andre Drummond, Cameron Ridley, Robert Upshaw, DaJuan Coleman and Kaleb Tarczewski.
He didn't dominate the way he tends to against kids his own age, but Zimmerman held his own and caught some eyes. What stood out most to his stepmother, Lori, though, had nothing to do with his performance.
It was a sign of how far he's come mentally in just a few short months.
"This weekend, he wasn't getting a lot of playing time, and he took it really well," she said. "As a mother, your reaction is, 'Well, we can try and get you on another team,' but he said, 'No, I want to ride it out; I want to prove myself. I'm just an eighth-grader.' It really impressed me. He had heart and wanted to prove himself, and that meant more to him than just getting extra minutes.
"He hasn't really changed, but he's grown up a little. He's making really good decisions."
Despite the sprout in maturity, Lori — who Stephen has simply known as 'mom' since he was 5 — and his father, Eric, are doing their best to keep their son insulated from the growing buzz around their son.
The UNLV offer turned some heads, while college hoops powerhouses such as Memphis, Kansas and UCLA have already come calling. Even the family's decision on where Stephen would play high school ball was a hot topic. They were approached by a handful of schools — both in-state and elsewhere on the West Coast — trying to lure him and fended off several rumors that the family was moving to California. The family, though, made the decision a while back to send Stephen to Gorman because Grant Rice and the school weren't trying to recruit or pitch him.
Zimmerman wasn't just a draw because of his height but because of what he could turn into.
While most kids who come near his height at that age can be clumsy and have trouble not tripping over their own feet regularly, Zimmerman is smooth on the floor and especially in transition. He's dealt with being "the tall kid" for quite some time and is more than used to adapting to his height. When Lori and Eric first signed him up for an organized league at 11 years old, he was six feet tall. At 13, he was 6-foot-5 and dunking a regulation-sized ball. Doctors have told his parents that Stephen, who turns 15 in September, could reach at least seven feet by the time he's done growing.
At the moment, he's a strong rebounder and shot-blocker, a good passer out of the post and has nice touch around the hoop to go with a consistent left-handed jumper that extends out to about 18 feet. By his own admission, he needs to continue getting stronger and working on handling the ball efficiently, but there's obviously plenty of time for that.
"He definitely has gotten so much better, and you can just tell how much he's matured in a couple of months," Carter said. "A lot of kids, especially at that age, when they get that type of publicity, they might want to stop working. But whenever I see him, he's in the gym practicing. It's crazy."
Zimmerman will likely be coming off of the bench in stints as a freshman for the Gaels, while taking daily courses on the practice floor from Carter and a handful of other future college standouts.
Meanwhile, his family will continue to work as a buffer behind the scenes as more schools begin to show interest.
Lori Zimmerman admits she's a rookie when it comes to being in this position, but she's already reaching out to some valuable sources in trying to learn how to handle the game behind the game while allowing her son to live life like a any other teenager.
One is Shabazz Muhammad's father — Ron Holmes — whose son took home MVP honors at the Pangos camp and will likely be the nation's most talked-about senior prospect over the course of the next year. A former star player at USC in the 1980s, Holmes has proven to be as sharp as they come in terms of handling the recruitment of a gifted young ballplayer the right way.
Another was a complete stranger until just about a week ago — Carmen Hawkins, whose son, Justin, will be a junior guard at UNLV next year.
The elder Hawkins has become well-known among the youth basketball ranks after last year's release of George Dohrmann's book, Play Their Hearts Out, which took an up close and personal look at the often grimy and corrupted world of AAU basketball, orchestrated by adults who sometimes turn out to have agendas of their own. Dohrmann depicts the tales of several talented Southern California basketball prospects getting chewed up and spit out by the AAU machine for a variety of reasons, but Hawkins made it through clean, largely because of his mother's guidance, influence and overall sound parenting along the way.
Lori felt compelled to reach out to Carmen — one of the book's strongest, most impressive figures — after recently reading it from cover to cover.
"I talked to her for 90 minutes in the car on the way to California, and she had great advice," Lori said. "She said, 'Don't give up your power, because you're the parent. Stay involved in everything, listen to everything and you'll know what's right and wrong.'"
Right now, Lori and Eric are making sure that Stephen has family close by through every experience along the way. Both work full-time jobs but adjust schedules accordingly so that at least one of them can be with him on the road for tournaments or AAU practices.
Keeping their son grounded along the way is also part of the deal.
"They're so high on him at such a young age. It does (scare us some), because it's a lot of pressure to put on a kid, so I think that's why we try to insulate him from it," she said. "The first time he was ranked No. 1 out of a camp (at last year's adidas Junior Phenom event), we were like, 'Hey, you were ranked as the No. 1 center, now go do the dishes.'"
Along with cleaning plates and other household chores, Stephen so far has remained the same goofy kid his parents have always known him as — one who prefers the TV be tuned to cartoons and who still likes shooting hoops with his 8-year-old sister.
At the same time, he's well aware of what's going on around him, and that game he loves is about to get much more serious in many ways in the next few years.
"I just go along with it. I can't let it get to my head," he said. "I just have to play my game and do what I do."