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January 23, 2004Table: Leading MVP Candidates
Let's not beat around the bush here. Arizona-bound shooting guard Jawann McClellan is having such a great season at Milby High School in Houston that he has become as deserving as any prospect in the entire 2004 class for National Most Valuable Player honors this year.
The story of Jawann in under two paragraphs is simple: No one knew about him prior to his verbal commitment to Arizona on July 29, 2002. He had a very solid junior season at Milby where he averaged over 20 points per game and led the Buffaloes to 30 wins on the year. Heading into the summer he was ranked No. 62 in the country by recruiting guru Clark Francis.
Then he won four MVP awards at different camps and tournaments over the spring and summer, including the Pangos All-American camp in early June, and watched his stock elevate to the point where he is now a consensus top 40 prospect.
That's nowhere near high enough as you will soon see.
What separates Jawann McClellan from most of the rest of America's best high school players is that he actually means it when he says that all he cares about is winning. And thanks to the special talents he possesses in his game, McClellan has been able to do plenty of that this year as he has led his team to a 24-0 record and No. 4 national ranking by USA Today.
Whether it's at home in Houston at Milby High School or at camps and tournaments across the country McClellan has earned a reputation as being the ultimate team player. This is not to say that he's simply filling a role, of course - he's far too talented to ever be a complementary piece to any team he's on - but the "me-first" mentality and superstar ego gets checked at the door with Jawann.
"He has no hidden agenda," said Arizona assistant coach Josh Pastner, who recruited McClellan. "Jawann is just a great teammate. With him everything's always 'we, we, we' and 'us, us, us'. He has felt like a part of this team (Arizona) for a long time and that's how he is there (at Milby), too.
"Never once during the recruiting process did he ever ask about playing time or who else we were recruiting. He wants to play with the best guys and has never shied away from competition. He's going to be in charge of all official visits next year because he'll be our best recruiter."
UA administrative assistant Jack Murphy says that "Andre (Iguodala) is the best recruiter by far" right now and "then Channing (Frye)" but that "Jawann will do it next year". Pastner tells the story of McClellan's Arizona-first attitude that took place prior to the November signing period when the Cats were pursuing a couple of wings that didn't wind up choosing Arizona.
"All Jawann cares about is winning," Pastner said. "He wanted us to go after two guys ranked in the top 10 in America that played his same position, that's how much he wants to win. How many kids that age do you know that would want to help you recruit guys that play his position? Nobody! Coach Olson heard about that and said, 'no, we can't do that to Jawann'. Coach loves him, absolutely loves Jawann because he's such a team guy."
Team guy or not, McClellan has proved his worth as one of the nation's best all-around players from an individual standpoint this season. Through 24 games, all wins, McClellan is leading the Buffaloes in scoring (22.2 ppg), rebounds (8.6 rpg), assists (6.2 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocks (3.0 bpg). All of this while shooting well over 50% from the field.
"His game makes everybody key in on him," said Nic Wise, Arizona's other Houston area future Wildcat and a friend of Jawann's. "But what they don't know is that they have a whole team you have to be worried about. I mean there is no way you can be No. 4 in the country and only have one great player. But he's the reason the rest of his players are good, though, because he's been playing with them for a long time and he's been making them better all his life."
McClellan's reputation says that he's a "shooter/scorer" but he's a complete player. He has a very long and lean body that's also very muscular, and he uses it along with his athleticism to compete for rebounds in traffic.
His strength has made him a fantastic finisher bordering in on the Hassan Adams level. But what makes McClellan's all-around game so special is that he's also a tremendous passer with great floor vision, court awareness and the ability to find an open teammate in just about any situation.
"He is a complete player," Wise says of McClellan. "His defense has come a long way, too. I really like his leadership and his confidence."
In McClellan's last game, a 27-point victory over yet another overmatched opponent, all the guy they call "Wann" did was score 34 points, grab 8 rebounds, dole out 8 assists, swipe 5 steals, and block 5 shots. Oh, and he had six dunks, too.
It doesn't end there, though.
"In that game what you probably don't know is that he didn't shoot any free throws but he did make four of six 3-pointers," said Milby head coach Jim Duffer. "And from inside the three-point line he went 11-11. I'm serious as a heart attack."
For the year McClellan is shooting 43% from behind the arc which is an extremely impressive percentage in and of itself, but his advanced mid-range game has enabled him to shoot 65% from two-point range. And that's before factoring in the 11-11 performance on Tuesday night which will assuredly put him over 70% on the season.
The only other player in the Houston area to have that kind of shooting percentage is Yao Ming.
Impressive company, huh?
"He'll lull everyone to sleep with his mid-range game and then step back behind the three-point line and start burying shots," Coach Duffer said. "I was thinking that he plays a lot like Ray Allen but I hadn't said it until now, and he's also like Sean Elliott. Just a great person and all-around player."
Jawann McClellan isn't as worried about postseason accolades as he once was. He says that he realized he was as good as just about anyone from the loaded class of 2004 after he played in the ABCD camp in July of 2002, and that helped solidify his already-high level of confidence.
"I saw that the players they were hyping up weren't any better than me," McClellan said.
Ask him who he thinks the top five or six players are in his class and he'll quickly rattle off some very familiar names, most of which might be called by David Stern during this June's NBA draft.
"Josh Smith, Dwight Howard, Shaun Livingston, Sebastian (Telfair), Al Jefferson and D.J. White," he says. "I can't pick between Malik (Hairston) and Joe (Crawford) because I'm close with both of them."
The call for McClellan to be the nation's most valuable player is not only legitimate, it is an easy argument to make. There are others around the country who are better than him, that is not being argued here, but the question is 'who is more valuable'? We can make a serious case for McClellan even when he is stacked up against the likes of Howard, Livingston, Jefferson and Telfair.
Jefferson is a big, strong force on the inside who just happens to average around 40 points per game. Rebounds aren't a problem for him either, as he regularly grabs 20-25 in a game. But Jefferson, an Arkansas signee, racks up his staggering statistics against competition from an area of the country - Prentiss, Mississippi - that is hardly considered a basketball hotbed. Meanwhile, McClellan plays in Houston, America's fifth largest city and on par with New York, L.A. and Chicago when it comes to high school hoops.
Jefferson's Prentiss High team is a mortal 11-6 on the year. McClellan has personally led Milby to a 24-0 record, No. 1 ranking in the entire state of Texas while playing in its largest classification (5A), and USA Today has Milby HS ranked fourth in the country as of this past Monday.
Player of the Year? Probably Jefferson. More valuable to his team - no question it's McClellan from where we're sitting.
Then there's the argument that says that a great player makes his team better and that you can prove that theory by removing him from the situation entirely. For example, Pastner's take on McClellan is that Milby would be lucky to be a .500 team if Jawann wasn't there, and that's a high compliment to what McClellan means to his team's success. But the downside to that argument can be personified in the case of Marvin Williams, the superstar forward from Bremerton (Wash.) HS just 20 miles west of Seattle across Puget Sound.
Williams may very well be the nation's premier all-around talent. He's big, he's strong, he can shoot, he's athletic. Basically, he has no business playing a minute of college basketball because he's an insta-pro whenever he decides to enter his name into the draft. But on the high school level even his massive skills aren't enough to help his talent-deficient teammates at Bremerton.
With a loss the other night, Bremerton dropped to 6-6 on the year. Take Williams off the team and God only knows whether or not the Marvin-less team would even have a single victory. Because of that, does it make his case for the nation's most valuable player that much stronger? After all, without Williams, Bremerton would still just be a naval port in the Pacific fleet.
The argument here is that the Williams case is obsolete to the MVP race. He's great, yes, we all know that, but his team is going nowhere with or without him. McClellan and Milby on the other hand is a different story entirely.
Great players like McClellan wind up not being the difference between two and, say, 14 wins in a year, but the difference between a first round loss in the Area playoffs and a seven-game run to the state championship.
No one cares that a great player helped his team win a conference game between two .500 schools in mid-January because all that matters is if he can shoulder the load against a team ranked No. 2 in the state's largest classification in a hostile environment come tournament time.
Marvin Williams won't know what a tournament setting feels like until he gets to A.) North Carolina next March, or B.) The NBA and helps the Sonics return to the playoffs in April of 2005.
Then there's the matter of not just playing well against great teams, but performing well against other great players in pressurized settings. Shaun Livingston and Sebastian Telfair are probably the best at this. Well, along with McClellan, of course.
Livingston led his Peoria (Ill.) Central team to the state title in Illinois last year after he hit a last-second shot against powerful Thornwood HS in the championship game. He was money in the clutch - as he has always been - and that's why he's considered the best point guard in America and why he is going to Duke (or the NBA) after high school.
Telfair made his reputation off of playing well in big games against other great players. His matchups with Darius Washington and Livingston have been legendary, not only on the ESPN2 game a month ago (a game in which D-Wash scored 36 to Bassy's 27, but also had 11 turnovers and only one assist in a loss to Telfair's Lincoln team) but also over the summers at camps like ABCD or tournaments in Las Vegas.
But Telfair plays for a team that's ranked fifth in his own city, albeit New York City, and hasn't led Lincoln from the depths of anonymity to the top of the country's ranking elite the same way McClellan and Livingston have.
I mean come on. There have been full books written on Lincoln High School and Brooklyn's Coney Island projects. Don't believe me? Check out The Last Shot by Darcy Frey. It stars Tchaka Shipp, a ninth grade Stephon Marbury and the rest of the Lincoln High Railsplitters.
Think anyone had ever heard about Charles H. Milby High School in Houston before Jawann McClellan put it on the map? Think anyone from the Chronicle will follow Jawann and senior forward Larry Posey around for nine months and put out a bestseller on the New York Times' book list?
And that's what this whole argument is about, really: emerging from obscurity, beating the odds, hanging with the hyped up Player of the Year candidates and doing all of it in the middle of an undefeated season with championship aspirations.
Jawann McClellan has the chance to go from a guy formerly known as "Juwan-who"? to a player whose name is synonymous with MVP awards, championships, and All-American lists.
Dwight Howard is a better player than Jawann McClellan, he's a man among boys and the probable No. 1 pick in the NBA draft this June. But the competition he and his team face is not as stiff as what McClellan or Livingston go up against on a regular basis, mostly because they don't play a bunch of religious schools with small enrollments.
Howard will win his share of Player of the Year awards and that's fine. We're simply saying that MVP honors should be shipped elsewhere, preferably westward.
As for where he thinks he should be among the nation's elite, well, Jawann is never one to pull any punches or hold something back. He'll tell you exactly how he feels at all times.
"I deserve to be up there," he says. "I did that stuff this summer (winning four MVP awards) and I thought I played real good. In France, it was me, Daniel (Gibson), D.J. White and LaMarcus, and I made the All-Tournament team and only five were selected.
People just have different opinions. Like Clark Francis, he had me at like No. 62 but he had never seen me play. He just had me up there because I was going to Arizona. Then he came and saw me and put me up to No. 19 and now he thinks I should be a top 15 player after seeing me again recently.
"The CollegeBasketballNews guy (Chris Monter) saw me in Colorado Springs and thought I had a bad (showing) but now he's like whoa!. He made an early McDonald's All-American game list and left me off it but I think that will change now."
Said Monter when reached for comment on McClellan: "He has a good chance to make the McDonald's game. I was planning on updating my list this week and he will make my projections."
McClellan says that he knows that his name is finally recognizable by the national experts and that he has earned a lot of respect with the way he's played. But as his game has continued to progress and his reputation has expanded, it has also brought forth some of the seedier elements of basketball unfortunately.
After he committed to Arizona there were still certain schools that went after him, trying to get him to renege on his verbal pledge to the Wildcats and instead come play for them. One school in particular stayed on him pretty hard but he says that they are "cool with each other" now. Even more disturbing, however, was news that one of America's most respected coaches and programs attempted the same kind of 11th hour recruitment of McClellan all the way up until just before national signing day.
And now he's faced with a whole new array of characters that are attempting to pry him away from Arizona and the college game in general: agents.
"There are a lot of people around me like agents trying to get me to make the jump," McClellan said. "They say that I have the body to play there right now, but let's be realistic: LeBron went last year because he's 6-8, 240. I'm just 6-5, 207. I have to be careful about who surrounds me and my parents have done a good job of staying on top of me."
The reputation McClellan has among his peers has always been solid but now it's soaring to much higher levels. Nearly all of 2004's best players are friendly with Jawann and he has nothing but respect for them in return. His best friend is Gibson, who will take over at point guard for Texas next year, and he also considers Hairston and Crawford to be basketball confidants.
But for as much as D-Gib, Joe C. and Malik have pull in the high school basketball world, McClellan's association with another guy is what says the most about just how much people his own age think about him and his game.
"LeBron invited me to his party in Houston when he comes here," McClellan said. "He wants me to come down and hang out."
The NBA's 'Chosen One' requires his presence. That's got to be an exhilarating feeling.
What McClellan wants next is to win the 5A state championship in Texas. The awards will roll in on their own good time but for now he wants the gold trophy and an unblemished record.
The Buffaloes are sitting at 24-0 as of Thursday night, and have eight games remaining in the regular season. If all goes well - and Milby will be favored in each of those eight contests - McClellan and Co. could be 32-0 heading into postseason play. From there, McClellan says, Milby must win three games in the Areas, two in the Regionals, and then two more at State to capture the championship.
To McClellan there is only one goal from here on out: 39-0.
"I'm on the verge of winning Houston Player of the Year," he says. "And I should win Texas Player of the Year but they base it on if you win state. Jeremis (Smith) won it last year over Ndudi (Ebi) because (Ft. Worth Dunbar HS) won state. I think I have a good chance of winning it though."
Pastner, who has known McClellan for more than five years thanks to his roots in Houston, agrees.
"Right now you can ask anyone in the state and they will tell you that Jawann is playing the best basketball in the state of Texas," Pastner said. "And he's doing it at the highest level, too.
"Some nights guys have big time games but they don't do it consistently. Jawann has brought it every single night. I don't know if you can say that around the country. He brought it to the Jaycee's tourney, which is a great tourney with teams from the Houston area, and he brought it to the ANI, a national event with ranked teams. He's getting everyone's best shot and he's not creeping up on people. They know he's going to Arizona and everyone wants to shut him down, but he keeps producing every game against great competition in his district and at the highest level in Texas.
"Jim Duffer at Milby is a terrific coach, I love Coach D, but if you take Jawann off that team they might not even be at .500 much less 24-0 and ranked fourth in the country. Am I being a little biased? Probably. But I'm also being honest."
Coach Duffer served as an assistant coach to Boyce Honea for 13 years at Milby before taking over prior to the start of this season. He has seen literally hundreds of kids come and go at the school and put McClellan's worth into perspective when asked what he meant to the team this year.
"Everything," Duffer said with a laugh. "We wouldn't be nationally ranked without him, and we would probably only be in the top 15 or so in the state. Teams take on the style and personality of their star players and that's why we're so good. Jawann is a great team player, he's a great passer and he's a good defender.
"We played against Bush HS with a kid named Chamberlain Oguchi, who signed with Oregon this fall, and Jawann asked if he could guard him. I said 'yes' right away and he wound up holding Oguchi to four points in a win for us."
When Milby captured the championship of the ANI McClellan responded well to another challenge, this time from future UCLA forward Josh Shipp. The 6-6 younger brother of Joe Shipp came into Houston with his ninth-ranked Los Angeles (Calif.) Fairfax teammates boasting that they were the best of the eight teams there.
McClellan wasn't pleased to hear what Shipp was saying once he was informed by a "well-respected recruiting analyst" before Milby and Fairfax met in the championship game.
"I had to go out and show him that this is my city and my area and that he should just stay over there (in L.A.)," McClellan said after leading Milby to a dominating 80-53 blowout win.
Chris Monter happened to be at the ANI that weekend and voted McClellan as his MVP of the event, as did the other guru in attendance. Even so, most of the national analysts have been hesitant to put McClellan among the best of the best when it comes to rankings. RivalsHoops.com has him at No. 38 overall and Dave Telep has him in the mid-30's as well.
"I have him in my top 25 now," Monter said. "I really like his body and his outside shot."
McClellan realizes that rankings are purely subjective and matters of opinion, but says that as long as he plays in the March 31st McDonald's All-American game in Oklahoma City he'll be fine.
"It all depends who is at the right game," he says of the recruiting experts. "They can be at one game when you play bad and then go watch a guy who's not very good but he plays well and they have him ranked high because of that.
"I'm 6-5 and almost average a triple-double and I'm getting blocks, too. People always ask me if I'm going to play point guard at Arizona because I'm a good passer and because of my point guard instincts since I play some point for my team. I just tell them Mustafa (Shakur) is our point guard, and from what I understand we have a pretty good one coming after that, too (Daniel Dillon)."
Jawann McClellan does everything necessary for his team to win. He'll do the same thing once he gets to Arizona. Depending on who stays in school or bolts early for the NBA draft this June, McClellan will still likely come off the Wildcats' bench as a freshman. He won't mind doing so if that's the case, either. Winning is all that matters to the only child of George and Mary McClellan, his father manages a psycho-therapy clinic, and his mother is a beautician.
The willingness to accept any role on a team full of high school All-Americans while being one yourself is extremely rare in today's sports world. McClellan is good enough to start at probably 99.9% of the Division I schools across the nation. That said, it won't matter if he becomes a reserve at Arizona during the first part of his freshman year in Tucson because with Jawann it's only a matter of time before his value becomes apparent and playing time becomes a non-issue.
But college is still seven months away. For now McClellan is focused on leading Milby to 15 more victories and the Texas 5A state championship. He leads a team that is ranked fourth in the entire country in literally every single statistical category and he's doing it against a brutal national and local schedule. He alone has been the difference between a good year and a potentially legendary year because of his on-court performance, his leadership, his selflessness and his overall value.
Whether or not he is America's Most Valuable Player from the 2004 class is for someone else to decide.
But you can certainly make a very serious case for Jawann McClellan.
Jawann says: "Check out the February issue of The Sporting News. I'm going to be on the cover and have a full story with pictures inside."
**Also see: Other Leading MVP Candidates
-Ben Hansen, Senior Editor