Jason Cudd had grown tired of the question, one he’s heard all his life. Derrick Hilton, Cudd’s coach at Socastee High School, joked if Cudd had a dollar for every time someone asked how tall he was, Cudd would be a wealthy man.
So he did something about it.
“I actually got a shirt made up when I was 17,” Cudd said.
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17 years old
“Those are the three questions,” Cudd said.
That’s life for the 7-foot-1 center. Cudd admits to issues with catching his head on doorframes, taking pictures in public and using his height as a good conversation starter.
It’s also the reason he’ll be a Gamecock this season, joining South Carolina’s stable of developmental big men under coach Frank Martin. Cudd has never known life as a small kid, but soon he’ll be among more giants.
Portrait over snapshot
Hilton thinks back to Cudd in his younger days, but he doesn’t dwell on it too long.
He watched the up-and-coming player in middle school, just checking in. He saw a tall kid who couldn’t dunk when he started high school and had to grow into his body. Cudd was a 6-foot-2 sixth-grader, 6-4 a year later and at least 6-6 by the end of middle school.
But Hilton doesn’t see the snapshots, he sees a portrait painting a bigger picture, details and lines being filled in. The 280-pound senior is a far cry from what he remembered about the freshman who couldn’t stick on varsity full time.
“Not being strong enough and just becoming confident, ready, getting into his body as a freshman,” Hilton said. “Six-foot-7 freshman, 6-foot-8, really wasn’t that athletic, but he worked. Each year, he’s gotten better and he still continue to work, which I think, like I said when I told him in our little senior meeting, I think his best basketball is ahead of him.”
That’s the kind of work his next coach is expecting as well.
“When I recruit big guys, I recruit them thinking of who they can be when they’re 22 years of age,” Martin said. “My vision is that when Jason is 22, 23 years of age, he’s an unbelievably good basketball player. That’s why I get excited about guys like him.”
As a junior, Cudd posted 14.9 points and eight rebounds per game, and bumped that to 18 and nine with a pair of blocks a game on 72 percent shooting as a senior.
Cudd spent the vast majority of his high school career being a bully. Few high-schoolers can match 7-1, but the AAU circuit provided some competition, as did Myrtle Beach’s famed Beach Ball Classic that draws some of the top teams in the country.
“The first time I played in Beach Ball my sophomore year, Stephen Zimmerman dunked on me,” Cudd said. “And I went over at coach (DeAndre) Scott and coach Hilton, they just said, ‘Don’t worry about it, go play offense.’
“But I always compete, I feel like I was put in the competition no matter who I’m playing against.”
That’s the No. 11 recruit in the 2015 class Stephen Zimmerman, later the 42nd pick in the NBA Draft, who paired with Duke’s Chase Jeeter on a dominant Bishop Gorman team.
Hilton liked the way his star came back with a dunk of his own.
“That game turned the light on for Jason,” Hilton said. “He was like, ‘Well these guys, they are about as big as me or I’m as big as they are. I’m not as athletic as they are. I’m not as athletic as they are right now, but if I work, I can see myself in that mold or playing like those guys.’
“It’s all been uphill for him since then.”
Not taking it easy
Cudd’s father, Clint, stands 6-10 and played basketball at College of Charleston after starring at Dorman High School. Clint’s brother, who died before Jason was born, was 6-11 and led Dorman to the 1986 state title before attending Jacksonville University.
Jason Cudd’s sister, Katie, is 6-4.
The Cudd driveway had a basketball court painted on it, and Clint Cudd taught his son the game there, especially when there was something to work on.
“I’ve been playing since I was 5,” Jason Cudd said. “And he, ever since then, just pushed me to keep doing it.
“He’d get out there with me, made me do post moves, which when I was younger I didn’t really see a point in. I just wanted to dribble around and shoot. Now I understand.”
Clint Cudd possessed a better jumper than his son and put it to use to win games of HORSE. One-on-one wasn’t a big part of those games, but it took until 10th grade for Jason Cudd to beat his old man.
Hilton said the Cudds are basketball junkies, always at Jason’s events, always at games. His mother is a nurse who works with at-risk kids at a treatment center.
Jason Cudd will have his dad nearby when he goes to college. Clint Cudd lives in Camden and works in insurance. The support system, even after leaving home, is still in place.
“I think that’ll help some,” Hilton said. “So whenever coach Martin is just getting on him, he can call dad and say, ‘Hey, maybe I do need to get a little bit stronger, a little tougher and work harder.’ ”
Old school basketball
Hilton remembered how he learned Cudd would be a Gamecock.
This came well before South Carolina was a Final Four team. Cudd had just finished his first official visit, getting hosted by P.J. Dozier and connecting with Chris Silva.
“He called me that Sunday,” Hilton said. “He was on his way back and just said, ‘Coach, I’m going to go to USC.’ ” And I said, ‘Well, is your family happy with the decision? You’re happy with the decision?’ He said, ‘Yes, sir.’ I said, ‘Well if you like it, I love it.’ ”
East Carolina’s coaches weren’t happy. Same for Tulane. But their pitches involved the chance to face up and shoot out to the 3-point arc.
That’s not what Cudd is interested in.
“They like to throw the ball inside a lot,” Cudd said of USC. “They play more old-school big men. They don’t have them out shooting a bunch of 3s like some schools. That’s more of my game than stepping out and shooting a bunch.”
Although he can shoot out to the free-throw line, he wants to work in the post, bang with other bigs and execute moves down low. The Gamecocks staff went so far as showing him clips of their big men doing that, playing inside-out basketball.
“We use our big guys,” Martin said. “Our big guys are not running around setting ball screens and the guards shoot every ball. We utilize our bigs. It’s a system fit, too.”
Martin praised Cudd’s ability to run at his size, his footwork and hands and the way he relishes contact.
Cudd will join a group of developmental bigs along with Khadim Gueye and Sedee Keita. Martin said he doesn’t recruit players with the intention of not playing them, and whatever comes to a first-year player is on him.
Cudd hopes he can learn from sophomore Maik Kotsar, a prep school player who made a quick jump into the Gamecocks’ starting lineup.
Since the high school season ended, Cudd worked out with a trainer, trying to make his feet quicker while honing and expanding his moves. Hilton gently ribbed him about his feet, pointing out he’ll need to be better in Martin’s aggressive hedging defense. (Cudd is 280 pounds and hopes to stay there, turning fat to muscle.)
The coach also told Cudd to run two miles a day. His next set of coaches can focus on skills, but if his conditioning isn’t up to snuff, it’ll be hard to learn and hard to take the kind of tough coaching Martin is known for.
Cudd doesn’t seem too concerned. He has the support of family, a good outlook about early expectations and, of course, he’s been bombarded with questions before.
“I don’t know if I necessarily worry about it, but most of the stuff you just can’t take it to heart,” Cudd said. “You just have to hear what he’s saying, understand and take constructive criticism.
“Don’t keep a chip on your shoulder about it.”
Jason Cudd bio
Ht./Wt.: 7-1, 260
Hometown: Myrtle Beach
High school: Socastee
Other offers: East Carolina and Tulane
Of note: Cudd will be the fourth 7-footer in USC history, following Mike Brittain (1982-85), Danny Traylor (1971-73) and sophomore Khadim Gueye.