With an open floor ahead of him, Juwan Gary seized the opportunity. His two-handed dunk not only put the exclamation point on his team’s win Friday morning at Peach Jam, it was done with a certain spectator nearby.
Avery Johnson sat courtside for Gary and Team United’s 82-66 win over Houston Hoops. He was watching a player who was about to become his own. Shortly after Gary, a rising senior at Gray Collegiate, announced his pledge to Johnson and Alabama, the Crimson Tide coach essentially confirmed it with a tweet of celebratory emojis.
Johnson was some 70 miles from Columbia, a place, according to Gary, where he won’t make a home visit with the four-star recruit until August.
Frank Martin and the hometown South Carolina Gamecocks were long considered the favorite for Gary. He was offered by USC on Jan. 19. Connecticut and Wake Forest did the same earlier that week, joining the likes of Clemson, Florida, North Carolina State, Texas A&M, UNLV, Georgia and Maryland.
It took until the spring for Alabama to emerge as a prominent contender.
“No sir,” Gary said Friday, “I did not see this (Alabama commitment) coming.”
A visit to Tuscaloosa came in June. That was a big factor in the Tide gaining traction, noted Gray Collegiate coach Dion Bethea.
“I think it was an eye opener,” Bethea said. “He felt real comfortable with coach Avery Johnson and family with him.”
Gary said the visit “felt like home.”
Alabama’s pitch was Johnson’s NBA background — see 16 years as a point guard for six teams, including a title with the San Antonio Spurs in 1999, and as a head coach for two teams, including a NBA Finals trip with the Dallas Mavericks in 2006 — and how Gary could be developed to the next level.
“He can coach you as a pro,” Gary said Thursday. “He coached Collin Sexton as a pro. I can see him being a very good coach for me.”
He stressed on Friday his desire to get to the NBA.
“I could be a one-and-done, two years, three years,” he said, “it doesn’t matter as long as I get to the NBA level.”
Johnson and Antoine Pettway, an Alabama assistant and Gary’s lead recruiter, did their courting of Gary from afar.
Pettway, Gary said, hasn’t come to Columbia for a visit, but “he calls me basically every single day. Me and him have a very good connection. He calls me every day, checks on me and my family.”
Pettway and another Alabama assistant were courtside Friday night as Gary scored 29 points to help Team United beat Seattle Rotary and advance to the Peach Jam quarterfinals.
Gary is one of three South Carolina prospects ranked among Rivals’ top 150 players in the 2019 class at No. 70. During a June press conference at Williams-Brice Stadium, Martin was asked if he felt pressure to land some of the state’s most prized players. In a 13-minute response, Martin noted, “We have spent more time with every one of those kids you’re talking about than every other university in this country. I don’t care what anyone tells you. We spent more time on the phone, in person, on our campus and their campus recruiting them.”
Gary confirmed as much Thursday when he said he’s been in communication with USC “basically every single day.”
“Me and (USC assistant) Bruce (Shingler), back and forth, on a daily basis,” he continued. “Me and Frank Martin been texting back and forth.”
Bethea has coached former Gamecocks Devan Downey (who started his college career at Cincinnati) and Brandon Wallace on the AAU circuit. Brice Johnson (North Carolina) and Gary count among those Bethea products who have gone outside the state.
“Me being on both sides of it,” Bethea earlier this week on Tide 102.9 in Tuscaloosa, “even with the AAU stuff, I never wanted to be the one to sit there and put the pressure on the kid about going to a certain place. If I ever did that and it doesn’t work, they’ll point the finger at me. But at the end of the day, if it’s the kid and his family and they come to me and they ask me for my opinion, that’s something totally different.
“It’s like anybody with their kid. They’re going to do what’s best for their family. I can sit there and be part of the process, but I’m not going to sit there and tell that kid he should go (out of the state), he should stay. But I’ll definitely make sure he knows all the pros and cons that come with it, each one of those programs.”
Lancaster’s Sindarius Thornwell, the key member to Martin’s second class at USC who teamed with Spring Valley’s P.J. Dozier to lead the Gamecocks to the Final Four in 2017, tweeted earlier this week, “I hate how kids be scared to stay home a(nd) represent their own ... Just saying if our in state kids would commit to playing in state the South Carolina basketball could compete every single year.”
Thornwell also played AAU ball with Team United. The Los Angeles Clipper also tweeted that Gary is his “lil bro” and that he’s a “phone call away” for Gary.
The two spoke with each other Tuesday.
“He told me wherever I go, he’s going to have my support,” Gary said Friday. “He came to my high school basically every day, working out, playing with the guys. Me and him, we stay together. He went to South Carolina, but he played with Team United. Me and him have a good connection.”
But Gary won’t be following Thornwell’s college path. He’s pledged to a rival SEC program some six hours away, joining fellow Columbia native Tevin Mack, a transfer from Texas, on the Crimson Tide roster.
“Getting out of state, playing for a different coach, different environment, it’ll be a good thing for me,” Gary said. “No distractions up there, but at the same time I got Tevin Mack up there, another player from South Carolina. So me and him are going to go at it at practice. So I know I got somebody up there watching my back, watching over me like a little bro.
“But at the same time, Coach Avery and me got that connection.”
Martin wasn’t in the gym Friday morning when Gary threw home that dunk for the final two of his 26 points.
Recruiting moves on.
“Sometimes you have kids who want to go away and see something different,” Bethea said. “There is nothing wrong with that. Every kid is different and they have to do what is best in their decision.”