Once a prodigy, Ross now a project

LeBron James walked into the gym at Rancho High School, just a short drive from the sparkling Strip, and sat down beside basketball powerbroker William Wesley to watch the sport’s Prodigy of the Moment.

They were there to see a Canadian kid named Andrew Wiggins, whose father, Mitchell Wiggins, played a few years in the NBA in the ’80s. Andrew is only 16, but everyone in basketball knows who he is and what he’s probably going to become. When I mentioned to one NBA scout that he looked like he needed a cold shower after watching Wiggins play, he responded, “A cigarette, too.”

The craziest part is that Wiggins, who was here for Nike’s top summer camp, still has two more years of high school left and another in college, provided the NBA doesn’t change its one-and-done rule. The earliest you’ll see him on an NBA floor is November 2015. Hopefully he’ll be just as great as everyone expects. But there’s also an awful lot of time between now and draft day for things to go wrong.

Which brought me back to the summer of 2008, when I watched another Prodigy of the Moment, who also happened to be in the Rancho gym this week. His name is LaQuinton Ross, and he’s no longer a prodigy.

Ross was one of 20 college players invited to this camp, and don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of him. Last season, as a freshman at Ohio State, Ross played a total of 35 minutes. He didn’t get off the bench even once in the NCAA Tournament.

Like Wiggins, Ross was once the No. 1-ranked high school sophomore in the country. Today, he’s hoping a breakout year at Ohio State will propel him to the NBA, where he can join other members of his age group like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bradley Beal, who weren’t considered better prospects than Ross a few years ago.

“I’m just going to try to live up to the hype,” said Ross, a native of Jackson, Miss. “Everybody has expectations for me, so I’m just trying not to let them down.”

That was a sad thing to hear, because it doesn’t seem so long ago that people talked about Ross the way they now talk about Wiggins. Four years ago I watched Ross play at an AAU tournament, mostly against kids a year or two older, many of whom have gone on to become successful college players. And he absolutely dominated them.

It was breathtaking, really, the kind of talent Ross seemed to possess at that age. At 6-foot-7, he was so fluid and skilled, scoring easily on the perimeter and in the paint. He got to the rim, made jump shots, posted up; everything you’d want to see, he did. That day, I felt certain I was watching a future All-Star.

“When I was that young, I didn’t think about any of that. I just went out and balled,” he said. “I didn’t even know I was the No. 1 player in the country.”

But he was. And then? Well, it was almost as though Ross disappeared.

Everything now about our youth basketball culture revolves around the summer. High school, in many ways, doesn’t even matter. If you don’t perform well on the travel circuit, you’re all but forgotten.

In the spring of 2009, Ross suffered a serious ankle injury but rushed to come back even though he was still hurting and overweight. He didn’t play well, he didn’t look good and there were questions about whether he had lost his desire to be great. Suddenly, the Next Big Thing was declared a has-been, all by the age of 17.

“Nobody cared about my ankle being hurt, they saw me as lackadaisical,” Ross said. “I knew my game, knew what I could do against other players. They dropped me from No. 1 to No. 42. There’s no way I thought 41 guys in my class were better than me. It’s crazy how people fall in and out of love with players.”

Ross moved to prep school in New Jersey to get his academics in order, and in a very low-key manner, committed to Ohio State. No flashy press conference, no big recruiting battle, no one-and-done expectations.

Who knows what happens now. Ross couldn’t crack Ohio State’s rotation as a freshman, and at one point he even thought about transferring. Draft Express does not project him to be picked in the 2013 NBA Draft.

But for the first time in a while, there’s some positive buzz about Ross. Several scouts who watched him at this camp were impressed, and ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said Ross will be a big-time scorer for Ohio State sooner rather than later.

“It’s just humbling,” Ross said. “I’ve learned people on the outside really don’t know what’s happening on the inside. This is going to be my breakout year.”

But what Ross was supposed to be and what he’s now trying to be are no longer the same thing, and it all happened so fast. Now the basketball world has moved on to its next big thing, all while one of its former prodigies faces his last chance to remain in view.