Sunday, January 12, 2003

Syracuse freshman guard has superstar potential

Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle

Syracuse's Gerry McNamara, left, passes the ball behind Seton Hall's Marcus Toney-El during the first half Wednesday night.
(AP photo)
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Just 10 games into his freshman season, we've discovered what all the fuss was about. We've learned why Coach K wanted him to play at Duke.

We've come to understand why the folks in his northeastern Pennsylvania hometown fondly refer to him as the "Mayor of Scranton" and why fans started a Web site in his honor before the sweat had even dried on his sophomore season at Bishop Hannan High School.

We see why Jim Boeheim didn't blink an eye when he was forced to insert him at point guard after the NCAA made its bone-headed, mean-spirited decision to suspend projected starter Billy Edelin for 12 games.

We now know why two busloads of his fans make the two-hour trek up Interstate 81 for every SU home game.

McNamara has established himself as one of college basketball's coming attractions. Barring injury, this fearless, quick-footed, sweet-shooting, fancy passing, wise-beyond-his-years gym-rat is destined to join the likes of Dave Bing, Pearl Washington and Sherman Douglas as the best and most popular guards in Syracuse basketball history.

"I joke with him that he's 'The Natural,' " says SU assistant coach Mike Hopkins, himself a former scrappy guard for the Orangemen. "All the ingredients for greatness are there. He shoots it as well as anybody I've been associated with. He has great quickness, so if you come way out to defend the 3, he's going to blow by you. He has a great basketball IQ. He's a crafty passer. He's pedal-to-the-medal all the time and he's not afraid to leave a little skin and blood on the floor diving for basketballs. I think it's easy to see why people are attracted to him. His fiery play is infectious."

If this 6-foot-2 Bobby Hurley clone continues to progress, a marquee outside the Carrier Dome may one day read: NOW PLAYING - MCNAMARA'S BAND.

Will to win

It doesn't bother him that he is overshadowed by his more talented and ballyhooed freshman teammate, Carmelo Anthony. He'll gladly play Gehrig to Anthony's Ruth if it means victories because ever since he was a 7-year-old trying to take it to the rack against his older brother, Tim, at the neighborhood gym, it's always been about winning.

"I'm highly competitive," says the cocksure McNamara, the product of a close-knit Irish Catholic family that includes an older brother and two older sisters. "I take losses to heart. They gnaw at me until the next game. I didn't lose much in high school. I don't plan on losing much here."

His will to win was never more evident than in the Seton Hall game Wednesday night when he scored 15 second-half points as the Orangemen came from behind for their ninth consecutive victory. It was McNamara's first test under Big East Conference fire, and he passed it with flying colors.

His transition from high school hero to potential major college star has been nearly seamless. There's a maturity to the 19-year-old's game that belie his years. Going into Saturday night's game against Boston College, McNamara was averaging 14.7 points and 5.1 assists in 34 minutes per game. He has been deadly beyond the 3-point arc, making 42 percent of his long shots, and near perfect from the free throw line (91 percent). He's a pest on defense with a team-leading 24 steals, and a smart floor general (only 21 turnovers).

That he has adapted so well and so quickly doesn't surprise Boeheim, given McNamara's background.

"He had the weight of an entire program on his shoulders for four years in high school, so he's had to compete at a high level with a lot of pressure on him," says Boeheim, the winningest coach in SU history. "There's probably less pressure on him now than there has been in four years."

During his career as THE MAN at Bishop Hannan, the Lancers went 109-17, won one state title and finished runner-up twice. McNamara ended his career as the seventh leading scorer in Pennsylvania high school history with 2,917 points and was named the state's Gatorade Player of the Year last season.

Legendary games

Two performances spoke to why he was the most heavily recruited basketball player in northeastern Pennsylvania high school history.

During a state semifinal game in his sophomore year, McNamara played most of the second half with a separated right shoulder.

"I guess it happened very early in the third period when he bumped into a guy, and even though it was so painful he couldn't raise his hand to shoot, he didn't bother telling me," says Lancers coach John Bucci. "Can you imagine trying to dribble a basketball and banging the boards when you are that debilitated and in that much pain? It just underscored how tough a kid he is and how much he loves the game. I asked him afterward why he didn't tell me about it, and he said, 'I was afraid you'd take me out of the game.' "

The other game that stood out was his 55-point performance in last year's state tournament. He scored 41 points in the first half against a Division I-bound player.

"The basket was as big as the ocean for him that night," Bucci says. "He was throwing in 3s, he was dunking it, he was stealing it and laying it in. He was so dominating that at one point I just stopped coaching and sat back and admired what was happening because I knew I would never, ever see anything like this again."

And to think, basketball wasn't even his best sport.

"You should have seen him play baseball," says McNamara's older brother, Tim. "He was a great pitcher, but he gave it up after he hurt his shoulder. Even if he hadn't suffered that injury, I think he would have chosen basketball. It was always his first love."

Seeking stability

It didn't take him long to become a Scranton legend. As a sixth-grader, he led his eighth-grade travel team to a state championship. By his sophomore year at Bishop Hannan, he had become such an attraction that his games had to be moved from the school's 400-seat gym to the 4,000-seat CYO Center.

"I don't think his appeal is a mystery," Bucci says. "See, Scranton is a close-knit, blue-collar town that appreciates people who work hard, and no one worked harder or hustled more than Gerry. He didn't just rely on his skills, which were enormous. He kept pushing himself. He remains a gym rat at heart. He just loves playing the game, and people admire that."

By his sophomore season, recruiters from virtually every blue-chip college basketball program were beating a path to his door. Because family and friends are so important to him, he decided that he would choose a school within driving distance of home. He ultimately selected Syracuse over Penn State because he liked the stability and friendliness of the Orangemen's coaching staff.

"There was a lot of uncertainty at a lot of the programs I looked at," he says. "I wanted the coach that recruited me to be the same person who was coaching me my senior year. I felt really good about Coach Boeheim and his staff, and I haven't been disappointed. They push you really hard in practice, but they are your friends off the court. Plus, I love the style of basketball they play up here. I couldn't be happier with my choice."

Work in progress

Although his future appears brighter than a Florida sunshine, he realizes there will be bumps along the way. He still is just a teenager, and he will be severely tested when he plays against guard-driven, nationally ranked teams such as Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Missouri and Michigan State.

It also will be interesting to see how McNamara's role is impacted when Edelin returns from his NCAA-imposed suspension next Saturday. Edelin is a natural point guard, but it may be difficult for him to take that job away from McNamara, considering how well the pride of Scranton has played.

"I know a lot of people are wondering how things are going to work out and I'm confident they are going to work out even better," McNamara says. "I'm not into labels. I don't consider myself a point guard or a shooting guard. I just consider myself a guard, period. I think by having two guys who can handle the ball the way Billy and I can will only make us better. Who says you can't have two guys running the offense?"

McNamara prides himself on being a complete player. Because he is such an accurate outside shooter, many mistakenly labeled him a two guard coming out of high school. But his quickness, court savvy and passing and dribbling skills make him an effective floor general, too.

"I don't want to be a specialist," he says. "I want to be the whole deal, and that includes defense."

After just one semester at Syracuse, McNamara has established himself as a Dome rat. During the three-week holiday break, the speech communications major has spent an hour before each practice honing his shooting skills with the help of Hopkins. Then, after practice, McNamara does agility drills to improve his defense.

He has consulted with the SU strength and conditioning coaching staff to devise an off-season weight-training program. At 172 pounds, McNamara is not weak, but he knows he must become stronger to avoid being pushed around by the physical guards he'll encounter routinely in the Big East.

"Some guys show up and just try to get by on the talent they've been blessed with," Hopkins says. "But Gerry is intent on taking the talent he's been given and expanding it. He has a passion and an appreciation for this game that's very rare and very cool. I can see why people are loving him. When it's all said and done, he could own this town."

Or at least become its mayor.

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