Woolridge leading the takeover
This story appeared in the Arizona edition of the December ESPN RISE Magazine.
Dan Mannix is pacing the sideline. The head coach of the Sunnyslope (Phoenix, Ariz.) boys' basketball team is torn. On the one hand, he's spent weeks preparing the offense for moments like this one -- his team is tied with Catalina Foothills late in the third quarter of the Class 4A, Division I state semifinals. He is sure his offense can outlast the opposition if the boys stick to the script.
On the other hand, Mannix has one of the state's best players in 6-foot-2 combo guard Royce Woolridge, and the coach could certainly let his star player take over the game. Putting the ball in his hands is like getting free points. The nation's No. 94 recruit in the ESPNU 100 averaged 28.5 points per game last season and earned Big Schools Player of the Year honors from The Arizona Republic. Woolridge's YouTube videos are just play after play of him making his opponents look silly.
It is the eternal conundrum. Mannix preaches team basketball. But time is running short.
"I have this problem a lot," the coach admits. "You're trying to draw a line on where he starts taking over a game. Is it too much or is it not enough? It's hard to define. Sometimes you have to put the ball in his hands and throw the X's and O's out the window. Sometimes you've just got to let him go."
The Kansas-bound senior is the son of former NBA star Orlando Woolridge, who played for seven teams over 15 seasons. Royce remembers being in awe watching his dad on TV. "I always looked up to him," Royce says. "He's always been super-tall (Orlando is 6-foot-9) and I wanted to be like that."
Royce still keeps in touch with his dad, who now lives in Houston, but he lives with his mother, Victoria. He is also very close with his godfather, Negele Knight, himself a 10-year NBA vet. Growing up, Woolridge would go to Phoenix Suns games, where Knight started his career. He spent time hanging out with the players near the Suns bench.
But for all the exposure to the game, Woolridge wasn't very good. In fact, maybe that's being too kind.
"I used to be terrible," he says. "I dribbled with two hands right up through the sixth grade. I used to hit layups too hard off the backboard and I'd miss everything."
Despite his struggles, he kept playing the game. "It just made me want to work harder," he says. "Regardless of whether or not I was any good, I loved the game. I wanted to get better."
Woolridge isn't sure what happened next, but something just clicked. Suddenly his hours upon hours of practice and playing caught up with him, and Woolridge developed a talent to match his passion for the game. He arrived at Sunnyslope as a small, skinny kid, and as he grew he quickly became a devastating presence for opposing teams to deal with. In fact, the biggest challenge Woolridge faced early in his high school career wasn't from the opposition -- it was from his mother.
"Royce's mom came up to me at the beginning of his freshman year," Mannix recalls, "and she said to me, 'If he doesn't get straight A's, he's not playing.' And I thought to myself, wouldn't a B suffice? But his mother has done an unbelievable job with him."
"My mom is a real heckler when it comes to grades," Woolridge says. "She always says if basketball doesn't work out, you have to have a second plan."
Woolridge says he wants to study business at Kansas and perhaps start his own clothing line someday. For now, basketball is working out just fine.
In last year's playoffs, Woolridge upped his scoring average to more than 32 points per contest. And it wasn't as though teams hadn't heard of him.
"He understands that they'll come at him, running double- or triple-teams," Mannix says. "The most impressive thing to me about Royce is that he really does not get very frustrated."
He also doesn't get complacent. Following his team's 4A-I state championship last season, Woolridge headed right back to the gym. He wasn't satisfied with his mid-range jumper, so he worked on it throughout the offseason. He spent time developing new moves to get around his opponents. At every open gym, he practiced his shot. When he wasn't playing in a game, he'd be off on the side, perfecting his release.
Woolridge is always eager to help other players on his team as well. At an open gym earlier this year, Mannix looked over to see two eager freshmen chatting with Woolridge about shooting.
"I took that moment in," Mannix says. "Scoring 40 points in a game is good, but that stuff is much more important."
Woolridge says the importance of being a team player is a valuable lesson he's learned. "I feel like I can trust my teammates a lot more," he says. "When I was a freshman, I didn't really know what to do. But now I don't feel like I need to score at all times."
He can't score on every play, of course, but sometimes it seems like he can. That's the problem Mannix faces every game. Do you let your star player run wild, or do you keep attacking with the designed plays? During last year's semifinal, with the game clock dwindling, Mannix didn't have to make the call. Woolridge took over the game himself.
"I turned to my assistants and just said, 'Holy mackerel, this kid is pretty good,'" Mannix says. "At that point, you just become a spectator. You just watch and appreciate his abilities."
By the end, it wasn't close. Sunnyslope won by 13, and Woolridge finished with 30 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter. One game later, he added 31 points -- 19 in the third quarter alone -- as Sunnyslope beat Agua Fria to claim the 4A-I state crown.
Holy mackerel. This kid is pretty good.
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