Casper Ware rises to the occasion
Long Beach State senior guard finally has his team in the NCAA tournament
In nonconference tussles over the last four years, Ware has matched up with John Wall, Jonny Flynn, Kendall Marshall and Jimmer Fredette, among others. He has also gone head-to-head with Tyreke Evans, DeMar DeRozan and James Harden in Los Angeles' Drew League, a summer pro-am held annually in South Central L.A. that gained fame last year when NBA players flocked to it because of the lockout.
Ware says he picks up little pieces from each player's game, such as Marshall's sense of control, Wall's press-breaking abilities and Fredette's shooter's instinct. But the 5-foot-10 senior point guard, thought by some to be too small to play the game at the highest levels, also picks up confidence.
"Sometimes, I'll sit down and watch an NBA game and I'll be like, 'I played against that guy,' " Ware says. " 'And that guy. And him. And I held my own, too.' "
Ware also has detailed scouting reports on all of them stored in his head and available immediately. He can tell you right away, for instance, that the Boston Celtics' Avery Bradley is a "great on-ball defender" and has been since the 49ers played Bradley and Texas in December 2009. He can also tell you that Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor "doesn't force anything, ever" and hasn't since November 2008, when the two matched up.
Now, as the 49ers prepare for an NCAA tournament matchup with New Mexico on Thursday in Portland, Ore., Ware is looking to hold his own again, hoping to lead his team on a Cinderella run.
Casper Sr. was an original star of the Drew League from its founding in 1973, earning multiple MVP awards and championships.
A few weeks into his first summer, Casper Jr. scored 45 points in a game and fans of the inner-city summer-league started talking.
Dan Monson knew his first season with Long Beach State would be rough.
In 2007, fresh off a failed stint as head coach at the University of Minnesota, Monson accepted the head coaching job at Long Beach State, where he knew the 49ers would be retooling and dealing with potential NCAA sanctions from the previous regime.
By mid-December, Monson's squad was 2-6 and headed toward a disastrous 6-25 finish. And so one night he headed to a nearby high school tournament to watch one of two players he recently had signed for the coming year.
Monson had been the only Division I coach to officially offer Ware a scholarship. There had been some interest from schools like Santa Clara and New Mexico State, but there were questions about his size.
What Monson saw that night convinced him size would not be an issue.
Playing for Cerritos Gahr High School, Ware was tasked with defending David Wear, a highly-touted 6-10 junior forward at Mater Dei who would go on to play for North Carolina and, later, UCLA.
Wear scored 22 points in a 93-79 win for Mater Dei, but Casper defended the much bigger player fiercely, making him work for every point on every possession.
Monson also liked Ware's quickness, basketball acumen and willingness to take big shots. He thought he could mold him into a leader for his rebuilding program.
The early days weren't easy. In December 2009, Ware, at this point an up-and-down college sophomore, was seriously outplayed by Duke's Jon Scheyer in a head-to-head battle at Cameron Indoor Arena, giving up 22 points and seven assists while scoring only six points of his own in an 84-63 loss.
Long Beach State played five top-20 teams in its nonconference schedule that season and lost all five, coming within 20 points only once.
But late in the season, Ware led the 49ers to the brink of an NCAA bid, losing 69-64 to UC Santa Barbara in the Big West Conference tournament championship game after missing on a shot to tie the score with about a minute to play.
"It hurts real bad," he said in the postgame news conference. "No words can describe how much it hurts."
Monson told Ware he had to use that feeling, and told the rest of the team that their progress had been great, but it wouldn't be recognized unless they made the Big Dance.
“At the start of the next season, Monson saw a new resolve in his point guard.
I always thought he had a lot of talent, but he really started to blossom then. It'd be impossible not to have swag after that.” -- Washington Wizards' guard Nick Young
on Ware's Drew League stint last summer
At a team breakfast, a pitcher of orange juice sat on the table next to Ware. Monson, walking by on his way to his office, poured himself a full glass and walked on.
Ware looked up at his coach and told him he should at least have asked before he took some. Monson apologized, but with a grin on his face, seeing Ware unafraid to speak up no matter who he was talking to.
"Coach told me I had to change for us to be good," Ware says now. "For us to be one of the top teams in the nation, I had to talk and communicate with my team."
What Ware learned from Monson he took back to the Drew League. After a junior season that earned him the Big West Player of the Year award but no NCAA tournament bid, Ware returned to the Drew League last summer, at a time when a number of NBA players were playing there while waiting out the NBA labor dispute.
Having already had plenty of experience against high-level talent, Ware embraced the opportunity and put up a 43-point performance early on. Then, on an otherwise unremarkable Saturday afternoon, LeBron James showed up to the gym and suited up alongside Ware. The duo combined for 52 points and a win, and a friendship between Ware and James was forged.
By summer's end, Ware had earned Drew League MVP honors over the likes of Harden, DeRozan and Nick Young. Commissioner Dino Smiley, a longtime friend of the Ware family, said in his presentation that Ware was "born" at the Drew.
"I always thought he had a lot of talent, but he really started to blossom then," said Young, who has played with Ware each of the last six summers. "It'd be impossible not to have swag after that."
The swag translated back to Long Beach.
In its second game of the season, the 49ers easily handled then-No. 9 Pittsburgh behind Ware's career-high 28 points, and college basketball fans across the country began to take real notice of the short guard from SoCal and his team.
Soon, Ware was trending worldwide on Twitter and being featured on SportsCenter. "Casper Ware a problem out there!!," James tweeted to his 3 million followers.
But being the MVP of the Drew didn't mean he had everything figured out. After shooting just 5-for-18 from the field in a disappointing Christmas Day loss to Kansas State, Monson had the team in the film room.
"Painful," Ware said.
But Monson went around the room to each of his players and asked them who should take the last shot in a close game. Everybody besides Ware chose Ware. "Trust your teammates," the coach said, because they trusted him.
"Ever since that game and that moment, he has let it come to him a lot more," Monson said.
Early in the second half, Long Beach and Santa Barbara were tied at 41 when Ware proceeded to hit three straight 3-pointers. He went on to score 17 points in an eight-minute stretch in a victory that sent Long Beach to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.
"I can't tell you what it feels like right now," Ware, the tournament MVP, said in his postgame news conference. "I've been trying to get here for three years."
Will a strong showing in the tournament be enough to catapult him to the next level, enough to assuage concerns about his height?
Two Eastern Conference scouts who have seen him play at various points this season say Ware does not project as a draft pick. But he will surely get a pre-draft camp invite and a shot to prove himself in the NBA's summer league.
"Is he a lock?" asks Monson, who has coached several future NBA players through national team stints and previous stops at Gonzaga and Minnesota. "No. But is he somebody that [NBA teams] have to look at? ... They'd be fools not to."
Pedro Moura is a regular contributor for ESPNLosAngeles.com.