- Jason King
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WACO, Texas -- When Deuce Bello was a high school senior, Dime Magazine ranked him as the 19th-best dunker in world. Not the state, not the country -- the world.
Among those Bello topped in the listing: NBA high fliers Vince Carter, Dwyane Wade and J.R. Smith.
Something funny, though, happened when Bello arrived at Baylor last fall.
"I realized all that stuff didn't mean anything," he said."Being able to dunk wasn't going to get me on the court."
Like many freshmen, Bello experienced bouts of frustration and buyer's remorse. He wondered if he'd picked the right college. A national name in high school, Bello could barely get off the bench in Waco. And when he did it was usually for mop-up minutes.
"If he was upset, it didn't last very long," head coach Scott Drew said."He wasn't getting to play, so he went out and did something about it. He made himself better."
Indeed, for the first time in his career, Bello began to take pride in the little things, the under-appreciated hustle plays that can make such a big difference in a close game. Bello became a factor on the offensive glass and improved his passing. Instead of trying to do too much on offense, Bello deferred to scorers such as Pierre Jackson, Quincy Acy, Perry Jones and Quincy Miller.
"But the biggest thing," Bello said,"was that I started playing defense. I had never really done that in high school. I didn't really need to. But toward the end of last year I really got to see how big of a factor I could be on the other end of the court."
All of a sudden a guy who didn't even log a minute in eight of his team's 12 games from late December to early February had become a factor during the most crucial point of the season.
Bello averaged 15.4 minutes in Baylor's final six contests, which included a Big 12 tournament victory over Kansas in Kansas City and four games in the Bears' march to the Elite Eight.
"The light just came on for him," said Miller, who had played with Bello since high school and is now with the Denver Nuggets."He still hasn't come close to showing people how good he can be."
It's looking more and more as if Bello will have increased opportunities to do that this season.
Baylor's coach said no player has shown as much improvement as Bello during the offseason. He has tightened his handle, worked on his outside shot -- which was never a strength -- and become a better passer.
"The strides are noticeable," Drew said."It's all happening because of his work ethic. He's spending a lot of time in the gym and his skill level has really improved."
Bello is hardly guaranteed a starting position. In fact, it's likely he'll come off the bench for the second straight season.
With Jackson at point guard and Brady Heslip returning on the wing, Baylor should have one of the top backcourts in college basketball in 2012-13.
And also one of the deepest.
Along with Bello, the Bears return two other guards (A.J. Walton and Gary Franklin) who played extended minutes last season. Also in the mix is highly touted freshman L.J. Rose. Bello said Rose is "one of the best passers I've ever played with."
More and more these days, Bello is hearing compliments like that as well. Only now, the praise is more about his well-roundedness.
And not just his ability to dunk.
"Don't worry," he said."I can still do that, too."