ST. PETERSBURG — There were times last season when Gibbs’ Sajon Ford was pushed around, when his jump shot did not fall, when his confidence sagged.
It was enough to cost Ford his job as a starter.
But it was not enough to deter college coaches.
By developing a game to match his 6-foot-11 frame, the power forward has gone through a remarkable transformation this summer, his progress measured in 3-point shots, adept passes and good court vision.
In the past two weeks, the junior has gone from an unknown to one of the hottest basketball recruits in the bay area with offers from Auburn, Butler, James Madison, Florida Gulf Coast, George Mason and Xavier.
“I was surprised to have so many offers this summer,” Ford said. “All I wanted to do was continue to improve and develop. It was pretty neat to see all these coaches scribbling down notes and going over to the scorer’s table to find out what my name was.”
Colleges swooned because of his height. Ford, who has seven brothers and three sisters, comes from a tall family. His older brother, Quincy, the Times’ all-Pinellas County and all-Suncoast player of the year in 2011, is 6-foot-9 and starts for Northeastern University.
“Really, anything below 6-foot-4 is short to me,” Ford said.
Sajon is the tallest member of his family — and still growing. He is a curiosity on campus and the subject of awe among opponents whenever he walks into a gymnasium.
“I’ve averaged growing about 2 inches in height every year for a while,” Ford said. “I think I can reach 7 foot. That’s what my mom already calls me.”
Such size can also have drawbacks. Ford’s joints, especially his knees, are under considerable stress, so much that he was unable to play in the summer three years ago.
The growing pains also have extended to the court. During his first two years in high school, Ford was still trying to catch up to how fast his body was growing. As a freshman, he was last among players in sprints.
Still, his height warranted a varsity spot. Last season, he earned a spot as a starter but was benched the second half of the season. He finished the season averaging 1.9 points and 2.2 rebounds per game.
“I felt like Sajon was progressing,” Gibbs coach Larry Murphy said. “But I think it was hard for him to see that because he wasn’t scoring a lot. His confidence suffered because of that. The points will come. It just takes time.”
This summer, Ford has worked with former St. Petersburg Catholic standout Aaron Holmes, and former Admiral Farragut and Florida star Marreese Speights, a seven-year NBA veteran who recently signed with Golden State Warriors.
“Aaron and Marreese have really helped a lot,” Ford said. “They pick me up and encourage me. But they don’t sugar coat anything either. They get on me pretty hard when I mess up.”
The biggest improvement in Ford’s game has been on the perimeter. In one travel game, he hit five straight 3-pointers. But Ford isn’t content to just stand back and shoot. He knows he’ll have to play under the basket at times to take advantage of his size.
This month, he has been working with Speights to master the complex choreography of drop-steps, up-and-unders and hook shots.
“Sajon is probably more advanced along the perimeter than I was at his age,” Speights said. “I was probably more established down low. But he has grown so much as a player. To see where he is now from where he started as a freshman, you wouldn’t know it’s the same player.
“The offers will still come, even bigger ones, too, because there aren’t too many 6-11 players with the skill set that Sajon has.”
One last stand
Family reasons kept River Ridge center John Childs from showcasing his abilities during the July evaluation period, so the North Suncoast’s top basketball prospect will have to rely on his impressive resume and growing frame to land any future college offers.
“It’s my last year, so I’ve got to do everything I can do,” Childs said.
Childs spent the early part of the summer traveling to tournaments in Orlando, Tennessee and Georgia for the Showtime Ballers. Since the AAU season ended, he’s bulked up in the weight room, adding more muscle to his 6-foot-9, 235-pound body.
He dominated Pasco County last winter, averaging 19 points, 10 rebounds and 6 blocks and earning all-North Suncoast honors as a junior.
Childs holds offers from Jacksonville and American University and has received recent interest from Georgia Southern, Miami (Ohio) and Florida Gulf Coast. Childs took an unofficial visit to FGCU last season, as the Eagles were earning their Dunk City nickname en route to a trip to the Sweet 16.
“It’s crazy,” said Childs, who has no timetable for announcing his college decision.
Clearly, the nation’s upper-crust college programs are projecting Tampa Prep’s Juwan Durham (6-9, 180) to eventually bulk up, which explains why his list of offers already has.
“Indiana, Louisville, Florida, Miami, LSU, FSU, USF — that’s just this week,” Terrapins coach Joe Fenlon said. “You name it, he’s probably been offered. I just talked to (North) Carolina (Thursday). They haven’t offered, but they’re coming down in the fall to see him.”
Riding the momentum of a sparkling effort in the Southeast Basketball Academy summer league for Tampa Prep, Durham has continued to shine for Team Breakdown, his AAU squad.
A rising sophomore, he competed in two tournaments each in Las Vegas and Atlanta, earning YouTube viral status in the latter with a tomahawk dunk over a defender. ESPN ranks him the nation’s No. 17 prospect in the class of 2016.
“I just think it’s a confidence factor,” Fenlon said of Durham’s progress this summer.
“I think he came in with a really good set of skills, and coming off a very successful freshman year for us kind of catapulted him. …In high school you’re playing against 19-year-olds, whereas in AAU you’re playing your own age level.”
• After shining at a Nike Team Florida workout last fall, East Bay’s 5-foot-11 floor leader, Jon Jean, earned a spot on the prominent travel squad this summer and has maximized the opportunity.
“Real good summer,” said East Bay coach Billy Teeden, who watched Jean lead the Indians to a 21-6 season last winter. “He made some noise before in Atlanta at one of the summer shootouts there, and he’s continued on. He showed he can run with the big guys basically.”
Jean, who averaged 14.2 points and 4.4 assists as a sophomore last season, recently received his first official offer, from Northern Arizona. Teeden said several more programs — West Virginia, Alabama, Florida Gulf Coast, Army — are showing interest.
• St. Petersburg’s Dayon Griffin, a 6-foot-4 senior guard, picked up offers from Division II state schools such as Eckerd and Rollins in the spring.
But after a summer of shining in elite travel tournaments and team camps, Griffin’s stock has soared. In the past month, he has been offered by Alabama, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Memphis and USF.
Staff writers Matt Baker and Joey Knight contributed to this report.