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Column: No ceiling on talent of Tampa Prep's Juwan Durham

Division I colleges already covet Juwan Durham’s height — the Tampa Prep 10th grader is 6 feet, 10 inches — and his obvious skill set.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Division I colleges already covet Juwan Durham’s height — the Tampa Prep 10th grader is 6 feet, 10 inches — and his obvious skill set.

TAMPA

His high school career began in a tiny gymnasium in Naples, his first points coming off — predictably — a dunk.

But any kid who is pushing 6 feet, 10 inches can dunk.

It's how Tampa Prep's Juwan Durham got there that made it impressive, starting on the other end of the court by drifting down toward the basket and altering a shot, blocking the putback and in one smooth motion grabbing the outlet pass and heading up court.

He was 14 years old, all arms and legs in a gangly body, yet he deftly dribbled twice, went behind his back at the 3-point line, took two long strides and put the ball back in his right hand for the slam.

The whole thing, starting with the block, took six seconds.

Larry Durham watched his son and thought: Okay, so much for adjusting to the high school game.

"When big guys can do that," he said, "that's pretty special."

Plays like those make people dream of Juwan's potential, and his future.

Where will he go to college and how many years will he play there? What position will he play in the NBA, and how great can he be?

"I really don't think about it," Juwan says of the hype, the recruiting rankings, the colleges, the NBA. "I'm just trying to enjoy things now."

• • •

Juwan wants to enjoy this, because it wasn't easy getting here, where he can block a shot, dribble behind his back and dunk in one fell swoop.

He was born big, 9 pounds and 22 inches — "So big, oh my goodness," said his mom, Charisse Hargrett. And, like most tall kids, he struggled growing into his body.

"I was the biggest, goofiest person around. It was sad," said Juwan, now a sophomore. "I actually used to get picked on all the time about it."

When Juwan would complain to his mother about towering over the other kids, she would explain that he was blessed.

"For a long time I hated being tall," said Juwan, who now jokes with people who ask if he plays basketball that, no, he actually is into swimming and bowling.

He was clumsy as a kid, but as he figured out how the long pieces of his body worked together, he began to shine.

As a quarterback and wide receiver, he once caught 30 touchdown passes for the West Tampa Spartans. Other middle school basketball teams hated to play against him, and parents wanted to see a birth certificate.

"I get goose bumps all the time, watching him," Hargrett said.

Eventually he just grew too tall for football, which was fine. Larry Durham and his brother, Cornelius, played basketball at Plant High, and Juwan grew up wearing their old practice jerseys and shorts as he shot alongside them at Kate Jackson and West Pines parks, and the Interbay YMCA.

"I always thought I'd end up at Plant," Juwan said. "I fantasized about it."

But when the opportunity to play at Tampa Prep presented itself, Hargrett said there was little debate because of the school's academic reputation, her first requirement for her son's future.

Playing for one of the state's best basketball coaches didn't hurt either. Juwan's reputation preceded him to Tampa Prep, and he was offered by USF before his first day in school.

"I thought I was okay, but I didn't think I was the hottest thing on the street," he said. "I really didn't pay any attention to that stuff. I was the new kid; I just wanted to fit in."

Without Tampa Prep running a single play for him, Juwan led the team in scoring as a freshman. Coach Joe Fenlon was careful not to put any pressure on him, to ease him in, even if the pressure was there to turn him loose.

Hargrett took great efforts to protect him. That job got harder after last summer, when Juwan exploded on the AAU circuit.

"It was really hectic. Everybody was grabbing for him," she said. "It scares me a little bit."

Playing against the best prospects in the country, he showed off a full repertoire of skills unseen in many big men.

"The kid was born to play basketball," said Jordan Fair, one of his AAU coaches. "He's got such a good feel for the game, and his basketball IQ is so high. He's really good, man."

His talent attracted offers from all the Florida schools, Louisville, Indiana and many others. "Everyone who comes by and watches him offers him." Fenlon said.

This season, Juwan has asserted himself for the Terrapins, seeded first in this week's Class 3A, District 7 tournament. He is averaging 20.6 points, 11.8 rebounds and six blocks a game. He is shooting 74 percent from the field, has 18 double doubles, and had triple doubles in three straight games in January, with 11, 15 and 11 blocks.

And this, says everyone who knows and watches him, is only the surface, and it's just being scratched. It boggles the mind that there are still two years of high school ball for him to play.

"All of us are chickens, and Juwan is an eagle," his father said. "He has to do some adjusting. But he's starting to see that a normal life is probably not going to happen."

Juwan doesn't want to be your everyday big man, to dominate merely by what he was given at birth. In a world where the traditional center is disappearing, Durham spends hours and hours on his game, his dribbling, his footwork. He wants to play the wing, where his idols Kevin Durant and LeBron James reside.

The bigger he gets, the harder it is for coaches to resist playing him in the post.

"I absolutely hate that," he said. "It's like caging a beast."

Fenlon keeps the door to that cage wide open.

Larry Durham had a great grandfather named Henry, a farmer in southern Georgia, who stood 7 feet; Juwan says his mom's family tree has a 7-footer as well.

But 6-10 seems to suit him just fine, no hindrance to effortlessly blocking a shot, taking an outlet pass, dribbling behind his back and slamming down two points in six seconds.

"I think by the time he's done," Fenlon said, "he'll be the best to ever come out of Tampa Bay."

John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@tampabay.com. Find him on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.

Column: No ceiling on talent of Tampa Prep's Juwan Durham 02/03/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 3, 2014 8:44pm]

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