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Area player explodes onto basketball scene

Published Sep. 3, 2005

Renaldo Balkman is doing it backward. Yet his career is skyrocketing forward.

Typically, a talented young athlete in a high-profile sport becomes a big name locally. With continued hard work, he or she might gain national recognition.

Balkman bypassed Phase 1 and emerged squarely in Phase 2.

This summer, Balkman, a native of Temple Terrace who didn't play a basketball game during his first three years of high school due to bad grades, has crashed the AAU circuit.

An explosive, 6-foot-7 small forward, Balkman is starring for the Tallahassee Wildcats at major tournaments.

He has bolted up the recruiting rankings., Hoop Scoop and PrepStars have him rated among the top five seniors in Florida and top 100 nationally. PrepStars is the most impressed. It ranks Balkman No. 1 in Florida and No. 27 nationally.

"You rarely find sleepers these days," said Tony Tucker, Balkman's coach at the Pendleton School, part of the burgeoning IMG Academies campus in Bradenton. "The world's so small. There are so many media outlets. But this kid, he's a true sleeper.

"There are people in Florida who still don't know who he is even though he's the best player in the state."

Tucker said well more than 20 major Division I schools have shown a "tremendous amount of interest" in Balkman, who grew up about two minutes from South Florida, including the big state schools (USF, Florida State, Miami and Florida) and others such as Connecticut, Tennessee, St. John's, Missouri and Charlotte.

Wednesday at the Super Showcase AAU tournament at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, USF assistant David Zimroth was among several college coaches watching Balkman's team.

"The attention from colleges, getting to play finally, it's a good feeling," Balkman said after scoring 19 points and providing some highlight reel dunks and blocks during an 80-76 upset loss to a team from St. Petersburg's Childs Park.

"From what I was doing (a year ago) to what I'm doing now, that's a great experience."

Scholastic disinterest nearly scuttled Balkman's basketball dreams. A graduate of Franklin Middle School, he attended Armwood in Seffner for one year and Blake in Tampa for two but never had a high enough grade-point average to be eligible.

Last summer, his behavior _ and his life _ changed. Balkman's mentor, Chris Ward, a friend of his father's and the athletic coordinator at the Youth Opportunity Program in Tampa, met Tucker through a mutual friend.

Ward, a star player at Bradenton Southeast during the late 1980s, intended to use his connections to help Tucker schedule games for his first-year basketball program.

He also suggested Tucker take a look at Balkman. Tucker was sold instantly.

"The thing that put a light on in my head about him was that he's never been in any trouble," Tucker said. "He wasn't hanging with bad people, getting in trouble, going to jail. He just wouldn't do his schoolwork when it needed to be done.

"And he saw that at his age (Balkman turned 18 on July 14), he had to take advantage of it now or he might never get a chance to play at the next level."

Pendleton, in its second year, and the new basketball academy did wonders for Balkman.

He repeated his junior year, cracked down academically, became eligible (Tucker said his GPA is "hovering around 3.0") and averaged 23 points, 12 rebounds and 5 blocks.

"I took charge of things," said Balkman, who credits Ward with helping him stay on track. "It's a college-type atmosphere down there. And there's discipline. You do wrong, and you're out."

"A lot of it was immaturity," Ward said. "This past year, he's come so far. He's changed a lot. His habits have changed. Imagine what he'll be like next year."

Balkman is a polished player who attacks the basket with gusto, showing no indications he has played little organized basketball.

"I played on my father's team in an adult league when I was real young. I think that's why I learned to play aggressive," Balkman said. "I got used to getting bumped around."

On a Wildcats team with prized prospects such as Lakeland Kathleen's Chris Richard, who has committed to Florida, and Tallahassee Leon's Akini Adkins, Balkman fits right in.

Balkman's springboard onto the national scene had the gurus scrambling to evaluate him. Hoop Scoop's Clark Francis, who watched Balkman play last week at the Peach Jam in Augusta, Ga., rates him No. 71 in the nation.

"He's athletic, versatile, mobile. He's just a multidimensional player," Francis said. "He needs to up the intensity, but so do a lot of guys at this stage. And he needs to work on his (3-point shot)."

Balkman said a ligament injury to his right (shooting) thumb has hindered his outside shooting this summer, and Tucker called him a very good outside shooter.

Plus with his broad shoulders, the 195-pound Balkman has the frame to comfortably carry more weight. An SEC assistant said Balkman has the tools to be a starter in that league, and with an improved 3-point shot, he could be an all-conference player.

The final step for Balkman is achieving the requisite college test score. He is preparing to take the ACT during the fall.

"He's ready to take that on. He's really stepped it up in the classroom," Tucker said. "He's a major-college player, no doubt.

"And he's going to have a great story to tell about how he got there."