Tony Wroten Stays Home

Before he was the Huskies star freshman, Wroten was Seattle's next big thing.
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Drew Sellers / Huskies Basketball App

Tony Wroten was the last player to show at University of Washington basketball media day back in October. Many of the writers and television cameras were already preoccupied with other players when Wroten swaggered off the elevator. He headed over to a plush chair and sat.

It was a rare lull for Wroten, whose hoops ambition, and talent, have been on public display since elementary school.

After the usual nonsense associated with recruitment, Wrote chose his hometown school. He treks around campus in gray USA basketball sweats, multiple phones attached to his sagging waistband. Yet to play a game at the time, Wroten mostly answered questions about how, at 18, he was already polarizing.

Most opinions about Wroten were formed from minimal observation and maximum hearsay. His bad decision-making with the ball and on Twitter stunned at times. The anticipation was Wroten would be a mediocre teammate. Rarely admonished in high school, Wroten’s ball dominating ways would have to be folded into a team hunting a NCAA tournament berth.

This season, Wroten has emerged as an amalgamation of flash and style. He’s the firebrand of this year’s Huskies, a player who is alternately amazing and enraging. He’ll be the Pac-12 Conference Freshman of the Year. He should be in the conference player of the year discussion.

It may be the only season of the Tony Wroten Show, but it’s had no shortage of water cooler moments.

***

Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar never doubted Wroten’s talent. More important, he’s always been sure the good would outweigh the bad with Wroten.

“I’ve never thought it the other way,” Romar said. “There have been some that have turned the corner because they were bad once. I’ve never looked at it that way with (with Tony).

“I’ve always felt like if he comes here, it’s going to be a special time.”

Romar often backtracks to Sacramento Kings guard Isaiah Thomas when trying to explain Wroten.

“When we got Isaiah, people were saying, ‘OK, how difficult has it been?’ ” Romar said. “Isaiah never talked back to me one time in three years.”

It took Wroten three games. Against Portland in November, Wroten was called to the sideline by Romar. Romar told him to pick up his defense. Walking away, Wroten half turned back and said something to Romar. Romar called timeout, then spoke to Wroten separately. Each dismissed the exchange as a non-event, labeling it a simple discussion about defense. It hasn’t happened again.

Washington assistant coach Raphael Chillious, who chased Wroten down the recruiting trail, thinks the freshman sometimes defies easy explanation.

“He’s sort of like the enigma that people have talked about,” Chillious said. “What I would explain to them is he’s probably one of the toughest kids you’ll ever meet.”

Everyone knows Wroten is the spotlight’s focus, both in the national media and among locals, who have been talking about Wroten’s game for years now. His game is the subject of ongoing chatter, scrutinized by people who have seen too little of it and those who have seen too much.

“It’s the toughest thing to deal with because you want to please everybody,” Abdul Gaddy, also from Tacoma, about 30 minutes south of Seattle, and surrounded by hype as the second-ranked point guard when he came to Washington, said. “Sometimes it doesn’t happen that way. He has to keep grinding each day.

“I think the main thing is not to think about it, which is the hardest thing because it’s all out there. You want to read the paper and people talk about you. You want to watch TV and people talk about you.”

Chillious told Wroten early in the season to seal in his thoughts. Part of this was tamping down his activity on Twitter. Wroten was no longer a high school star; he was a blue-chip freshman. He was still the local hero, but the stakes had changed.

“Best way is be internal,” Chillious said. “When I’m saying be internal, be internal to your team first, then listen to yourself inside.

“You know what you are doing and what you’re not doing, and everyone is going to think they know who you are because they have seen one or two of your games, but they don’t know who you are every day.”

Wroten’s on-court histrionics have invited assessments as much as his talents. He’s felt the glare.

“When I was young, I was always wondering, like, man, am I ever going to be a regular person?” Wroten said at the start of the season. “For me to complain, it’s just wrong for me … my good outweighs the bad at all times.

“I don’t really complain about not being a regular kid because God blessed me to be … everybody different. I’m just fortunate enough to be in the limelight.”

***

After 21 games, Wroten’s stat line is swollen: 17.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 3.0 personal fouls, 4.0 turnovers. But he has been all over the place. One massive end-game gaffe. One game-saving play. When a fed-up Romar told the team he was shortening its leash early in the season against Houston Baptist, he used Wroten to prove the point. Following a second no-look, negative-result pass, Wroten—whose court vision was one of his biggest selling points in high school—was yanked from the game. When he returned, he threw an accurate no-look. He penetrated and dropped a two-handed bounce pass to Gaddy, appearing to fight ingrained fibers in doing so. He dribbled in, then pulled back.

Now midway through conference play, his evolution is apparent. Wroten saved a road win for Washington last weekend when he blocked the game-winning attempt by Arizona’s Josiah Turner. After switching against a pick, Wroten tracked down on help defense for the swat to end it. Help defense is as sexy as a hobbit. Wroten came through with the dazzle two days earlier when he crammed over a grounded Arizona State defender. Quickly, ESPN was cutting the tape to enter into its top 10.

There’s more to Wroten’s progression than making plays, though. He’s the emotional fuel for his team. He’s quick to show during any on-floor dust up a teammate is involved in. He’s relentless in the lane. Really, he’s a tough son of a bitch on the floor. Not exactly prima donna behavior.

Wroten had a game four days after landing on his tailbone and elbow at the start of Pac-12 Conference play. He was aching, and asked postgame what the chances were of him missing the next game.

“Negative eight percent,” he said.

But, as expected, his jump shot is a non-starter. Wroten made two 3-pointers in three tries against Saint Louis, though that is an aberration. He’s shooting 22.5 percent from 3 this season. He’s also been putrid at the free-throw line, shooting 55.3 percent.

This troubles NBA scouts, scouts who have had Wroten on their radar so long it’s unseemly. Currently, Wroten’s game revolves around going left. When he goes right, he’s doing so to get back left. It’s an exclusive arrangement. Yet he has been able to in 20 games this season. Only California’s wily Jorge Gutierrez slowed Wroten’s left. Twice Gutierrez drew charges by jumping Wroten’s pre-determined left-handed move. If Wroten was behind the 3-point line, Cal backed off as if he was about to burst into flames.

“We talked about it,” Gutierrez said. “We knew he was not that comfortable shooting the ball, so we tried to stay as far (away) as we could and help defense more to other players.”

Wroten insists players backing off him just makes it easier to get the rim. Truth is, it doesn’t matter, because he’s going either way, off the dribble or from the post. If he misses in close, he’s sticking that back in, too.

***

Romar insists he wants players who are irritated when removed from the game, and explained who’s more troubling to deal with when that occurs.

“Parents are the ones who go crazy,” Romar said. “They have an unrealistic expectation of what’s actually supposed to happen.”

The same affliction trickles through fans and attaches itself to renowned players. Especially emotional ones, like Wroten. The blind faith discounts the errors he still makes. The dismissal of his massive talent and unwillingness to accept first-year mistakes is unfair to him. Basketball expectation is a slanted judiciary. Wroten has become a divisive figure, but knows where he stands.

“For me, I can be liked or be hated,” Wroten said. “I’m definitely not one of those bad guys. I just live my life, and, hopefully, more people like me than not.”


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