Friday, May 30, 2014

High-Rising Rodriguez Shines At Frankie Williams Charity Classic


Less than a minute had ticked off after Desi Rodriguez checked into Thursday night's Frankie Williams Charity Classic, but the eye contact from teammate Isaiah Whitehead had been established.

Consider it an aerial alert.

Whitehead located Rodriguez, the Pippen to his Jordan at Lincoln High in Coney Island this past winter, drifting around the key. Whitehead reacted instantly, floating a lob pass near the basket.

His future Seton Hall teammate levitated above two defenders, plucked it and punched in a ferocious double-fisted dunk. The wowing play, routine for this tandem, drew an assortment of excitement throughout Theodore Young Community Center in Greenburgh.

Whitehead and Rodriguez' Team Desire lost to Team Inspire, in a 123-121 thriller, underscored by highlight reel theatrics and streetball-esque flash anticipated for this annual All-Star game.

Desire chopped down a 12-point third quarter deficit, only to crumble on a final possession.

Whitehead scored 35 points, on the full arsenal of deep 3-pointers, drives, pull-ups and violent transition dunks.

Like a quarterback routinely pegging darts to his no.1 receiver, Whitehead knows where to feed Rodriguez on the court at all times. He's well-schooled on the range of spots to whizz the pass. Because of the bouncy athleticism of Rodriguez, Whitehead knows he can hoist up a few risky ones here and there.

There were several 11th hour roster adjustments and replacements, albeit the Division-I starpower shined throughout.

Syracuse-bound Chris McCullough (26 points), a versatile 6-foot-10 forward and Adonis De La Rosa (12 points), a 6-foot-11 behemoth expected to provide a low-post presence at St. John's, were featured.

Christ The King Sophomore Rawle Alkins, who looks more and more like Lance Stephenson with a more fluid jumper, bagged MVP honors, turning in 34 points.

A  6-foot-6 southpaw who thrives around and above the rim, Rodriguez has been the beneficiary of Whitehead's routine surgical lobs since transferring to Lincoln from Frederick Douglas Academy in the Bronx following his sophomore year.

 Even if he doesn't finish with an emphatic flush, as he's known to do, Rodriguez extends that left hand and lays it in. His experience in converting those lobs into buckets, even those hard-to-reach lobs sailing wide of the rim, renders him such a high-percentage threat.

Expect much of the same at Seton Hall, where the Pirates look to renew the winning ways set by the exiled Bobby Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, the coach of Team Inspire on Thursday, wasn't always the calmest dog in the kennel.

Still, Gonzalez' hyper-energetic style and tireless recruiting helped Seton Hall land recruits such as Jeremy "The Cab Driver" Hazell (2,000+ scorer with NBA 3-point territory range and beyond, 41-point game at WVU, 30 or more five times) and Eugene Harvey.

Both did not have the national ranking, hype and heavy expectations, but made good on Gonzo and Derm Player's offers. They capitalized on the instant impact opportunity that every recruit longs for.

Of course, the Big East was arguably the nation's best conference during that regime, with a rapid merry-go-round of NBA emergent in each program.

Names such as AJ Price (UCONN), Hasheem Thabeet (UConn), DeJuan Blair (PITT), Da'Sean Butler (West Virginia), Luke Harangody (Notre Dame), Kyle McAlarney (Notre Dame) Wesley Matthews (Marquette), Greg Monroe (Georgetown) Dominique Jones (South Florida), Yancy Gates (Cincy) and Lance Stephenson (Cincy) were the quintessential physical, battle-tested weapons and poster boys of the conference during that epoch.

The Big East has since been watered down, significantly.

Whitehead, a prolific scoring guard, and Rodriguez will prolong their careers under Kevin Willard.

A Rick Pitino disciple, Willard has pieced just one winning season in four years.

The Pirates went 21-13, advancing to the second round of the NIT in 2011-2012.

They lose highly-decorated senior Fuquan Edwin, a noted defensive pest with a funky slingshot cock-back jumper.

 Edwin, a marginal draft prospect, had a 22-point performance (9-for-16 FG) during the Portsmith Invitational Tournament.

NBA-bound or not, Edwin has significant opportunity to earn decent wages playing professionally.

Edwin's departure opens the seams for the two-man foundation of Whitehead and Rodriguez. They are lethal for their chemistry.

"We clicked after my first week (at Lincoln)," said Rodriguez.

"We started to know how we play really after the first week. Our balling off the court in the off-season helped us on the court. It's a bond both on and off the court. Isaiah is a very unselfish guard, so whenever I call for the ball or I'm open I know he's going to find me."

When Whitehead leaks out in transition and spots Rodriguez either ahead of him or trailing, there's no question where the rock is going.

"That's the only play we look to," explained Rodriguez.

"Whenever we're on the break, I know he's going to throw it up. I'm always ready to jump. It's natural."

This past season, Rodriguez worked at creating his shot off the dribble. He's adapting to a new role as a better ball handler. He said he's becoming more comfortable with his mid-range jumper.

 In a one-year span, Rodriguez' stock as an all-around threat multiplied. Lincoln assistant coach Kenny Pretlow, who like Tiny is a staunch advocate of developing secondary players while opposing over-reliance on star power, worked with Desi on creating his shot and integral catch-and-stick tactics.

Whitehead wowed Thursday's crowd. He never stopped whipping it up court in transition or finding Rodriguez through traffic.

This connection helped solidify Rodriguez' decision to attend Seton Hall, where he will wear his no.20 for the Pirates next season.

"I wanted to go to a college where I can play with a guard who knows how I play and can set me up," Rodriguez explained.

"Just making that decision, I mean it was one of the toughest decisions I've ever made. I'm happy about it."

Rodriguez began carving his niche as a veritable double-double machine at FDA. As a sophomore, he feasted on cupcake caliber competition, averaging 28 points and 17 boards.

 Rarely was he challenged. At his desire to flee the baller-barren Bronx and rapidly adapt to the wing, Rodriguez transferred to Lincoln.

He was well-versed on the potent tradition of the program that's produced Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, and Lance Stephenson.

It only took one week to establish, but this basketball brotherhood has Seton Hall looking like a consistent contender for the long haul.