Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Saving Matt Ryan: Hotly-Pursued Recruit Chomping At The Bit To Return

Matt Ryan recalls long afternoons and nights spent between himself and the 10-foot driveway rim in his Cortlandt Manor home, a stone's skip from Main Street.

Before he was one of the nation's most aggressively-pursued class of 2015 prospects, with high-majors steadily upping their interest in the 6-foot-7, 220-pound kick-out shooter, Ryan piled up shots for hours and hours and hours, backing up beyond his own chalk-inscribed 3-point line.

Encased in the Duke jersey of J.J. Redick, Ryan's boyhood idol, countless shooting sessions were sliced short when his mother, Laurie Ryan, called him inside and demanded he complete his homework.

 When Laurie Ryan once threatened to confiscate her son's lone basketball if he didn't hurry inside, Ryan recalls storming into the front door as if the Devil was chasing him.

"When I was learning the game, all I could do was shoot and pull off cross-overs," Ryan said.

"Literally throughout third grade I went to non-stop camps and clinics. If you ask my coaches and teammates from elementary school, they'll tell you I used to come down and pull up from inside half court. I just loved shooting the basketball. I wanted to keep getting better and model my shot after J.J. (Redick)."

Ryan's ahead-of-his-years game grew as rapidly as his Division-I stock these past two seasons.

By seventh grade, Ryan was 5-foot-10 and the starting point guard for Hen Hud's J.V. team.

 Playing for New Heights AAU his sophomore seasons accelerated Ryan's maturation process, preparing him against the nation's elite.

His sophomore year at Iona Prep, Ryan stretched out defenses with limitless, NBA-area range that had Dan Majerle and Casey Jacobsen comparisons floating around gyms. Ryan averaged 18 points, six boards, and three assists as the centerpiece of a young core in 2012-13.

Eight games into his junior year, Ryan's blend of stats (19 PPG, 8RPG, 4APG), academics (3.8 GPA, Honor Roll, his two lowest grades being a 93 in English 3 Honors and a 92 in PreCalc) and fearless range turned moderate interest from Princeton, George Mason, Davidson, and UPenn into heavy hounding from Duke, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Michigan, Marquette and myriad others.

Ryan's ability to quickly deposit Ty Jerome and Tom Capuano's dishes into deft 3-point grenades rendered him a linchpin in Vic Quirolo's system, which emphasizes fluid ball movement and spacing.

Following a 24-point performance during a 56-46 victory over Spring Valley in the Slam Dunk Challenge, which saw him bag Tournament MVP honors, Ryan was on the periphery of basketball nirvana.

The Gaels' game plan, devised to stall Spring Valley's triumvirate of Rickey McGill, Kai Mitchell, and Jy'Quan Boykin, was an effective one.

 Steady interest in Ryan kept rising. Bigger schools, with national fanfare and star-encrusted recruiting classes, kept surfacing.

Then, Ryan's road to success curved into a giant pothole.

A depressing episode, one Ryan hopes to forget and vows to never revisit, emerged.

Impingment with torn labrums on both sides forced Ryan to shut it down for the season.

His spirits were dampened.

Those intense flames of excitement, evident from when Ryan rushed home from elementary school to shovel his snow-blanketed driveway and fire up countless shots, dwindled.

The last three months, Ryan's competitive edge has grown. He's stoked with confidence and a desire to prove he's as good as projected.

Ryan loathes ranking systems.

He rarely doles out praise.

Nothing infuriates him as much as guys taking plays off or sleepwalking during games, he explained.

While he was ensconced on the bench, draped in street clothes, on a hiatus from his livelihood, Ryan burned and ached inside.

 After two surgeries with Dr. Bryan Kelly, a Manhattan-based arthroscopic hip surgeon, the pain is gone.

Kelly performed the same surgery on former Kennedy Catholic and Providence star Donnie McGrath two years ago.

 After going under the knife, Ryan's mentality changed. He became possessed by the desire to make up for lost time.

Ryan recently set up a regulation-measured college 3-point arc, accompanied by a foul line dotting the same driveway hoop that devoured his childhood.

Road To Recovery

The past few mornings, Ryan has been up earlier than usual. From 8 a.m. on, he's launching away.

"At first I was just on the gun getting shots up," he explained.

"I'm doing skill work now. One-on-one moves, with some lateral movement and jumping. I'm getting back into it. I've got another month, month and a half to go. My injury, it was due to extra bones. So basically, the injury isn't there anymore. I got that bone taken out. Now I'm good to go. I've just got to get used to having more range of motion. I've got to get more flexible, because I have that range of motion."

He's not the only one banking on a timely return.

"Today alone, I spoke with coach (Martin) Inglesby from Notre Dame for about 20 minutes. I spoke with coach (Johnny) Dawkins from Stanford for about 5-10 minutes. Tonight, I'm getting on the phone with coach (Jon) Scheyer from Duke. Coach Wojo (Steve Wojciechokski) went to Marquette and they offered me. He's shown a lot of interest, his whole staff has. Creighton is calling me all the time, texting me all the time. I still have a great relationship with Coach (Larry) Greer at Arizona State."

Ryan rattles off James Harden, 2014 NBA champion Manu Ginobli, Paul Pierce, and Joe Johnson as professionals he's taken note of this spring.

"Just the way they play, they're very smooth, they're very crafty, they usually get the shot they want," Ryan said.

"I've really been working on that. I've actually started playing one-on-one. Even now, without elevating, I can get the shot I want playing against guys who are completely healthy. I'm just gaining a lot of confidence in my game. All my jump shooting has been standing still and all arms."

Staying Or Going? 

It happened every day, like lunch and study hall.

Friends, strangers, inquiring minds from all across Westchester County and New York City would approach Ryan.

On the street. In the hallway at Iona Prep. At the County Center.

The similar pattern of questions, they never seem to stop.

Over and over and over again, they come.

"Are you coming back during AAU season?"

"Is the injury going to affect your recruiting?"

"Are you doing a post-graduate year?"

All those leaking voices and repetitive questions have been replaced.

The primary question smothering Ryan now?

Whether he'll return to Iona Prep or pursue greener pastures on the prep powerhouse route.

If he stays, Ryan has an inside shot at winning a Catholic League championship and potentially a New York State championship.

 He'd surface as an early favorite for Mr. Basketball.

Flanked by the aforementioned Capuano and burgeoning Division-I prospect Jerome at point guard, the Gaels are already laced with veteran swagger.

Schools such as Monteverde Academy, a traditional Division-I breeding house in Florida, are enticing as ever.

There is a national schedule, mega fanfare, a chance to play on national television on a roster soaked with high-end talent.

 The major decision cooking on Ryan's front burner is not his future NCAA destination.

It's whether he'll continue at Iona Prep or weigh numerous prep options.

"I'm really torn on whether to leave or to stay (at Iona Prep)," Ryan said.

"There's a lot of positives of going back. There's also a lot of positives in going to a school like Monteverde, or a school like Huntington Prep (WV), or Our Savior New American, or Brewster Academy. Any of these prep schools, where you're playing against top players every day and just getting ready for college, there's an advantage. The advantages and disadvantages of both are really equal."

Ryan just wishes the upcoming decision was as easy as leaving Hen Hud, bolting for a unique challenge at Iona Prep.

Watching former Iona Prep poster boys Brian Voelkel (Vermont) crash the boards, witnessing Sandro Carissimo (Vermont) pocket 3-pointers, seeing Jordan Bronner (New Hampshire) orchestrate the tempo, Ryan was enamored with the Gaels' extra-pass style of play.

He followed his heart. Sacrifices were made. Every day, he woke up at 6 a.m. and made the 45-minute trek to Iona. After school and after practice, he'd typically get a ride from his grandparents. His off-seasons were spent traversing the country, plying his trade on the AAU circuit.

His Cortlandt Manor comfort zone, where everything seemed funneled down to him, evaporated.

He left the familiar confines of Northern Westchester. He was a long ways from the Brewster Sports Center, where folks still bring up oceanic-deep shots he hit as a young kid.

Iona Prep had a significant and seductive recruiting tool for Ryan. The Gaels' gym hosted Ryan's Westchester Hawks AAU team for County Championship games.

The incoming senior said he'll decide on a 2014-15 high school destination in about a week or two.

 Word around Westchester's campfire has it,  Ryan already has both feet out the door, the keys in the moving truck with no intention on even glancing in the rearview.

Back At It

When he arrives at full health, Ryan is eager to shed the notion that he's a one-dimensional threat.

He's already making grand plans to put the ball on the deck more, create off the dribble, wait for the right shot and spot up from the parking lot.

Ball handling is the main element of his game he's worked to refine.

The uptick in transfer rumors have put Ryan under a microscope. The physical therapy sessions have been a constant.

Serving as a de facto coach under Quirolo and traveling with the Albany City Rocks to scout highly-regarded recruits on the EYBL circuit, Ryan has remained engaged despite the turmoil of a lost season.

He's laser-focused on a triumphant return.

The killer instinct leaks out of his voice. A few months away from one's lifetime pride and passion has the tendency to evoke that instinct.

"I'm just learning about all these guys right now and how much these rankings really mean," Ryan said.

"I just know when I'm 100 percent, when I'm out there, I'm a top-30 player."

Ryan said he's grateful for his support system, noting he couldn't have done anything without  teammates, friends and family. He commends an assortment of college coaches for sustaining their loyalty during the turbulent times of his season-ending injury.

"Right when I got hurt, everyone had my back," Ryan said.

 "Everyone understood. My biggest concern, honestly, was how all the colleges recruiting me would take it. Nothing has changed but nothing has really improved either. So, it's been like a stalemate the past five months. But everyone's been supportive and I really do appreciate it."

Ryan still remembers pacing excitedly around the hallways of Blue Mountain Middle School, emulating Redick's shot.

He's beloved by teammates and friends.

He's hated by opponents locally and across the country.

He's not exactly a pure trash talker, but Ryan has no problem engaging in verbal warfare. He invites a good war of words, noting how much they've fueled him.

Like Redick, the man treated to more "asshole" chants than arguably any player in ACC history, Ryan is cognizant he's not here to make new friends.

Being liked, being this charming guy who has as many friends/ fans as he does points, it all seems unrealistic. Ryan knows people are gunning for his head.

He's aware there's a colossal price tag on his shooting hand. He knows guys are aching to shut him down, to force him to go to the rack. He knows opponents are praying on his decline.

Look no further than a pickup game at Peekskill last Saturday.

Within roughly five minutes, a local crowd enveloped the court.

"Duke ain't shit!" Screamed one heckler.

"Notre Dame sucks!" Screamed another.

Without leaving his feet, Ryan drilled a straight-away 3-pointer, feeding off the taunts.

Then he canned a routine elbow jumper. On the ensuing possession, Ryan pulled up and banged one from well beyond the confines of the arc.

The rim suddenly looked as wide as the one in his Cortland Manor driveway. He could nearly hear his mother calling him in, demanding he get his homework done.

"I hadn't played any pickup in three and a half months, but I was killing them," Ryan said. "I was talking so much trash. It was funny."