Jan. 29, 2009
By Christian Caple
SEATTLE - After gathering with his team in the locker room following the game, maybe speaking to a reporter or two, Quincy Pondexter grabs a couple of basketballs -- win or lose -- and heads to UW's practice gym with his father, Roscoe, to shoot a little more before heading home.
"We used to do it at like 2 a.m.," Pondexter said. "But we decided I could probably use a little more sleep."
Considering the sometimes-harsh criticism he's received from Husky fans since he set foot on campus, Pondexter may need all the extra sleep he can get.
Standing at 6-foot-6 with explosive leaping ability and extraordinary athleticism, Pondexter was thought by many to be a one-and-done NBA prospect, coming to UW as part of the school's most heralded recruiting class.
But his freshman season, by most accounts, was a bust. The Huskies finished 19-13 after a 10-1 start in that 2007 season, missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. Pondexter faded as well. After scoring double figures in 11 of UW's first 14 games, he tailed off considerably, tallying double figures only four times in the last 18 games of the season.
His production dipped last year, too, and the team finished 16-17, a monstrous disappointment, Pondexter said, because of how hard he'd worked in the offseason.
Call it a learning experience, or a rough transition. Pondexter simply wasn't ready for the lofty expectations that accompanied him to Montlake.
"That's a little unfair to Quincy," senior forward Jon Brockman said. "He came in with a whole bunch of expectations, and that's not always easy for a high-schooler to come in and have to live up to those. But he's always in the gym, he's put the time in. You're always going to get better when you put the time in."
Alternately brilliant and invisible, Pondexter was tagged as an enigma during his first two seasons. His highlight-reel dunks and occasional big-scoring nights shined light on the player Husky fans thought they were getting when Pondexter first committed, but many focused on his inconsistency as a sign of some sort of mental block.
Just as things are now changing for the better for the Huskies, things are looking up for Pondexter too. He's quieted some -- not all -- doubters this year, but not by posting flashy stat totals and taking over games.
He averages a little more than 10 points per game, and is second on the team in rebounding.
He's started every game. But more importantly, Pondexter understands what he has to do to make his team better, banging in the paint and crashing the offensive boards on every shot.
Even when he's not a presence in the scoring column, his presence on the floor is enough to make a difference. His steady contributions last weekend -- 10 points each in wins over USC and UCLA -- are more his style now, knocking down short jumpshots and bullying to the rim when necessary, grabbing a rebound or making an entry pass when he doesn't need to score.
He's a team player, a role player, even. But that role is one that has become increasingly important to make this team go.
"He definitely understands what he's good at and where he's effective," UW head coach Lorenzo Romar said. "But I also think he understands winning better, how to impact winning. I think that's where he's improved the most."
Pondexter told The Seattle Times prior to last season that family issues compounded and contributed to his on-court struggles, but didn't mention it once during the season. Inconsistency may plague him, but excuses will not.
Pondexter's assessment of his play is brutally frank.
"I wasn't that good when I first got here," Pondexter said. "I might have been scoring a lot of points; people might have been thinking a lot of different things. I just wasn't that good."
Whether he lets the barbs from anonymous Internet message-board posters get to him is open for debate. But Romar said that no critic's jab can be as ruthless as Pondexter is on himself.
"A lot of times, that's more of an issue than anything else," Romar said. "Quincy can be sensitive, and at this level criticism is not made behind closed doors. Sometimes that can bother you."
It's easy for fans frustrated by that star-studded recruiting class to pile the blame on Pondexter -- he's the only guy left. Pondexter watched as Spencer Hawes left for the NBA, and Phil Nelson bolted for Portland State after their freshman season.
Last year, Pondexter's former roommate, Adrian Oliver, announced he was leaving the program. He's since landed at San Jose State.
"We were pretty close but we grew apart a lot because we had different intentions," Pondexter said of Oliver. "I don't think he saw the same team concept, the dream I had for us to win and I don't think he had the same work ethic."
But there's something to be said for the one guy who stuck it out. For all that he hasn't done, Pondexter's work ethic and passion for the game cannot be questioned. Everyone sees if he has a poor shooting night, but nobody sees him when he's at the gym before dawn in the summer.
Even now, in the midst of the best season UW has had since the Brandon Roy era, Pondexter says he blames himself for every loss. He turned his phone off for a week after the Huskies lost to California in triple overtime earlier this season, a loss that even the staunchest of Pondexter's critics wouldn't pin solely on him.
"I just felt disgusted with myself because I knew it was my fault," Pondexter said. "The type of person that I am, I just really take it to heart."
That's one area where some maturation still might help the easy-going kid from Fresno. But in all other aspects, he's grown immensely since arriving in Seattle.
"It just came down to the coaches really helping me out," Pondexter said. "A lot of people, when they first come to college, they don't realize what it takes to be a great basketball player. And a lot of coaches just give them roles and pin them in a position where they can score a lot of points and not really know the game of basketball. Here has been different and I just really appreciate what they've done."
If this team holds form and makes it back to the tournament, everyone may begin to appreciate Pondexter as well.