Wednesday, July 24, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Most college basketball programs don’t recruit high school players still looking to crack the varsity team entering their junior year.
Then again, most don’t possess the skills of Desert Pines High rising junior Nate Grimes. The 6-foot-7 forward already has a scholarship offer from Utah State and recruiting interest from others, including hometown UNLV, despite not playing one minute of varsity basketball.
And get this: Grimes’ first time playing organized basketball came during his freshman year at Cheyenne High — when he was so raw and inexperienced, he was assigned to the ninth-grade team. He was ineligible as a sophomore.
However, he’s made the most of the offseason, flourishing the past two years with the Las Vegas Knicks club team.
“He is very versatile. He is multiskilled,” Knicks coach Lamar Bigby said. “He can rebound like a four man. He can block shots like a five. He can step back and shoot the jumper like a small forward. He’s a huge matchup problem.
“If you put a smaller player on him, he will go down on the blocks and abuse you,” Bigby said. “If you put a bigger guy on him, he’ll put the ball on the floor and dribble past him, or pull up and hit the 3.”
This week, the Knicks will compete in the Las Vegas Classic, one of a handful of tournaments in Las Vegas through Sunday during a crucial open recruiting period for college coaches. Grimes is being courted by UNLV, New Mexico, Arizona State, San Diego State, Oregon State, Virginia Tech and others.
It’s safe to assume coaches from those universities will be front and center this week evaluating Grimes.
At the beginning of the spring, he had little recruiting interest and was a virtual unknown. Now, he’s ranked by ESPN.com as the nation’s 41st best at his position for the class of 2015, and the 21st best in the West.
“I’ve learned to always stay humble,” Grimes said. “There is always someone out there who is better than you, works as hard as you and wants it better than you do.”
Like their star player, the Knicks are also under the radar. Despite not having a sponsor — shoe companies handle everything from uniforms and other gear to travel expenses for most teams — Bigby has taken his team to seven tournaments during the high school offseason, giving his players a chance to perform in front of recruiters.
They don’t wear Nike, Adidas or Under Armour uniforms — rather, families paid full price for three sets at Vegas Sports Apparel. Road trips are typically made in a 15-passenger van, meaning tournaments are limited to regional events.
“We are old school. We jump in a van. We pile in there and get to where we need to go,” Bigby said.
The lack of resources hasn’t stopped them from success. In seven tournaments, Bigby said they have a 37-7 record. Indi Hoops ranks them No. 23 nationally for 16-and-under — the Las Vegas Prospects, the area’s top AAU franchise with teams in multiple age groups, is ranked No. 13.
Bigby, a UNLV player during Charlie Spoonhour’s tenure, coached Grimes on the freshman team at Cheyenne before leaving the high school game for a job in behavioral health.
But he couldn’t stay away from the court and has found his niche working with a group of less-heralded players with the AAU franchise. Centennial High’s Darrian Traylor, the Knicks' point guard, has offers from Northern Colorado, Weber State and Utah State, and others are being actively recruited.
Each day, Bigby's phone rings with another college coach — from small schools such as Anchorage-Alaska to his alma mater of UNLV, this week of high school basketball is about getting players as many looks as possible.
Grimes, of course, will continue to get the most attention.
“He is really skilled for a guy we just started with,” Bigby said. “Anytime he walks on the court, he’s an easy 16 (points) and 12 (rebounds).”